F-Bomb defiance

The last two movies my wife and I have watched have been exactly the same movie, except that one of them was terrible and the other was really awfully good.  In the new Red Dawn (which we Netflixed because my wife has a crush on Chris Hemsworth), a rag-tag group of American insurgents fight against terrible odds against the technologically superior forces of the (snicker) North Koreans.  In Oblivion, a rag-tag group of American insurgents fight against terrible odds against the technologically superior forces of Melissa Leo (or, you know, space aliens using Melissa Leo’s voice and presence).

Oblivion‘s better than that.  I thought it was one of the better sci-fi action flicks that I’ve seen in awhile.  It was thoughtful and smart and although afflicted by massive plot holes and leaps in logic, you don’t really notice them much while you’re watching it.  Tom Cruise may be a loon, but he’s a fine actor, and looks great, and it made for a very satisfying night at the movies.

But, here’s the point I want to make, and it requires a pretty massive spoiler alert, so if you haven’t seen Oblivion, stop reading and go see the movie and then get back to me, but there’s a moment in both movies I want to talk about. Both movies are rated PG-13.  Both, therefore, get one F-bomb to play with.  And both drop their F-bomb at an identical moment in the plot.

In Red Dawn (the plot for which I’m also going to ruin for you, but I feel less bad about it, ’cause, get real, it’s not like you’re going to see the durn thing), the bad guy is Captain Cho, who the technologically superior (snicker) North Koreans have put in charge of their invading forces in Portland, where the movie’s set.  (Cho is played by Will Yun Lee, who is from, like, Arlington Virginia.  Hey, it’s a gig).  And of course, he has to have a final big fight scene with Chris Hemsworth.  And at the climactic moment of the fight, Hemsworth gets to drop his F-bomb. “F-you,” he says, or something similar.  So okay, in Oblivion, same thing–final confrontation with Melissa Leo, and what does Tom Cruise say?  Same thing, right before he destroys the Death Star. 

I found it interesting.  The same thing happens in Stephen King’s The Stand, where our rag-tag bunch of patriots have it out with the baddies in Vegas; same last line.  And while I can’t remember which movies it’s in, I know I’ve seen it other places as well.

It’s interesting how the F-word, once essentially a verb suggesting a kind of violent sexuality, has now become a word suggesting plucky defiance, a cheeky response to oppression.  Of course, the F- word has lots of other meanings–it’s plenty versatile, as taboo words tend to become.  But of course meaning depends on context, and in the context of PG-13 action films, it’s a positive thing. Sort of uniquely American, even.  As we patriotically give the figurative finger to our oppressors.

Of course, that’s also sort of a silly stance for us to take, given that we Americans possess the greatest military the world has ever seen, with military expenditures taking up a preposterously huge part of our budget, despite the fact that like the next twenty countries in terms of military expenditures are also allies.  In what sense is America a nation of underdogs?  We’re much more bullies than bullied.

And to give Red Dawn its due, that point does get mentioned.  Chris Hemsworth is an Iraq war veteran, and he says to his high-school-aged-army ‘in Iraq, we were the occupying force, and the insurgents were fighting us–here, we have to fight like the mujaheddin, we’re the bad guys, we have to fight a guerrilla war.’  Red Dawn does plug into what we might describe as a kind of Tea Party/conservative/Christian right paranoia, in which traditional American values are endangered, and we few patriots are left to fight the encroaching forces of, whatever, Kenyan socialism.  That stance, of course, is as ridiculous as the idea that the North Koreans could conquer Portland because of their (snicker) technological superiority. But whatever.  Why begrudge Tea Partiers their own action movie?

But we like underdogs.  Nobody wants to root for the Yankees; we prefer the plucky underdog Red Sox.  We loathe the Lakers–go Jazz!  We liked Rocky over Apollo, the Karate Kid over his tormentors, Hickory High over all those big-time schools in Hoosiers. Right now, the NBA playoffs are going on, and although I like basketball, I can’t get that interested; Miami has the best team and the best player, and they’re going to win.  It’s depressing.  So, in their first game against the Bulls (who had, like, their best four players out with injuries), when Joachim Noah, the Bulls emotional leader said ‘F-you’ to Lebron James (caught on camera; you couldn’t hear him say it, but it was clear enough), I got . . . interested in the series. And the Bulls won .  . . one game. And lost the next four. The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, saith the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, but generally that’s the way to bet.  And we know that, we know that powerful forces usually do actually win over less powerful ones, no matter how gritty and endearingly courageous the underdogs might be.  None of that really matters.  In reality, the rich beat the poor, big beats little, corporations usually do win.  Which is why we like movies (fantasies) where the opposite happens.  And why movie-makers go to fantastic lengths to make sure the heroes are underdogs, even when it doesn’t actually make sense.

There’s a terrific ‘F-you’ TV commercial on right now.  This skinny little kid, with the world’s awesomest Mom, is bullied by kids who steal his football.  But our skinny hero happens to know a kid weightlifter, a kid welder, a kid bear wrestler (!), a kid fire-fighter.  And the final line of the commercial, “touch or. .  .” “Tackle!” is the F-you moment.  Heck, yes, we’ll play you for the ball.  By the way, our right tackle wrestles bears.

And yes, I know some people find the F-word offensive.  I get that.  And yes, there’s absolutely a morality of language.  The Ten Commandments forbid ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain.’  A sin of language.  Or ‘bearing false witness.’ A sin of language.  But those sins are also sins of context, as must be the case with anything involving language, where we’re always invoking, reflecting, creating culture. I’m a playwright, and if my characters need to drop an F-bomb, I write it. And don’t feel like I’ve thereby sinned.

