The Five Best Gun Movies

My wife and kids are surprisingly ungrateful when I provide helpful comments on firearm inaccuracies and anachronisms during movies.  In fact, they have made it clear that unless I cease and desist, I’m likely to be watching movies on my own from now on.  So I thought instead I’d share with you a list of the five movies which I think should have received Oscar nominations for “Best use of firearms in a movie“.  If there was such a thing.  In no particular order these are movies which feature an interesting selection of guns.  They’re also movies which I have enjoyed because, let’s face it, no-one wants to sit though a dull and dreary movie just because it has a few guns in it.

The Mummy (1999)

Remember those wonderful old Hammer horror movies from the 1960s?  Well, this is a sort of modern update.  And it’s great.  The plot…, OK, look, the plot is a bit silly.  It’s some nonsense about a dead Egyptian priest returning to bring his dead love back to life.  And destroy the world.  Or something.  But it doesn’t really matter because the hero is played with gusto by the underrated Brendan Fraser, ably supported by Rachel Weisz, John Hannah and Kevin J. O’Connor, the special effects are reasonable, it never takes itself too seriously and the whole thing rollicks along for just over two hours without pausing to draw breath.  Your wife will enjoy it.  Hell, your mum would probably love it.  Even your kids will enjoy it too (provided they aren’t too young – some of the scary bits are, well, quite scary).  And the guns…

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After a short prelude in ancient Egypt, the bulk of the movie takes place in 1923 and 1926.  Whoever was responsible for choosing the guns really knew what they were doing, and there is some great period stuff on display.  Rick (Bredan Fraser) dual-wields a pair of seriously chunky French Chamelot-Delvigne Model 1873 revolvers throughout (he plays an ex-French Foreign legionnaire, so a lot of the hardware on display is French) with a Colt M1911 as back-up and a Winchester Model 1897 shotgun for when those pesky mummies are particularly thick on the ground.  In an early part of the film he also uses a French Lebel M1886 rifle.  The tube magazine on the eight-shot M1886 was a notoriously finicky feeder, and it was obviously impossible to get it to load properly with blanks because all the characters using this particular rifle in the movie reload after each shot (but, trust me on this, your spouse and kids won’t appreciate your pointing this out during the film).

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In addition, you’ll see the Mauser C96, Lee-Enfield MkIII rifle, Mauser 98K rifle, a Lewis Gun and even a Colt Single Action Army.  Every weapon in the movie is historically appropriate.  Even the 1911s are M1911s, not the later and more common M1911A1, which would have been impossible in the 1923 part of the movie.  I was disappointed to note in the sequel, The Mummy Returns (2001), a Browning Hi-Power.  The second movie was set in 1933, and the Hi-Power wasn’t introduced until 1935.  Oh dear.  But this one gets the guns spot-on and there’s some unusual and interesting stuff on display.  The movie’s fun too, so this one is highly recommended.

The Raid (2011)

I don’t generally like action movies.  Mainly because most of them are dull, dreary and feature very little in the way of actual action.  But I make an exception for The Raid from 2011 (also known as The Raid: Redemption in some parts of the world).  It’s a movie made on a shoestring budget in Indonesia, featuring a largely unknown Indonesian cast and made by a Welsh director (I have no idea why).  It has a basic plot and relatively little dialogue but it does feature more gun and fighting action than you’ll find in any five standard Hollywood blockbusters.

The plot, such as it is, involves a team of Indonesian SWAT type police who are sent to arrest a crime boss in a crumbling apartment block.  They get in, quickly find that they have been set up for an ambush by lots of heavily armed gangsters and the rest of the movie is about their attempts to fight their way back out again.  That’s it.  You’re not going to lose the thread during this movie.

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The police and criminals are all heavily armed with a variety of weapons and most of the first half of the movie is a running gun battle.  All the guns used are airsoft replicas with slow-mo bullets, muzzle flashes and ejecting shells added later using CGI.  It’s kind of fun playing spot the replica – look out for a Tanaka Smith & Wesson M37 later in the film.  Despite things like airsoft brass inner barrels occasionally being very obvious, the gun stuff is well done and as exciting as anything produced in Hollywood.  But things really hot up when the police squad start to run low on ammo and are forced to fall back on their fighting skills.

