All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl. – Jean-Luc Godard
Godard is kinda-sorta the godfather of modern cinema. Yes, there was gobs of films made before the 1960s (and good ones!), but in that halcyon Technicolor era, mainstream American films were kinda… staid. Staid is a nice word; it can mean “formal” or “sober” or “really fucking boring,” so take your pick. It was a time when you could set your watch by the Academy’s nomination of grandiose, po-faced historical epics starring Today’s Biggest Stars™ in hammy performances, wearing dusty robes with wigs teased out to the maximum.
Godard’s position at the forefront in the French New Wave changed all that, and over the years his directorial style of naturalistic performances, informal frame composition, snappy editing and pacing, and putting character and energy above spectacle and bombast eventually, decades later, became the new standard in American cinema, as the film school kiddos watching his stuff in the 60s and 70s ended up being guys like Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. The 70s and early 80s reflected this refining of Godard’s sincere aesthetic, often blending it with the burgeoning blockbuster scene Spielberg and cohort George Lucas would usher in, but regardless if the film was a peppy space opera (starring Harrison Ford) or a coming-of-age wander around small-town USA (starring Harrison Ford) or just the story of an eccentric inventor losing himself to obsession in the Caribbean tropics (starring, well, you get it), the French New Wave emphasis on sincerity and intimacy and authenticity would continue to be the biggest singular influence on American cinematic philosophy, lasting through even today, with younger acolytes like Tarantino and Nicolas Winding Refn subscribing to the school while continuing to push the boundaries, evolving the language of cinema.
Guns were a big part of that.
Back in the “Golden Age” of cinema (1930s-1950s), if you saw someone fire a gun in a film, could be sure of a few things: the film was either a historical war epic or a western, there wasn’t much death seen (and if so, it was very clean), and never would you see the physical aftermath of the gunshot. Outside of that, there weren’t a lot of what you would call “action films” in that era, period; the most dynamic thing you might see is Errol Flynn swinging from a chandelier over the Sheriff of Nottingham. After the New Wave hit, a new approach to action-based narratives really started making its mark. Bonnie & Clyde dropped the veil of pretense about the gruesome nature of violence, and archetypal films like Bullitt and The French Connection redefined the cinematic experience of watching people physically hurt each other.
However, as with everything, moviegoers’ tastes evolved; while audiences tired of the soulful interpersonal drama, they embraced the visceral thrills. By the 1980s this was taken to new extremes–violence via small-arms was in high demand, and studios delivered with high body counts. This decade saw the rise of stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and directors like James Cameron and John McTiernan, all whom bloodied the screen from opening credits to final reel. As our national taste for strong men doing violence grew insatiable, I feel like this was the incubator of what is now known as “gun culture.” This is the era in our cultural history when we saw a Vietnam vet with PTSD mow down brown people with a machine gun and went, “Fuck yes, that’s awesome, more of that, and fuck it, let’s make a cartoon for the kids!”
There are already many thinkpieces out there that debate the merits of our national obsession with firearms and whether or not it’s a negative cultural force, so I’ll spare you much of that (though I do think it probably is), but I do want to focus here on how the cinematic use of guns has (and has not) evolved since those early days of action films, how we use guns to make narrative points, and what our love for guns (relative to our appreciation for other means of violence) means for us as filmgoers.
PART ONE: GUNLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS
In researching this article, I came to two realizations about violence in film, both gun and otherwise, and what it means from a narrative perspective.
- Good guys like guns. Sure, bad guys like guns, too, especially if they’re gold-plated, but overall guns are pretty rad and cool and totally a weapon for the good guys. Cowboys have guns, policemen have guns, suave MI-6 agents have little Walther PPKs to show how much they’re not compensating for anything, all the Avengers who don’t have superpowers have guns, and all non-Jedi spacemen have guns. Guns are the tools of the good guys. They bring justice, swift and loud, in large caliber format.