And sometimes, when facing implacable institutions, all-powerful bureaucracies, entrenched enemies with their castles and their moats, the F word is a battle cry, a shout of courageous defiance.  My grandmother was fond of a poem, which she turned into a needle-point sampler: “it may not be classic, it might be profane, but we mortals have need of it, time and again. And you’ll find you’re recover from life’s greatest slam, if you never say ‘die,’ say ‘damn.'”  As language has shifted and changed from her day, we might rewrite it as follows: ‘when you find that you need all your grit, all your pluck, never say die, say. . . . ‘



3 thoughts on “F-Bomb defiance

  1. Bill

    I’m reminded of Hugo’s Les Miserables:

    At twilight, towards nine o’clock in the evening, one of them was left at the foot of the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean. In that fatal valley, at the foot of that declivity which the cuirassiers had ascended, now inundated by the masses of the English, under the converging fires of the victorious hostile cavalry, under a frightful density of projectiles, this square fought on. It was commanded by an obscure officer named Cambronne. At each discharge, the square diminished and replied. It replied to the grape-shot with a fusillade, continually contracting its four walls. The fugitives pausing breathless for a moment in the distance, listened in the darkness to that gloomy and ever-decreasing thunder.

    When this legion had been reduced to a handful, when nothing was left of their flag but a rag, when their guns, the bullets all gone, were no longer anything but clubs, when the heap of corpses was larger than the group of survivors, there reigned among the conquerors, around those men dying so sublimely, a sort of sacred terror, and the English artillery, taking breath, became silent. This furnished a sort of respite. These combatants had around them something in the nature of a swarm of spectres, silhouettes of men on horseback, the black profiles of cannon, the white sky viewed through wheels and gun-carriages, the colossal death’s-head, which the heroes saw constantly through the smoke, in the depths of the battle, advanced upon them and gazed at them. Through the shades of twilight they could hear the pieces being loaded; the matches all lighted, like the eyes of tigers at night, formed a circle round their heads; all the lintstocks of the English batteries approached the cannons, and then, with emotion, holding the supreme moment suspended above these men, an English general, Colville according to some, Maitland according to others, shouted to them, “Surrender, brave Frenchmen!”

    Cambronne replied, “——-.”
    {EDITOR’S COMMENTARY: Another edition of this book has the word “Merde!” in lieu of the ——- above.}


    If any French reader object to having his susceptibilities offended, one would have to refrain from repeating in his presence what is perhaps the finest reply that a Frenchman ever made. This would enjoin us from consigning something sublime to History.

    At our own risk and peril, let us violate this injunction.

    Now, then, among those giants there was one Titan,—Cambronne.

    To make that reply and then perish, what could be grander? For being willing to die is the same as to die; and it was not this man’s fault if he survived after he was shot.

    The winner of the battle of Waterloo was not Napoleon, who was put to flight; nor Wellington, giving way at four o’clock, in despair at five; nor Blucher, who took no part in the engagement. The winner of Waterloo was Cambronne.

    To thunder forth such a reply at the lightning-flash that kills you is to conquer!

    Thus to answer the Catastrophe, thus to speak to Fate, to give this pedestal to the future lion, to hurl such a challenge to the midnight rainstorm, to the treacherous wall of Hougomont, to the sunken road of Ohain, to Grouchy’s delay, to Blucher’s arrival, to be Irony itself in the tomb, to act so as to stand upright though fallen, to drown in two syllables the European coalition, to offer kings privies which the Caesars once knew, to make the lowest of words the most lofty by entwining with it the glory of France, insolently to end Waterloo with Mardigras, to finish Leonidas with Rabellais, to set the crown on this victory by a word impossible to speak, to lose the field and preserve history, to have the laugh on your side after such a carnage,—this is immense!

    It was an insult such as a thunder-cloud might hurl! It reaches the grandeur of AEschylus!

    Cambronne’s reply produces the effect of a violent break. ‘Tis like the breaking of a heart under a weight of scorn. ‘Tis the overflow of agony bursting forth. Who conquered? Wellington? No! Had it not been for Blucher, he was lost. Was it Blucher? No! If Wellington had not begun, Blucher could not have finished. This Cambronne, this man spending his last hour, this unknown soldier, this infinitesimal of war, realizes that here is a falsehood, a falsehood in a catastrophe, and so doubly agonizing; and at the moment when his rage is bursting forth because of it, he is offered this mockery,—life! How could he restrain himself? Yonder are all the kings of Europe, the general’s flushed with victory, the Jupiter’s darting thunderbolts; they have a hundred thousand victorious soldiers, and back of the hundred thousand a million; their cannon stand with yawning mouths, the match is lighted; they grind down under their heels the Imperial guards, and the grand army; they have just crushed Napoleon, and only Cambronne remains,—only this earthworm is left to protest. He will protest. Then he seeks for the appropriate word as one seeks for a sword. His mouth froths, and the froth is the word. In face of this mean and mighty victory, in face of this victory which counts none victorious, this desperate soldier stands erect. He grants its overwhelming immensity, but he establishes its triviality; and he does more than spit upon it. Borne down by numbers, by superior force, by brute matter, he finds in his soul an expression: “Excrement!” We repeat it,—to use that word, to do thus, to invent such an expression, is to be the conqueror!

    The spirit of mighty days at that portentous moment made its descent on that unknown man. Cambronne invents the word for Waterloo as Rouget invents the “Marseillaise,” under the visitation of a breath from on high. An emanation from the divine whirlwind leaps forth and comes sweeping over these men, and they shake, and one of them sings the song supreme, and the other utters the frightful cry.

    This challenge of titanic scorn Cambronne hurls not only at Europe in the name of the Empire,—that would be a trifle: he hurls it at the past in the name of the Revolution. It is heard, and Cambronne is recognized as possessed by the ancient spirit of the Titans. Danton seems to be speaking! Kleber seems to be bellowing!


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