The Big Gundown
The shoot-out. As both Shoot Em Up and 3:10 to Yuma demonstrate this week, this is one of those dramatic situations that's essentially cinematic. Writers, painters and playwrights might convey something of the tension and excitement, but none of them can compete with the full-blown experience of the expertly staged movie gunfight.
That said, it was a novelist who started it all. Owen Wister's "The Virginian" was published in 1902, and set the template for what became the standard climax of the Western: two men facing off on a dusty street at sundown, reaching for their pistols.
This owes something to the European chivalric tradition of the duel (see, Barry Lyndon for example), but the American gunfight is a more pragmatic affair, without the social niceties or aristocratic pretensions. (The Colt revolver, the gunfighter's weapon of choice, was nicknamed "The Equaliser".) The Western gunfight generally goes to show how might is right: The guy in the white hat isn't just nobler than the guy wearing black, he's also quicker on the draw and a better shot.
In reality, most cowboys probably couldn't hit a barn door from 30 paces - and in any case the violence of the Old West has been exaggerated. According to historian Robert Dykstra, even in its heyday in the 1870s, Dodge City (home to Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp) averaged a mere 1.5 homicides a year.
In the movies, shootouts have become increasingly baroque over the decades. In Shane and High Noon in the 1950s, the duel is a moral testing ground where the hero can prove his mettle. But by the end of the 60s, the ferocious gunfights in Bonnie And Clyde and The Wild Bunch have become much bloodier and more acrid. It's no longer so easy to tell the good guys from the bad, and either one of them could wind up face down in the dirt.
With Westerns on the out in the last 25 years, we've seen more shootouts in contemporary thrillers and sci-fi: on the whole, the fire-power and the body-counts have gone up, but the fashion for supercool choreography and Leone-esque pastiche is no more realistic than it was back in the 1930s.
Not that we're complaining. In many ways the action movie shootout serves the same function as the song and dance number in musicals, showcasing the filmmakers' gift for kinetic spectacle, ingenuity and technical prowess. They're old-fashioned, new-fangled show-stoppers designed to thrill as they kill. Don't believe us? Then check out these blasts from the pastů
Top Ten Movie Shootouts
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
(Sergio Leone, 1966) Cemetery Scene
Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach triangulate on three points of a civil war cemetery that seems to have been modeled on a Roman amphitheatre. Sergio Leone's extreme close ups and Ennio Morricone's chorale score sustain the tension for what seems like eons. This is what the whole 180-minute movie has been building to.
Once Upon a Time in the West
(Sergio Leone, 1968) Waiting
for a Train
For his next party trick, the opening ten minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone had the idea of reassembling Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach to play the three cowboys waiting for the train. He didn't get them. The shootout, when it comes, is over in seconds, but the long, slow build up - scored to exaggerated ambient sound effects like the buzzing of a fly and a squeaky windmill - is a marvelously cheeky and effective wrong steer.
, 1992) Mexican
This Mexican standoff involving the last survivors of a botched jewelry robbery still stands among the best things Tarantino has done. Sure, he lifted it from Ringo Lam's City On Fire, but there's no question Tarantino's version has more intensity and emotion. Still not sure who shot Nice Guy Eddie though.
(John Woo, 1992) Hospital scene
This movie is really one long violent rampage from start to finish; it's John Woo flexing his muscles and showing off. For aficionados of the shootout, that makes this a must-see, even if it's a tough call to choose just one highlight. For sheer chutzpah, you can't beat the shootout in the hospital. It lasts about half an hour and the body count is well over 100. See also Woo's The Killer, Bullet in the Head and A Better Tomorrow.
, 1995) Bank
De Niro et al get out the heavy artillery for a bank robbery that turns into an all-out street war in downtown Los Angeles. Mann blew his budget on this set piece, but it's not flamboyantly stylized so much as scrupulous, with particular attention to the dynamics of what amounts to a strategic withdrawal.
(James Cameron, 1984) Police Station massacre
A one-sided affair, admittedly - in fact that's why the scene is so shocking. It's the definitive demonstration of the Terminator's apparently invincible superiority. Unlike in T2, the Governor doesn't have any scruples about killing anyone. This sequence also comes with the much-quoted one liner: "I'll be back."
(Clint Eastwood, 1991) Munny vs Little Bill
After spending the best part of two hours owning up to his weakness, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) walks into a bar full of armed deputies and proceeds to outgun them all - including Gene Hackman's sheriff, Little Bill. It's not that he's faster, but he's intent on what must be done - and he is Clint Eastwood, after all.
(The Wachowskis, 1997) Bullet time
The gunfight in the lobby is the coolest scifi shootout ever. The Wachowski brothers brought in Hong Kong stunt ace Yuen Wo Ping and taught Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss how to dance in a long coat and shades while firing a machine gun. Almost as striking, the way this interior shootout tears the guts out of the set.
The Wild Bunch
(Sam Peckinpah, 1969) The last stand
Talk about overkill. The climax for Sam Peckinpah's great western changed the rules for screen violence forever. The carnage goes on and on, in slow motion, as the bunch takes on what looks like the entire Mexican army. It's a hopeless fight, but they know that going in.
Children of Men
(Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) Battle of Bexhill
This is the odd one out on this list, because we're not especially invested in either side at the end of this movie, we only want our guy - and the baby - to get through this scrappy street fight in one piece. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) doesn't even carry a gun. But this long take, real-time sequence is still incredibly gripping.
And Ten Honourable Mentions:
Terror in a Texas Town
(Joseph H Lewis, 1958)
(Luc Besson, 1994)
(Brian De Palma, 1987)
(Brian De Palma, 1993)
King of New York
(George P Cosmatos, 1993)
The Quick and the Dead
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