Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Back to 1976: SHOOT

by Heath Holland
This largely-forgotten movie from 1976 shows us that the debate over gun control and the Second Amendment is nothing new.

A man (Cliff Robertson) wakes up next to his sleeping wife, quietly gets out of bed, and makes his way to the bathroom. He clicks on the light, splashes a little water on his face, and then wanders methodically into another room, which is filled wall to wall with guns of every kind. We soon learn that this man is bound for a hunting trip with some of his pals, a bunch of guys who are either ex-military or still serving. These men, including Ernest Borgnine and Henry Silva, laugh and joke as they drive into the woods while the sun still sleeps beyond the horizon. They tease each other, laugh about past experiences, and appear to be long-time friends just looking for an escape from their daily grind.

As the morning wears on, the trip begins to look like a bust until something unexpected occurs. The hunting party finds themselves near a stream or a small river when they hear the snap of a branch. They look across the water to see another group of men, nearly their mirror image, staring at them from across the gap. For several long moments, that’s all they do, simply stare at each other. Then one of the men on the far bank raises his rifle and fires, grazing one of the group of military friends. With almost no hesitation, a firefight breaks out, and a member of Robertson’s group puts a bullet right in the middle of the head of the attackers.
Fleeing the scene and rushing for safety, the military friends reconvene to a familiar hangout and discuss the circumstances of what has just happened. A man is dead, but they were attacked first. They can’t go to the hospital to treat their injured friend because hospitals are required to report gunshot wounds to the authorities, and they could be accused of murder. And so they wait…wait for what they believe is the inevitable legal fallout. But the funny thing is, the fallout never comes. Soon, Robertson’s character becomes convinced that the men who attacked them are planning an even bigger attack, and that they’ll try to ambush them when they least expect it. And so Robertson begins to recruit more men, to amass more assault rifles and automatic weapons, preparing for a war he is convinced is coming, and a war that he will create himself if it doesn’t.

That’s the premise of 1976’s Shoot, a mostly-forgotten little film that has an awful lot on its mind. There are reasons the movie is obscure: it’s drab in presentation, the script sags in the middle, and it’s often boring as we’re waiting for something, anything, to happen. But in light of recent events and the ever-rising debate of gun control, it seems frighteningly-relevant to our times. The conversation about gun control is nothing new, as this movie makes abundantly clear. Even more surprising is how the same points that people use today to justify the accumulation of firearms are the same ones trotted out in this movie, which was released nearly 42 years ago, as of this writing. More than anything, though, the movie is a look at the psychology of a certain kind of person, the gun advocate who believes that a war is coming and that they’ll need all the weapons they can get their hands on to fight in it when it does.
As a movie, Shoot is only partially successful, but one of the things that it has going for it is a strong cast. Cliff Robertson nails the role of a military major who is looking for a war, even if it’s a private one. Robertson embodies a stalwart grimness here, the toughness we associate with career military men. He’s a great actor, never cooler to me than he was in 1959’s Gidget (that’s right, Gidget) in which he played “Big Kahuna,” a handsome beach bum who lived permanently in a surf shack just yards from the ocean, but most readers will probably recognize Robertson most from his role as the Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film. Ernest Borgnine’s resume speaks for itself. An Oscar winner for 1956’s Marty, Borgnine would spend much of his career in eccentric character roles in films like The Wild Bunch and Escape from New York, and that’s the kind of performance that he delivers here. It’s a great part, and he’s great in it, but he’s in full support mode here. Rounding out the cast is Henry Silva, famous for his crime and action films both in America and in Europe, but maybe best regarded for his role in The Manchurian Candidate. Both Borgnine and Silva take their marching orders, as it were, from Robertson, with Borgnine having some serious reservations about actively looking for violence. He gives a great little monologue about two-thirds into the film.