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You see, the Police (and many of the gangsters) are experts at Silat, a little-known Indonesian martial art which uses fists, feet and knives.  The fight scenes are fast and breathtakingly violent.  The people taking part in the movie may not be fantastic actors, but they really know how to throw a punch.  Or a knife.  Or a chair.  They frequently appear to make full-force contact with each other, and I suspect that some scenes simply degenerated into real fights, with the camera continuing to follow the action.  There are some superbly choreographed scenes, but most of the second half of the movie is raw and bloody.

If you like action, you’ll love The Raid.  I never thought I’d see a movie which made Jackie Chan look like a wuss – but this one does.  It is very violent though, so it may be best not to watch it with your Mum.  And then you can admire all those lovely replicas…

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is loosely set during the period of the Mexican revolution from 1908 – 1916, though the actual date isn’t explicitly noted.  The movie is often cited as Peckinpah’s masterpiece and features a wonderful cast including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan and Warren Oates.  It’s a movie that features guns and shooting heavily.  To give some idea of the scale of gunfire here, more (blank) rounds were fired during the making of this film (over 90,000) than in the actual Mexican revolution.  With a total body count of almost 150 and a final, apocalyptic shoot-out which incorporates over one hundred deaths and three hundred edits in just over five minutes of action, there’s a lot of shooting going on.  And yet, strangely, this is also a thoughtful, reflective movie with long periods when the elderly protagonists do little more than ruminate on the absurdity of their situation.

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You see, the Wild Bunch isn’t really about guns or shooting at all and to call it a Western is to miss the point – it’s really about the death of the old West and the philosophy and attitudes of that period.  The Wild Bunch themselves know that they are anachronisms and probably doomed, but they simply don’t know how to adapt to live in the modern world.  It’s also a violent film – Peckinpah wanted to show what it really looked like when someone got shot as opposed to the bloodless deaths seen in most earlier cowboy films, though the film was heavily criticised for excessive violence on release.

And the guns?  The Wild Bunch and their protagonists use the Colt 1911 and the Single Action Army and a variety of shotguns and rifles.  For the most part the guns used are appropriate, though it’s occasionally obvious that Spanish Star Model B pistols are used in place of 1911s.  The 1911 doesn’t work reliably with blanks, and the 9mm Star is often used as a movie stand-in.  The Model B is visually similar to the 1911, though it doesn’t have a grip safety and has a large, external extractor on the right of the slide.  The only real firearm anachronism in the movie is the Browning M1917 machine gun which features during the latter part of the film.  This obviously wouldn’t have been around in the period covered by the movie though it’s close enough not to jar too much.  The sheer volume of gunfire and the graphic depiction of its effects make this essential viewing for anyone interested in the old West and/or the firearms of this period.

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The Wild Bunch is a film about doomed men who accept their fate but are determined not to go quietly.  It’s not an action movie in any sense – it’s a thoughtful, slow, melancholy rumination on getting old and finding that you no longer have a place in the world in which you find yourself.  Though it is punctuated by short bursts of extreme violence.  So, it’s short on laughs, but at least the opening credits should make you smile.  Peckinpah allegedly became exasperated with Robert Ryan’s incessant demands for top billing (which he didn’t get – top billing went to William Holden).  In the opening credits, the scene freezes on the faces of William Holden and then Ernest Borgnine as their names appear on screen.  As Ryan’s name appears on screen, the screen freezes on a shot of several horse’s rear-ends.

Winchester 73 (1950)

As you may have guessed from the title, this black and white western follows the rifle of the title as it is first won in a shooting contest by cowboy Lin McAdam (played by the ever reliable James Stewart) and then, after being stolen from him, passes through the hands of several interesting characters.  The story also follows McAdam as he pursues a parallel story featuring that most cliched of western quests – a search for the man who killed his father.

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Action shooting contest, circa 1870.

Other than the Winchester of the title, the movie features Martini-Henry repeating rifles, Springfield carbines and of course, lots of Colt Single Action Army pistols.  The use of firearms in the movie suggests that whoever was involved in the selection process knew a great deal about their history and use.   At one point there is a discussion of the deficiencies of the US army’s Springfield Carbine and how this may have contributed to the massacre of Custer and his men.  The shooting action is pretty good too and the final shootout is still regarded as a classic.  They obviously didn’t worry too much about damage to stars then either – you’ll see Jimmy Stewart take several facefuls of dust and stone chips from “near misses”.

