The current national debate over gun control makes this an interesting time to look at the various depictions of guns in the movies. Though current sensitivities may make it hard to believe, guns were once funny on film. Take the 1930 Laurel and Hardy classic short “Blotto” which recently aired on Turner Classic Movies cable television channel. Stan’s wife ruins his night on the town with Ollie by coming after them with a long double barreled hunting rifle. This was a common theme in Laurel and Hardy pictures with wives or comic actor James Finlayson often chasing them with guns. It was funny innocent stuff in which we knew no one was really hurt.
Of course gunplay was always violent as well. James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft killed many a man on screen in hugely popular gangster pictures during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Audiences again separated the screen action from real life events and found great entertainment in shoot-em-ups.
Even more popular than gangster pictures were the Westerns than dominated American cinema from the silent days through the 1970’s. Audiences couldn’t get enough of quick draws and shootouts with outlaw gangs. As late as the 1960’s, laughs were also mined from this action in comedy westerns such as “Cat Ballou” and “The Shakiest Gun in the West.”
Cinematic gunplay then changed forever in 1969 with the release of “The Wild Bunch.” Director Sam Peckinpah brought a never before seen graphic realism to death by gun with a much imitated stylized violence that, shocking as it was, also offered a balletic beauty. It also opened the door for Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” pictures and new action stars such as Bruce Willis and Jason Statham.
Now films such as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Gangster Squad” have received flack about their violence. The latter even changed its original ending of a movie theatre shootout. Movie violence has often been criticized and will be again. Critic Pauline Kael even viciously referred to “Dirty Harry” as “fascist.” Yet will the current political mania for new gun control bring about the next evolution of cinematic shootouts? Only time and perhaps audiences' desires will tell.