There’s a neo-noir vibe that I detect here, maybe because most of the story takes place in what feels like isolation, as Cliff Robertson, in a weird way, seems like a man who is being caught in a noose of his own making. Other themes of noir are present, too. There’s a seductive wife of a friend who tries to get Robertson to sleep with her, declaring breathlessly that he can have her anytime and anywhere. There’s a grieving widow, fresh from the burial of her husband, who drunkenly asks Robertson if he can tell that she’s not wearing any underwear beneath her black funeral dress. Even the score, which consists mostly of a solitary trumpet playing a riff in a minor key, adds to the noir feel even though the setting is far from the traditional environments of the genre.
This story was based on a novel by author Douglas Fairbairn, adapted for the screen by a writer named Richard Berg. Berg came from early television, writing for shows like Schlitz Playhouse, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as a 1959 TV series adaptation of the film The Third Man, so I don’t think the noir influences I’m detecting are coincidental. Similarly, the director of this movie is Harvey Hart, a Canadian filmmaker who directed a handful of features but mostly worked in television, helming episodes of popular shows like the original Star Trek, Peyton Place, and…you guessed it, a whopping four episodes of Columbo. Maybe his TV career is why Shoot feels bound by all the limitations of 1970s television, even though the film was theatrical. It seems to me that Shoot would ultimately prove to be Harvey Hart’s most ambitious work.

Here’s the thing about Shoot: I think it makes a clear statement about gun culture, particularly the people who stockpile weapons in their own house and display them, clean them, and amass huge quantities of ammunition in the belief that they will one day need them. I believe the film takes a side on the matter, but I can also see that it was composed with a certain level of nuance that allows for a different read. I can see someone watching this movie and believing that it supports a stance different from my own. I think sometimes maybe it actually does. This could viewed as a weakness, as the movie never explicitly declares a side to be right or wrong. It simply depicts the conflict and the consequences of the actions taken by the characters. While the movie shows us the debate about guns, with characters discussing “bleeding-heart liberals and hippies” who want to de-arm the public so that they can steal, rape, and plunder a defenseless society, it also shows consequences of that mentality. Ultimately, I think the movie is more interested in looking at the psychology of the people who feel the need to amass dozens upon dozens of firearms and are secretly hoping something happens so they’ll get to use them. This occasionally muddies the narrative, and it sometimes seems like the film is even at war with itself.
So here we have a movie that has a lot on its mind and asks tough questions, but is held back by small production values and a script that feels stretched and inconsistent in its themes. But the really bad news is that Shoot is trapped on VHS, never (as far as I know) making the upgrade to DVD, let alone Blu-ray or digital. Long out of print, used copies of this movie on video tape are going for upwards of 50 dollars, but it is, thankfully, available on YouTube. I’m normally not an advocate of watching movies on YouTube unless there is no alternative, but that appears to be the case here. This movie is begging for someone to rescue it and polish it up so that new audiences can see the film as intended. I believe the message (at least as I interpret it) is far more potent and vital than it was when the movie was made in 1976. Four decades later, we’re still having the same conversation.


  1. if the movie is even half as interesting as what you wrote in the plot synopsis part, it sound like a great movie.

    too bad there's no DVD. i'm assuming the screengrabs are from youtube. it doesn't look good, but if the movie is good, i can look past that

    1. I don't know that I'd call it great, but I think it does have some interesting things within it that make it at least worth a watch. I agree, it's a shame that it's essentially a lost film.

  2. I've read the Fairbarn novel & the main character/narrator was simply repulsive, which soured me on the notion of ever bothering to see the film.

  3. i just read a user review on IMDb that's very interesting if true

    CIA Counterintelligence Division Chief was anxious to depict for the general public and specific employees of the U.S. Government an event that had actually ocurred on North American sovereign territory. The facts of this incident were that small units of the Soviet Special Forces [Spetznaz] were indeed crossing the U.S./Canada border and conducting special operations near our missile sites in the Dakotas and Montana, and were permanently based in numerous sanctuary sites within Canada. Moreover, the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police]had repeatedly failed to locate and identify these numerous safe-sites and safe-houses. It was discovered later that Soviet moles within the Canadian Government were responsible for sabotaging ALL of the RCMP counterintelligence and law enforcement efforts for years!

    Unfortunately, security and political concerns caused extensive censoring of the final movie script and within a year of its release it was pulled out of circulation and became extremely difficult to locate and obtain, even to this day!