I have not yet worked out the ethical dilemma of how I can find certain forms of violence so mesmerizing and, yes, entertaining in cinema while knowing that those same forms of violence, when they occur in real life, have such devastating and harmful consequences. I assume that the technology of cinema itself holds the key to unlocking this problem. And I probably need to dig deeper into the writings of Walter Benjamin. But before I do that, let us move on to my favorite cinematic gun fights.
This particular list does not represent my favorite films that have gun fights. Instead, I have chosen my five favorite individual scenes in which gun fights are the governing logic. A better title for the piece might have been “gun duels” because I have limited the notion of the “gun fight” to small number of individuals, two to five. As a consequence, long drawn out action sequences with multiple shooters were not considered in this category. Had they been, this would have simply been a list of Peckinpah scenes. (He still makes one appearance on this list.) This list of five favorites is only meant to capture solitary gun duels, not action sequences or battles.
I recognize that my list is predmoninantly Western driven, but I suppose that the gun fight as narrative climax itself is rooted in the Western, at least in terms of American cinema. And to be honest, I am more partial to the Western than other genres that would be likely to possess gun fights. (And, yes, I realize that I left High Noon off my list.) For those of you who enjoy mob films and John Woo, please feel free to add your favorite scenes in the comments. So finally, without further ado . . .
I cannot recall any scene in any Ford film that I enjoy more. The two opposing forces, Stewart and Marvin, are at their absolute best. Moreover, this entire scene has been perfectly set up. Stewart, the emasculated Easterner wearing his dishwasing apron, feebly engages the violent, toxically manly Marvin. The film comes back to this scene to illuminate how Wayne, of course, saved the day. This is a wonderful scene in what is most likely my favorite Western of all time.
My favorite gun fight from Eastwood’s best and most complete film (as both an actor and director) is not the famous final scene in which Eastwood’s Will Munny tells Hackman’s Little Bill that “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Rather, it is a scene in which a shot is not fired.
Hackman gives a loaded pistol to English Bob’s biographer. In seeking to create that mythologized western duel for his own selfish, artistic purposes, the writer attempts to hand the pistol to the imprisoned Harris. Hackman, grim and determined, keeps his hand close to his holster, and eventually, after a long deliberation, Harris refuses to take the pistol. The scene ends with Hackman taking the pistol back and emptying the bullets onto the ground. Thudding on the wooden jailhouse floor, the bullets echo with the ominous tones of violence. Harris appears thoroughly defeated, Hackman stands triumphant, and a trigger was never pulled.
Well, Eastwood is in this scene, the penultimate gunfight in Leone’s “Fistful of Dollars” trilogy. The shooting and gunplay are nothing special, but Ennio Moricone’s brilliant score and Leone’s frantic camera work and his continual insistence on close-ups make this scene satisfying. I remember playing this particular scene for students in various classes, and the students grew anxious as the music played and the camera panned around the combatants. Leone was always good at making us wait, sometimes to a fault. This scene is an appropriate conclusion to the trilogy.
This is my one non-Western scene on the list. In this scene from a well crafted French film, two brothers, Renier’s Paul and Perez’s Mathieu, have become entangled in the sordid world of Napoleonic War re-creationists. (Hell, who among us hasn’t?) The villainous Captain Deprees, played by Recoing, is most likely responsible for the murder of the brothers’ mother, and a Napoleonic era duel is seen as a resolution.
I saw this film at The Byrd as part of the French Film Festival, and Recoing was in attendance that evening. When his character was shot and possibly killed, the American audience cheered and applauded. I imagine that his thoughts at that moment ranged from “Stupid Americans” to “Oh no!”
I could not very well have a list of gunfights and not include a single Peckinpah scene. The scene is lovingly rendered, as much as any deadly gun fight can be lovingly rendered. Peckinpah clearly yearns to recapture a lost era of the Western just as McCrea and Scott, as lawmen long in the tooth, look to recapture their former youth and glory. Everyone dies, and life moves on: a fitting conclusion to the cinematic gun fight.