Films With Moral Dilemmas



It’s a given these days that any film involving corporations, institutions or governments will present a black-and-white picture of good (independent, liberal, quirky, new age) against evil (fascist, secretive, dishonest, betraying) but once in a while we see ethical dilemmas explored in greater detail.

Terrence Rattigan’s ‘The Winslow Boy’ has been filmed at least ten times. Arthur Winslow learns that the naval academy expelled his 14-year-old son, Ronnie, for stealing five shillings. When the lad denies it, Arthur risks his fortune, health and daughter’s prospects to pursue justice. After defeat in the military court of appeals, Sir Robert Morton, a brilliant barrister, suggests they take the matter before Parliament to seek permission to sue the Crown. Everything hinges on the boy’s honesty. Or does it? In some versions that’s in doubt, and the dilemma is one of belief.

In Joseph Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’, filmed with Peter O’Toole, Jim, whose pride is rooted in his competence, which has made him a highly respected and admired naval officer – signs on with the Patna, a rusty tub manned by a third-rate crew overseen by a barbarous captain, transporting a group of Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. During a storm that causes the unseaworthy ship to founder, Jim abandons ship with the rest of the white crew without lowering the other lifeboat for the passengers. The fleeing crew are prepared to swear they saw the Patna sink with all hands…

In Peter Ustinov’s version of ‘Billy Budd’, Billy is an innocent, naive seaman in the British Navy in 1797. When the ship’s sadistic master-at-arms is murdered, Billy is accused and tried…

The problem with film versions of moral dilemmas lies in making them cinematic, as often the arguments for and against are more suited to the page or a single play set, such as the various versions of ’12 Angry Men’ (the best of which is a German version).

I can think of two other films that open out ethical dilemmas successfully. In ‘Hannah Arendt’ the philosopher and Holocaust survivor who reported for The New Yorker on the  trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann concludes that he was not a monster, but an ordinary man who had buried his conscience through obedience to Nazi ideology. Arendt created the concept of “the banality of evil” that she thought even drew some Jewish leaders of the era into unwittingly participating in the Holocaust. The result is a bitter public controversy in which Arendt is accused of blaming the Holocaust’s victims.

Most recently, a rather overlooked Hollywood film, ‘Eye In The Sky’, looked at the ethics of using drones in tracking terrorists, as Helen Mirren is called upon to decide the age-old question; is the sacrifice of one innocent permissible when it could save the lives of many? The problem is realised in a single act; terrorists are preparing for suicide bombings in a house, outside of which a small girl is selling bread.

My only quibble with this film, which admirably presents its moral argument, is whether it gives too much conscience to the drone operators when we have seen from real-life leaked footage that they sometimes act almost on impulse.

Films that use a moral dilemma at their core can come over as dry and intellectual. Examples of successful ones will be welcomed.

7 comments on “Films With Moral Dilemmas”

  1. snowy says:

    Three films all invoving sailors…. [there is a very old dusty joke lurking in there somewhere].

    But continuing the theme, there is Gene Hackman getting shouty at Denzil Washington in a tube. Should a Captain carry out an order that cannot be undone, based on a garbled message. Or is it right for a junior officer to disobey. *looks it up* ‘Crimson Tide’ (1995).

    ‘Alive’ (1993) Should we eat the Captain or the luggage?

    The one I keep coming back to is ‘Breaker Morrant’, which is a whole stack of interlocking moral questions. Too long to list, without telling the whole story. Watch the film, if you have not seen it, much better, [even if it does go a bit pom-bashy at times].

  2. Brian Evans says:

    What about “The Cruel Sea” in which Captain Jack Hawkins has to leave some shipwrecked sailors to die (It’s the 2nd World War) to save others. This is followed by a brilliant scene with the bereft Hawkins drinking himself into a stupor alone in his cabin and saying to himself (with tears down his face) the immortal line: “It’s the war, it’s the bloody war”

  3. snowy says:

    Cap’n Jack’s dilemma is much crueler and more brutal than just leaving men in the water. It’s a 63 year old film, spoilers?


    He has located and caught up with a submarine, if he presses on with his attack there is a chance that he can cripple or destroy it saving both ships and lives.

    But to do this he has to launch depth charges which will certainly kill the men in the water above the submarine. If the bow wave from the ship hasn’t already pulled them under and pushed them through the propellers.

    To win you have to lose something and if you lose you lose both.


    If you ever get taken at gunpoint and frog-marched into some sort of dreadful corporate away-day and told you will be taken outside and shot if you don’t do some sort of presentation in the next 15 minutes. It is a very handy ‘get out of jail card’ to have. Divide them into groups, set up the question and let them fight it out. You will have plenty of time to have a nice cup of tea and monster all the good biscuits.

    [If you need a close, look up the relative kill rates of submarines and depth charge attacks.]

  4. Ian Mason says:

    > Three films all invoving sailors…. [there is a very old dusty joke lurking in there somewhere].

    So old and dusty that Julian had to drag it out of the closet and Sandy had to give it a vigorous rub all over before it was fit for the Bona Navy.

    An aside, is it just me or does everybody think “my name’s Julian and he’s Sandy” after seeing Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow (aka half of The National Theatre of Brent) going at in Nanny McPhee?

  5. Vivienne says:

    Surely ‘my name’s Julian and this is my friend, Sandy’

  6. admin says:

    They were based on songwriters Julian Slade and Sandy ‘The Boyfriend’ Wilson, by the way.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I had just gotten Julian and Sandy out of my consciousness after having been reminded of them by someone. Now they’re back.
    Mutiny on the Bounty or any film involving rebellion/mutiny involves moral choices. How much cruelty, excessive force, nastiness do you put up with before fighting back and how much violence do you use. Mutiny on a ship works so well because you are in an enclosed space with a specific group of people fulfilling predetermined roles. If the mutiny succeeds what do you do with the defeated party? When Bligh was set adrift with minimal food/water/navigational aids there was no thought that they would survive. It was a sop to the mutineers’ consciences that the small boat *could* reach land. It was only Bligh’s consummate skill as a navigator that got them through, although the characteristics that made him so unliked by the crew may have helped.

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