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.
Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
OK, this is a good one. What kind of guns would you choose to arm the characters set in a film depicting a fictitious middle-European principality in the 1890s? Interesting question, and the filmmakers couldn't have done better. But before I tell you their selection, a bit about the movie first. 'The Prisoner of Zenda ' was based on the highly popular fin de siecle romance by British novelist Anthony Hope (along with its sequel 'Rupert of Hentzau, ' highly recommended reads, by the way). It involves palace intrigue, dual identities, sword fights, kidnapping, cavalry charges, kings, queens, mistresses — everything, in fact, that makes life worth living.
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.
The Sand Pebbles (1966)
I like this movie so much I even had a model made of the film's eponymous gunboat, 'The San Pablo. ' Richard McKenna, author of the novel upon which this c.1920s tale of American sailorson river duty in China, was a real China sailor himself, so both the book, and the movie smack of authenticity.The star, Steve McQueen, was a former Marine and a firearms enthusiast, so the way he handles a 1903 Springfield and BAR are natural and highly professional. Other guns in the film — 1911 Colts, Lewis Machine Guns, one and three-pound naval cannons and Mausers — are time-and-place appropriate, and integral to the plot. The movie looks good, and is good. I'm a big McQueen fan, and I really think this is his best performance.
The Mummy (1999)
When, in the opening scenes of this really fun picture I saw Foreign Legionnaires shooting real Model 1886 Lebels (God knows how they got those tube magazine bolt-actions to feed blanks) instead of the usual Mannlicher-Berthiers, I figured whoever the armorer was, he knew what he was doing. Then it got even better. Star Brendan Fraser's sidearms are a brace of Model 1873 French Ordnance revolvers, which is an odd choice technologically but a great one cinematically, as the film's set sometime in the 1920s. They're really cool. Fraser and other good and bad guys also wave around such things as 1911 Colts , Colt SAAs, a Winchester Model 1897 riot gun, assorted Mausers and even a Remington Double Derringer — all used to great effect. As I said at the outset — a really fun movie.
The Wind and the Lion (1975)
Director/writer John Milius is one of the most outspoken gun advocates in Hollywood. He was on the board of the NRA and is a major shooter and collector himself. As well as coming up with some of the best '.44 Magnum ' lines in 'Dirty Harry ' (1972), he made some great gun films including 'Dillinger ' (1973), 'Farewell to the King ' (1989), and his masterpiece, 'The Wind and The Lion. ' This enjoyable film is based on a true incident, circa 1904, involving a kidnapped American Citizen, a Berber chieftain and President Theodore Roosevelt. Milius changed the sex of the kidnapped from male to female and altered a few other facts, but the overall spirit of the incident is preserved.
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! '
Seldom has a gun been so important to a movie or a movie so important to a gun than in the case of 'Zulu. ' Based on the heroic defense of Rorke's Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, this wonderful drama, starring Stanley Baker, Michael Caine and Jack Hawkins, is a fairly true-to-life depiction of the real battle, which resulted in the winning of more Victoria Crosses (Britain's highest award for valor), per capita, than any other engagement in British history.
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.
The Last Hunt (1956)
This is a film you will never see the like of again. In these days of political correctness the concept of actually shooting scores of bison (you can really see the bullets smack the critters) would bring such condemnation that the production would probably never be released. Not so in 1957. This unusual western was filmed at the Custer State Park in South Dakota during a culling operation by, according the film's foreword, 'government riflemen. ' Popular legend has it, though, the stars, avid hunters Stewart Granger and Robert Taylor, accounted for a good number of the critters themselves. The guns (Taylor used a 76 Winchester rifle and Granger a sporting Sharps) were correct for the era (1883) and totally appropriate for the task at hand. Also seen in the film were 73 Winchesters, the ubiquitous Colt SAAs and a S&W No. 3. There's even scene around the campfire where the Taylor and Granger are reloading cartridges with the proper tools. My only complaint is some actors are wearing modern buscadero holster rigs — but what the heck, you can't have everything. Great story, too. Unfortunately it's currently not available on DVD, but you can still find used VCR versions around. Definitely worth a look-see.
Director Cecil B. DeMille was a major gun collector, so it's not surprising that the firearms seen in his movies are top-of-the-line. I really could have picked any one of several DeMille films but ultimately chose 'Unconquered. '
'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.
Enemy at the Gates (2001)
A good friend of mine, John Schofield, was producer of 'Enemy at the Gates ' and he invited me to Berlin to watch them shoot some of the scenes. It was a fascinating experience, and the sets of Stalingrad and its environs (many fabricated out of original Nazi-era Wehrmacht buildings, as well as later East German manufacturing plants) were simply awesome. John is a serious firearms and militaria collector, so every pain was taken to make sure the uniforms and equipment were as authentic as possible. The story of a duel between a Soviet and German sniper is handled with intelligence and style — and the guns, a scoped Mosin-Nagant and K98 Mauser — are never called upon to do things they were not capable of (unlike the U.S. sniper in 'Saving Private Ryan ' who swaps scopes back and forth on his 1903A4 with impunity). 'Enemy ' is a terrific film, and quite possibly the best one to ever deal with WWII sniping.
This undeservedly semi-forgotten western starring William Holden and Jean Arthur is simply my favorite gun movie of all time. It has more neat stuff in it than any other oater I can think of. Set in the Arizona Territory slightly before, during and after the Civil War, the director, Wesley Ruggles, went out of his way to achieve a proper period look. Sets (they built 'Old Tucson ' for this film) and costumes are great, and whoever he hired as his armorer really knew his stuff. The guns, most being percussion revolvers and longarms, are all period correct. A partial catalog includes: a Colt revolving rifle, Hall Carbine, Starr revolvers, Remington revolvers, Henry Rifle, Colt1849 Pockets, a Colt 1860 Army with eagle ivory grips, plains rifles, Sharps carbines (with proper linen cartridges)€¦..the list goes on and on. If you're an old west gun buff, do yourself a favor and check this one out; it's a real treat.
Four Feathers (1939)
Brit movies have always been tops with period detail, and few were better than those turned out by Alexander Korda's London Film company during the studio's heyday. The one that stands out above all the rest is the incredible 1939 version of 'The Four Feathers. ' Based (loosely) on an A.E.W. Mason novel, this tale of stiff-upper-lip derring-do during the war in Sudan had been filmed before (most notably in a 1929 American silent version) and would be essayed several times again.
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.