- Bad guys often tend to not use guns. Obviously I’m not suggesting that villains don’t do violence, and as I already stated above, they’re known to use guns quite a bit. Tellingly, though, we often see villains with much more personal, visceral, close-range tools of violence. A villain might use a knife; knives are scary, the killer has to be right up in your personal space, stabbing you and maybe watching you suffer for a long while before you lose too much blood. Maybe they use a sword or machete, some hacking blade to do in their victims, something that’ll leave a big damn ragged mess. Maybe a chainsaw. Maybe an ax. Maybe they’ll just strangle you with piano wire. Point is, the villain isn’t afraid to be close to the people he or she is dispatching; if anything, the villain enjoys the gory appeal of the sights and smells and sounds of brutally ending a life–that’s what makes them a villain, right? They’re sick fuckos. Or, conversely, they’re cowards who do massive amounts of destruction from afar, by way of bombs or germ warfare or assassins or automated lasers while you walk casually out of the room if you’re a Bond villain.
Let’s deconstruct this math a little bit. We have a strange dichotomy in our relationship with guns; we don’t really mind if our heroes shoot and kill lots and lots of people, but we’re not really cool with seeing a lot of the damage up close. We don’t mind if the hero murders lots of people, but we don’t want them to enjoy it or support violence ideologically. We love the trope of the retired gunfighter, in self-exile to atone for his lifetime of sin, dragged back into his former life in a dogged moral pursuit; we really like violence, but we want it justified. This is what guns do–guns are the narrative shorthand for justice and justification. I’m not sure why this is entirely, I’m not a lettered sociologist, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find a correlation (or a causal relationship) with associating guns as acceptable tools of a civilized society and a puritanically-rooted culture with a long record of casting heroes as authority figures–figures whose dispassionate and often distant killing serves as morally-justified acts of upholding public good. If guns are the tools of the law, and the law is good and right, then guns must be good and right as well. The fact that we’ve enshrined an entire protagonist archetype as “morally resolute man or woman of violence” is really all the evidence I need to satisfy my own academic curiosities.
If you’ve ever seen the Dirty Harry films, you’ll remember how Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is crazy racist right-wing lunatic who gets off on breaking the law in the service of beating up/torturing/threatening/killing suspects with his own brand of justice; his version of criminal investigation involves smirking while sticking a giant gun in your face and threatening to turn your head into a soup bowl.
That series of films was incredibly popular and spawned multiple sequels, all centered around Harry Callahan’s disregard for jurisprudence in favor of daddy-state archconservatism. By any reasonable metric, Callahan is a villain; he disregards legal code, he beats and tortures people, he threatens illegal violence and murder, he has no respect for reasonable authority, and all that on top of being an insane bigot. In any version of our own reality, he’s a crazy person and a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen and would get his ass canned before he got out of the academy. Yet in his reality, he’s the hero. He’s the good guy. All because he’s got a moral code that aligns with America’s neo-Calvinism and a BFG to enforce it.
Let’s contrast that with one of Kyu’s favorite movies, Only God Forgives. (Let me be clear: this kind of libel will not stand. – Ed) The movie casts Ryan Gosling in the archetypal protagonist role of the stoic hero out to avenge his brother’s death and restore honor to his family by battling the villainous Chang, the butcher who murdered and mutilated his sibling in cold blood. The twist here is that Gosling’s brother was a horrible fucking person–a drug lord who liked to beat up and kill prostitutes for fun–and Chang was the local police chief who was bringing swift and brutal justice to the scum roaming Bangkok’s underbelly. In the context of the film, Chang is everything Harry Callahan isn’t; he protects the people the system fails, he doesn’t taunt or torture his quarry, his only bias is against bad men, he doesn’t smirk or pop off bon mots in the course of duty, he respects protocol and tradition, and he’s so committed in his drive that he doesn’t mind using a machete as his primary means of serving justice. On paper, Chang is a hero while Callahan is a villain, but the movies frame them the opposite way. Only one of them carries a gun.
