When you think about it, guns and movies have always had a very close relationship, but what are the best gun movies ever? Some of the greats not only feature firearms, but also owe much of their success to them. War films, detective stories, melodramas—even animation, all relied on firearms to some lesser or greater extent to help push the story forward.
Both of my parents were actors. I was born in Hollywood and grew up in the motion picture business. I used to go and watch them being made and never missed a western, war or adventure film. I’m sure, for better or worse, this had much to do with my getting interested in firearms in the first place. Over the years I’ve also collected films that have really impressed me, firearms-wise—hence this article involving a pick of my personal favorites of the many thousands of flicks that I’ve seen.
Of course authenticity is always important, and I’m impressed when a filmmaker goes out of his way to make sure the guns, costumes and sets are appropriate to a particular locale or period—but accuracy isn’t necessarily a paramount consideration. Some films, like a couple you’ll see later on, might be wrong in many details, but the way a firearm is used to advance the plot or the way in which it is handled by the actors also has a strong influence on selection–as does the types of arms used in relationship to when a movie was made. I’m not going to try to put this list in order of merit, because the types of movies represented are so diverse that the ranking would be virtually meaningless, and more than a little subjective.
So here we go, my own favorites, chronologically.
Almost as soon as the book appeared it was transformed into a popular stage play, and thence into motion pictures—the most notable one prior to ‘37 being a 1922 version starring Lewis Stone and Ramon Navarro. David O. Selznick’s talkie pulled out all the stops. The production was opulent, and the stars (Ronald Coleman, Madeleine Carroll, Raymond Massey, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., David Niven, Mary Astor and C. Aubrey Smith) of the first rank. It takes place in mythical Ruritania, a country set vaguely somewhere between Germany, Austria, the Balkans and your imagination. Given the fanciful nature of the scenario the choice for handguns—exotic Montenegrin Gasser revolvers—was absolutely inspired. Never has a firearm better fit a totally made-up scenario. It showed real knowledge and panache. And the other period details are just as good. Director Richard Cromwell and art director Lyle Wheeler, deserved real kudos on this one.
Directed by Korda’s brother, Zoltan, the production was shot in gorgeous three-strip Technicolor on location in Africa. Every detail of the film smacks of authenticity. The British troops really know the movements with their Long Lee Enfields, the Khalifa’s minions carry Remington Rolling Blocks and the artillery drill during the spectacular Battle of Omdurman sequence is spot-on. As an aside, many of the Fuzzy Wuzzies in the charge were actually descendants of tribesmen who took part in the real Battle of Omdurman some 40 years earlier. This is not only one of the best gun movies ever made, it’s one of the best movies ever made.
“Unconquered,” set in the early 1760s, has some interesting stuff in it, and because of the way with which it is dealt and the imagination shown in its selection, the scales are tipped in its favor.
“For instance, star Gary Cooper carries an original early swivel-barrel rifle/smoothbore combo made by the 18th century German gunsmith Flitner. In one scene, while delivering dialogue, Cooper glances down at the rifle, opens the frizzen and casually checks his priming—a detail that would only be known to gun guys like DeMille and Cooper. There are some nice Kentuckys, as well as a fine pair of high-quality Kuchenruiter flint pistols from DeMille’s own collection used by bad guy Howard Da Silva. My dad’s also got a pretty good part in the film—but that in no way influenced my decision.
In “Zulu,” the uniforms are not particularly correct, Baker and Caine carry World War I vintage Webley Mark VI revolvers and some other details are not right, but who cares. The soldiers have proper Martini-Henry rifles—the real stars of the film! Before this movie came out few people had heard of the Zulu War, and fewer still knew anything about Martini-Henrys. “Zulu” changed all that and Martinis became sought after, if somewhat elusive, collectors’ pieces until fairly recently when slugs of them were brought in from Nepal. Interestingly enough, even though the film was shot in South Africa they still couldn’t muster enough Martinis to arm the extras, and some soldiers in the rear ranks can be seen firing Long Lee Enfields. In any event, the battle scenes are handled with real panache, and much bravery is shown on both sides.
Opening up with a British official trying to hold off brigands with his Bulldog revolver, through later scenes depicting Roosevelt’s (Brian Keith) evaluation of his 1895 Winchester, the Broomhandle Mauser carried by a German officer and sundry Mauser rifles and other bits and pieces used by various extras, the film is a gun enthusiast’s delight. Remember, “Pedicaris alive or the Raisuli dead!”