It’s long been understood that Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre tells stories of violence. But what often gets lost is that Kubrick’s focus is not on violence in general, but on violence that is particularly male in nature.
In the twisted logic of the film, violence feeds on itself, begetting more and more violence until the world is destroyed.
General Jack D. Ripper fears emasculation (the stealing of his “precious bodily essence”) and death from Russian men. So, he preemptively launches a nuclear attack. This act of violence seems to encourage a violent response from Moscow, which leads to even the nebbish American President Merkin Muffley to plot genocide.
If the film’s overtly phallic symbols don’t convince you Dr. Strangelove’s violence is uniquely masculine, consider the lack of women in this film about the end of the world. The only female character is a Playboy centerfold / mistress, played by Tracy Reed.
And, consider the plan laid out by Dr. Strangelove himself — men of power will spend life in a mineshaft full of women selected for breeding.
But the mere existence of male violence isn’t all Kubrick has to say on the topic. His films explore the way violence is present in the lives of all men, and how they are forced to interact with a violent masculine society and a violent masculine nature.
One of Kubrick’s favorite patterns is to introduce a male character with attributes that may lead us to believe they’re not the “violent type.”
We may believe a working-class drunk like Jack Torrance in The Shining abuses women. But certainly not an urbane, bookish Francophile like Humbert Humbert in Lolita.
These traits initially code Humbert as effeminate, weak, and possibly homosexual. Humbert’s double, Clare Quilty, shares many of these traits. Both men are soon revealed to be child rapists.
Alex in A Clockwork Orange is an aesthete with a large vocabulary who revels in Beethoven. He is also a rapist and a murderer. His counterpart – Mr. Alexander, is also an aesthete. He is a liberal, a writer, and disabled. Yet he too wants to commit murder.
David Bowman of 2001: A Space Odyssey has a harmless, anodyne presence up until the moment he slowly dismantles HAL 9000’s brain while hearing him beg for his life.
Sophisticates among the upper crust in both ancient Rome (Spartacus) and modern New York City (Eyes Wide Shut) force the smaller men and women of the world to perform or them in pageants of lust for sex and blood.
There are very, very few “good guys” among Kubrick’s men. Spartacus and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake from Dr. Strangelove both qualify, but both are ultimately brought to use violence themselves.
(The only exceptions that springs to mind are perhaps Dolores Hazes’ husband we briefly meet at the very end of Lolita and the cook at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, who attempts to rescue Wendy and Danny. In an amusing coincidence, both these characters are named “Dick.”)
Where does this male violence come from? In some of his films, Kubrick explores how patriarchy perpetuates itself by requiring men to become violent.
“Patriarchal masculinity is a force that feeds on its practitioners who find themselves at constant risk of becoming casualties in masculinity’s ceaseless and essentially arbitrary struggle for self-assertive dominance over whatever it chooses to perceive as its other,” Berthold Schoene-Harwood explains in Writing Men.
Toxic masculinity is a vampiric force. Those men who do not yet belong to the patriarchy are forcibly initiated into the brotherhood of death — or are annihilated.
Full Metal Jacket demonstrates this most clearly. Pvt. Leonard Lawrence enters camp as a soft, goofy guy who seems unlikely to harm a fly. The society he exists in cannot tolerate a non-violent male. The violent apparatus of the military breaks him down and remakes him into a killer. Sgt. J. T. Davis experiences a similar transformation.
In Paths of Glory, the French command authority requires unwilling male soldiers to violently sacrifice their bodies in a pointless attempt to kill other men. When Col. Dax, played by Douglas, attempts to stop the cycle, his masculine-coded values of obedience, honor and courage are called into question.
Ultimately, cultural enforcement of violence is not enough, and the authorities are compelled to use direct violence to destroy the men who tried to opt-out of the attack.
Spartacus features a similar conflict. The Roman rulers coerce men to kill each for entertainment. Our hero and his fellow men rebel, provoking a violent counter-revolution by the ruling class.
A masculine inclination to violence caused solely by societal structures is hard to root out. But it’s not impossible. One can imagine a world in which boys and men are conditioned to be peaceable citizens. But is that enough?
2001: A Space Odyssey communicates the idea of inter-generational violence in cinema’s most celebrated cut. The prehistoric primate’s bone weapon changes before our eyes into a 21st Century piece of space technology. Kubrick seems to be showing that the savagery of our past hasn’t disappeared. The apes of the past became the humans of the present who will become the star children of the future – but violence is part of them all.
In The Shining, Jack Torrance is the past, present, and future. The physical and psychological abuse he inflicts on his wife and young son aren’t part of who he is. They have been passed down from generation to generation in a cycle of male violence of the type that has infected families across the world. He has “always been the caretaker.”
Equally apparent are the generational links in Barry Lyndon. The film begins with our protagonist’s father being killed in a duel. “Gentlemen, cock your pistols” is the Freudian opening line.
The protagonist joins the military before seducing his way into marriage with the wealthy Lady Lyndon. Charming, arrogant, and unempathetic, Barry typifies narcissism and subjects his new family to his abusive personality. Lady Lyndon sinks into the passive melancholy that resembles Wendy Torrance. Barry’s disregard for her and murderous attack on his stepson, Lord Bullingdon, also remind one of the Torrances.
But Bullingdon uses the pattern of violence to his advantage. Completing the Freudian cycle, he wounds his father in the leg and replaces him as head of the household.
BREAKING THE CYCLE?
In The Shining, Danny Torrance escapes both his father and escapes becoming his father. He does this by finding his way out of the maze – a metaphor many children of abusive households can immediately relate to.
“Every interaction is part of a larger motive: My father’s every word and action was chosen carefully, designed to manipulate, refuse, invalidate. Recognizing these patterns is the beginning of resisting them.”
Luckhurst writes that in The Shining, “Danny will survive the Overlook because he has traced out the escape routes over and over”—and notes that he will only return to himself “as he escapes his father in the maze.” My mother, my sister and I had traced our own escape routes into the homes of family friends, into our relationship with one another. Our house simmered with tension in slow, steady undercurrents. I imagined his cruelty as a frequency chart, the peaks growing closer and closer together.”
But Danny’s experience is the exception, not the rule, in Kubrick’s films. The director’s well-known pessimism largely leaves us with a world that is dominated – forever- by the violent urges of men.