So while not a hard and fast rule, there’s a strong argument that cinema–particularly action films–use the impersonal use of firearms as shorthand to describe socially-acceptable killing, especially if the wielder of the firearm follows a relatable moral code.
PART TWO: . . . AND STARRING CHEKOV’S GUN AS ITSELF
A man sits alone at a table. A pistol lays within his reach. Another man enters and announces his animosity toward the sitting man. The two argue and bicker, growing more and more heated and contentious. The camera pans to the gun, then back to the sitting man. Tension grows. Suddenly—
What comes next? That’s the purpose of Chekov’s Gun, as that same scene without a gun present takes on a wholly different tone. Without a weapon, the audience might focus more on the characters’ dialogue, or their body language and performance, or context or tone or subtext to fill in the narrative. The argument becomes about the two men and not about which one is about to be shot. But that’s what weapons do in narratives–they take on a life and focus, almost becoming characters themselves.
A gun is an express ticket to, well, anxious situations involving a gun. Shootouts. Hostage-taking. Suicide. Murder. Massacres. Firing squads. Guns, in short, are the fast lane to someone getting hurt. Their presence is shorthand for tension. They are a plot enabler, and they can be the crutch of a poor storyteller, because there’s only so many different ways you can show a scene involving one. Need one character to act against their self-interest? Put a gun in their face. Need someone to die suddenly? Put a few bullets in them. Need a hero to end a conflict? Give them a revolver and an itchy trigger finger. Need to show the immediacy of danger? Make sure everyone in the audience knows there’s a gun somewhere. Worst of all, it may support the idea that guns simply are solutions in and of themselves.
A lot of the time, this is just a cheap way of padding out a boring story. Think about Bond movies, especially the older ones with Moore and Connery; how many times in the finale does 007 have to mow through a small town’s worth of henchmen just so he and the main villain can exchange grim banter and pithy witticisms at the end? It’s tense and dramatic, but ultimately hollow. Bond isn’t going to die, and we don’t care about those henchmen getting killed in the slightest, but it gives the film a good five-ten minutes of ratcheting up the visceral energy before the cathartic release of the villain’s inevitable demise.
A great film that works as a counter to this in several ways is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a very smart and cutting film that subverts familiar expectations of suspenseful filmmaking while also commenting on it. There are three scenes, all conversations at a table, that exist to ramp up tension and suspense in a scene; the first ends traditionally, the tension breaking when the Nazi’s guns erupt. The second ends silently, with no release until the characters part, their anxiety unconsummated. The last ends in complete ruin, with neither side walking away alive. All three of these show that tension and energy do not need to be soullessly forced by way of loud gun battles to compel the audience’s suspense, and while there is a brief gunfight at the climax of the film, it’s cast against the backdrop of a fictional German propaganda film extolling the heroism of a Nazi sniper–hammering home the idea that virtuous rationalization in the line of duty may be merely our egos reshaping our morality to ensure we’re all the heroes of our own stories. The “good guys” in this tale, meanwhile, are barbarians who torture POWs and perforate unarmed German moviegoers with tommy guns.
I feel like Tarantino’s ultimate point here was that violence, once chosen as a means to an end, can’t really be polished or glamorized or dehumanized away into a mere weightless vehicle for adding tension to a hackneyed story about a spy who goes to the moon. QT has a history of people condemning the level of violence in his films, but interestingly his films rarely have high body counts or revel excessively in bloodiness (other than Kill Bill, which is full of bloody killing and very few guns, and there’s a whole article’s worth in that notion alone) which tells me that something about how his movies reach people on a much more intimately engaging level than, say, The Matrix, which violently and dispassionately kills scores of innocent people in slick slo-mo bullet-time just because it looks kinda cool. I would argue that it’s because Tarantino humanizes his characters, good or bad, and it’s hard to watch someone you have connected with be harmed–or harm someone else.