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Sneering bad guy.  Note black hat.

The movie tells a complex, episodic story in just 92 minutes – I imagine if it were to be re-made today we’d be treated to hours of angsty introspection, but in the typical style of the 1950s, this gallops along with barely a pause in the action.  It’s a good cast too.  Surprisingly, this was Stewart’s first leading role in a straight Western (though he had starred in the spoof Destry rides again in 1939) and he went on to make many, many more.  The rest are pretty good too, with Stephen McNally as snarling bad guy Dutch Henry Brown, Millard Mitchell as McAdam’s sidekick and Will Geer as Wyatt Earp.  Best of all though is Dan Duryea as the giggling and psychotic Waco Johnny Dean.  It’s also worth watching to spot a couple of young and relatively unknown actors who would go on to bigger things – Rock Hudson (in an unlikely piece of casting) plays an Indian Chief who leads his warband against a small group of US cavalry whose ranks include a very young Antony Curtis.

This has everything you could want from a Western – a nasty bad guy (who wears a black hat), morally upstanding good guys, Indian attacks, the US Cavalry, shooting and lots of historically accurate firearms.  There just isn’t a better way to spend a wet afternoon.

Equilibrium (2002)

The previous four movies are notable for their use of realistic and historically accurate firearms.  This one is pure sci-fi fantasy, but it does feature lots of guns.  The plot is fairly standard sci-fi stuff: It’s 2072, and following a catastrophic third world war, the Tetragrammaton, the ruling body in the country of Libria, has decided to avoid the possibility of any future conflict by forcing the population to take daily doses of Prozium, a mood altering drug which leaves them docile and free of troublesome emotions.  Some people object and try to avoid taking the drugs.  These sense criminals are ruthlessly hunted down by Grammaton Clerics, a quasi-religious group of highly trained enforcers who use Gun Kata, a combination of martial arts and handguns to deadly effect.  OK, so it’s actually a completely rubbish plot which sounds as if it was scribbled on the back of an envelope by a fourteen year old with ADHD.  Yet somehow, this manages to be an entertaining little movie.

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Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs and David Hemmings all do their best to look as though they’re taking it seriously and Gun Kata is simply an excuse for lots of cool gunplay mixed in with dramatic martial-arts style poses.  Though there is some sort of lame attempt to justify it all:

“Through analysis of thousands of recorded gunfights, the Cleric has determined that the geometric distribution of antagonists in any gun battle is a statistically-predictable element. The Gun Kata treats the gun as a total weapon, each fluid position representing a maximum kill zone, inflicting maximum damage on the maximum number of opponents, while keeping the defender clear of the statistically-traditional trajectories of return fire.

DuPont, Vice Councillor of the Tetragrammaton

In this movie, guns have changed surprisingly little in 2072.  The Cleric use a modified Beretta 92FS (with some cool additional features) and their henchmen use H&K G36 assault rifles and MP5 machine pistols.  Though for no readily apparent reason, the Cleric also use Samurai swords on occasion.  And it’s notable that, like the war films of the 60s and 70s, the goodies here appear to use live rounds while the baddies seem to have been issued mainly with blanks.  With its mix of balletic martial arts moves and guns, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons with the Matrix, but there is one small but important difference:  Christian Bale and Sean Bean manage to convincingly portray men with no emotions.  Kenau Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss and the rest of the Matrix cast appear to be unable to convincingly portray any emotions at all.

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The handgun of the future.  Apparently.

It would have been nice to see a little more imagination in the design of guns from the future.  By 2072, the Beretta 92 design will be more than 100 years old – surely we could expect the Cleric to have something a little more cutting-edge?  And don’t expect anything deep in terms of a story – it’s all gloriously silly, but also kind of fun and glossy and cool and the cast do their best to give it all some gravitas.  Just don’t try those Gun Kata moves with your replicas – you’ll almost certainly end up shooting a BB up your nose!

Happy viewing!

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