Handling a gun, Hollywood style

Nicholas Cage is left eye dominant in Fire Birds

There’s a 1990 movie called Fire Birds that stars Tommy Lee Jones and Nicholas Cage. Cage plays a helicopter pilot learning aerial combat in the AH-64 Apache and Jones is his instructor. The film pre-dates Cage’s rise to greater stardom and if you ever watch it you’ll realise that it does everything that Top Gun does but not as well and four years later.

There’s a sub-plot where Cage is struggling to pull off a tricky manoeuvre and his love interest, played by Sean Young, tells him that he has an eye dominance problem. To demonstrate she asks him to pretend to shoot her by forming his hand into the shape of a gun, like a child would.

When Cage does this we see his character’s problem. He automatically shuts his right eye to take the pretend shot. I thought about this scene recently when thinking about how Hollywood’s depiction of handgun use has shifted over the decades.

Early movie depictions of people with pistols and revolvers are strange and I think the origins of this lie in the US Supreme Court’s 1915 decision Mutual Film Corp. v Industrial Commission of Ohio. The court unanimously decided that Ohio’s constitution did not extend the right of free speech to motion pictures. The free speech clause in the Ohio state constitution is similar to the one in the United States constitution and therefore by implication, motion pictures were not protected free speech under US law.

The movie industry subsequently came under pressure to censor violent content. To avoid being legislated against the major companies adopted a voluntary set of guidelines. Their trade association’s first president was a man named William Hays and so the guidelines became known as the Hays Code and the enforcement body, the Hays Office. It was so well known that Groucho Marx made a direct remark to camera about it in 1939’s At the Circus.

The gun-handling oddity I mentioned above is that hardly anyone in movies from that time ever raises a handgun above waist level. That is not a logical way to use a gun.

In 1952 the US Supreme Court reversed their earlier decision, with Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v Wilson. Motion pictures were found to be constitutionally protected after all. And if you watch the gun barrel sequence from any of the early James Bond films, or Dirty Harry (1971) you’ll see that the characters now explicitly take aim with their handguns.

But they still all shoot one-handed in those movies.

Moving on to a slightly more recent film, like Die Hard (1988), we still see some one-handed gun use. However most people in the film shoot two handed and this is now normal across movies and tv. You would not expect to see anything different.

Which means that at some stage, gun handling in movies and tv shows changed.

Let’s get back to that movie I referenced at the start, the Nicholas Cage film. I was reading recently about a British Army officer who in 1946 was sent on a weapons training course in Mhow, in Madhya Pradesh in India. He was taught to fire a revolver using both hands and with both eyes open.

I emphasise this for a reason. I had noticed the changed trends in Hollywood handgun use but hadn’t realised that all characters now keep their eyes open. Nicholas Cage’s character sights his gun and does what I think most of us would do instinctively when he closes one eye. I assume that people have to be trained out of doing this.

The British army officer from 1946, after his training course, was criticised during a shooting competition for not shooting like a gentleman. One-handed, one-eyed shooting was the norm in that era. It is not the norm now.

There is one exception. Olympic pistol shooters still use a single hand to hold the gun and one eye to sight the target. Is this technique genuinely better for Olympic competition? Or is it simply that the rules have not yet been updated?


The Melancholy Roman

The Stopped Clock; or Death, the Destroyer of Worlds

When Trinity, the first atomic bomb, was successfully detonated in the New Mexico desert, Robert Oppenheimer is believed to have simply said: “It works.”

Oppenheimer went on to have a pivotal role in weapons development in the early cold war and served on the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). However he made an enemy of his friend and colleague Edward Teller by opposing his push to develop a hydrogen bomb.

He also made an enemy of the AEC’s chairman, Lewis Strauss.  It was Strauss who was instrumental in setting up the 1954 security hearing in which Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance. Oppenheimer never worked in a formal government or policy role again.

Some years after this, Oppenheimer was interviewed for a documentary about the Manhattan Project. Discussing the detonation of that first bomb, he faced the camera and said:

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says `Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all felt that, one way or another.’

This reference to the Bhagavad Gita is arguably a misquote but the wording is memorable. And of course, death truly is “the destroyer of worlds” in many senses. It has become the most famous quote from the entire text.

The phrased “stopped clock” has different and more obscure origins. I first came across it while looking for works by the writer Joel Townsley Rogers. I had read one of his short stories and the writing style impressed me. It was in Hay-on-Wye that I finally came across one of his novels, The Red Right Hand. I now know he only wrote four books with that one considered the best of them. The title of one of the others is The Stopped Clock and I understand that the expression is a metaphor for death. The Emily Dickinson poem “A Clock Stopped” uses the same imagery.

So much for both phrases.

I have never been good at chess. The thing that bugs me about the game is that checkmate ends everything. It doesn’t matter if one player is clearly superior, or if the momentum of the game seems to be heading in one direction and one player is setting up for a clever climax and is only one move from an ambush. Find yourself checkmated and the game is over.

It’s meant to be a metaphor for warfare but let’s face it, real life doesn’t usually work like that. Find yourself in a position where you can’t move forwards, backwards or any other direction and instead of giving up you sit it out. The warfare equivalent would be a siege. And while some sieges have ended in conquest it’s worth remembering that Hannibal besieged Rome, wrote his name into legend and still lost. Rome didn’t fall for a long time afterwards.

But occasionally these metaphors speak a bitter truth. I mention all this because someone dear to me died this month. He went to hospital for some vital surgery and never woke up. After four days it became clear that he never would and three days later he died.

And he was much loved, and my mind runs over what-if scenarios and rails against the unfairness of it all. But nothing can be done.

The clock has stopped for him and death is the destroyer of worlds. And these words give me no comfort whatsoever.

The Melancholy Roman