PART THREE: GUN CULTURE AND GUN CULTURE ACCESSORIES
Tragedy struck very close to me recently. I live in Dallas, and you’re probably aware of the murder of five policemen by a former army enlistee with a grudge to bear. A single young man with a legally-obtained high-capacity weapon killed nearly a half-dozen law officers–men with armor, guns, tactical equipment, and the training to use them–before he was brought down in a standoff. I’m not using this space to make any kind of grand political statement, but I do want to point to one thing specifically.
Four years ago, 20 elementary school children were murdered by a crazy person named Adam Lanza. In the aftermath, the NRA’s president, Wayne LaPierre, strongly rebuked any call for gun control reforms, saying:
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”
Two years later, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, this is how our national gun sales have performed:
In the years since Sandy Hook, this is how effective we’ve been at combating mass shootings:
I think my point here is clear, but I’m going to let Dallas police chief David O. Brown spell it out.
“[The Dallas #BlackLivesMatter protest had] 20 or 30 people [who] showed up with AR-15 rifles slung across their shoulder. . . They were wearing gas masks, they were wearing bulletproof vests and camo fatigues, for effect, for whatever reason. [When the shooting started] they began to run . . . [when] someone is shooting at you from a perched position, and people are running with AR-15s and camo gear and gas masks and bulletproof vests, they are suspects, until we eliminate that. It doesn’t make sense to us, but that’s their right in Texas.”
A large number of “good guys with guns” didn’t stop the shooter. Scores of trained police didn’t stop the shooter. The shooter was eventually stopped by the SWAT team and their bomb robot, a specialized unit explicitly schooled in the elimination of threats like the one posed that night. Wayne LaPierre’s assertion that the solution to gun violence was more guns on the streets was, for not hardly the first time, disproven this past week. Yet, despite all the evidence on display disproving any link between gun ownership and reduction in armed shootings, every time a tragedy strikes like this in America (which statistically happens about every 65 days now), sales of personal defense firearms shoot up. There are many conclusions to be drawn from all this, though there’s one overarching theme to all of it:
People believe in the power of guns.
To an almost religious extent. Gun Culture, the subclass of individuals who affiliate themselves with hard-right ideologies that argue for increased availability and access to firearms, is a powerful monobloc of activists and consumers. They even have their own celebrities, pet politicians, media outlets, conventions, and social groups, like some kind of shadow version of mainstream America. They emblazon hats and t-shirts with sayings like, “μολὼν λαβέ” or “Molon Labe,” purported to be the words of King Leonidas of Sparta; when demanded to lay down arms against the Persian hordes, he responded with the above, meaning “Come and take them.” As you may be able to tell, people in this group can tend to be a bit contentious and confrontational about their beliefs, which might not be such a bad thing if all the science didn’t point to the endgame of their ideology being widespread terrorism and death. They also make silly (albeit horrifying) furniture:
So what does it mean when we support this kind of mindset with our films? I don’t mean just all gun violence on screen, I’m talking about the kind of treatment and reverence and fetishizing of guns as tools of righteous justice that so many of our most popular action films have in spades. One of Eastwood’s Harry Callahan movies, Magnum Force, was even named after the character’s weapon of choice. For some of you, I may be getting into uncomfortable territory, but I don’t want you to feel belittled, I want you to have awareness–awareness of what you’re watching, why you’re watching it, why such things bring you joy, and what impact this might have on your personal ideology as well as the impact it may be having on others.
With that trigger warning (pun not intended), let’s talk about 2014’s best action film. Let’s talk about John Wick.
In his bloody drive for revenge and emotional catharsis, main character John Wick very stylishly kills 77 people in various ways, most of them with guns (and an absurdly high accuracy level):
The motivating events for Wick’s blood-soaked vengeance spree are things that most people can emotionally empathize with, the loss and abuse of innocents; the villains, meanwhile, are “others,” decadent and stupid foreigners who care more about their own interests than a moral code. The film’s tracking shots are shot with aplomb and present some of the finest action camerawork and choreography in years. (Totally unrelated, it’s kinda cool that the film that brought Hong Kong-style exaggerated action stunts into the Western mainstream (The Matrix) and the film that 15 years later reinvigorated the genre’s return to grounded realism both starred Keanu Reeves).
Our maligned hero here responds to a singular offense by… killing the entire Russian mafia. All of it. The whole mafia. Not out of a moral compulsion to eliminate crime (hell, Wick was a former employee of the mob), not out of a debt of honor or obligation or blackmail; Wick is just slighted and angry. And good with guns.
We filmgoers, are okay with this. We are okay with violently disproportional responses, especially when we empathize with the protagonist and are able to demonize the villains. Our hero is a paragon of American values: a dog lover, lovingly monogamous, a hard worker, intelligent (but not overly academic), and really, really into guns and muscle cars. So we in the audience, as fellow holders of these values, are complicit in enshrining these values by way of justifying and permitting John Wick to murder 77 people. This movie, consciously or not, asks the question, “Is it okay to kill a bunch of people if you’re a cool American and they pissed you off and also they’re a bunch of foreign jerks?” To which we would answer speedily in the affirmative, but we’re too busy ooh and awing at the excellent composition and framing of the double-tap headshots.
Is it wrong to enjoy movies like this? I think that’s not an easy question to answer, and I’m very careful when an idea lines up closely to censorship, especially on content. However, maybe we all need a little self-censorship. Maybe we should all, as individuals, turn our thoughts inward and try to figure just why the hell we’re so stoked to see people being killed in the name of righteous fury? I’m not condemning the entire action genre, but we need to acknowledge it may be difficult to demonize gun culture and gun violence with any kind of measurable social efficacy when society still thinks shooting people is super fucking rad entertainment. We may not be accessories to the crimes committed by members of this poisonous gun culture, but in reveling in the exploitation of gun violence, we are accessories to that culture, aiding and abetting.
PART FOUR: I AM BECOME DEATH, SALESMAN OF MEDIA
Can I wrap this all up with some rhetorical questions? Yes, I can.
- When was the last time you watched a movie where the heroes didn’t kill anyone?
- When was the last time you saw a movie or TV where the solutions didn’t involve violence?
- When was the last time you sunk hours into a video game where shooting someone wasn’t even an option?
I’m sure you folks out there all can come up with something, it’s not a hard and fast rule that all media is violent, but man–we really like violent shit. Maybe in a very specific, nuanced way, but nevertheless, we love watching bad people get hurt. How long can violence be our morally-rationalized means before it becomes the ends themselves? What, even, would our media culture look like without this predilection for guns and violence?
Let me share one last story, about a lady named Antoinette Tuff.
In August of 2013, Ms. Tuff was working at McNair Elementary School in Georgia when Michael Brandon Hill walked into her office with an AK-47 and opened fire. Luckily, no one was killed in the first few moments. Instead of panicking, instead of becoming violent, instead of finding a concealed weapon and attempting to kill young Mr. Hill, this is what Ms. Tuff did (actual 911 transcripts):
*Hill mentions he is off his meds and mentally ill*
“But do you want me to try – I can help you. Let’s see if we can work it out so that you don’t have to go away with them for a long time.”
*Hill talks about killing himself*
“No. You don’t want that. You gonna be okay. I thought the same thing. You know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me, but look at me now. I’m still working and everything is okay.”
*eventually Hill puts down his weapon*
“It’s gonna be all right, sweetheart. I just want you to know that I love you, though, okay? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”
These two people couldn’t have been much more different. Different races, different sexes, different ages, different lives–nothing obvious in common. Antionette, however, could recognize that Michael Hill was sick, and sick people need help and understanding, not to be attacked or have their mindset reinforced. This woman loved the gun right out of his hands. She saved the lives of police and school children, she saved her colleagues’ lives. She saved her own life, and she saved his life.
Antionette Tuff was a good guy without a gun. I wanna see a movie about that.