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A Short History of Sniper Cinema

The $60 million Warner Bros.-Clint Eastwood war film American Sniper follows the exploits of Chris Kyle, a United States Navy SEAL who was sent to Iraq to, according to the official Warners website, “protect his brothers-in-arms.” As a military sniper, “[h]is pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and, as stories of his courageous exploits spread,” continues the website, “he earns the nickname ‘Legend.’” By the real Kyle’s own accounts, the U.S. Navy credited this “legend” with “160 kills” [1].

There was a time not long ago when anyone bragging about “kills” was not the sort of person we would admire – much less pay to see sympathetically portrayed in a major Hollywood movie. This was especially true in the case of the sniper who, even in politically reactionary circles, was generally perceived as sadist, psychopath, and coward. Even Warner Bros. and Clint Eastwood shared this viewpoint at one time.

In Don Siegel’s 1971 thriller Dirty Harry, Eastwood made his first appearance as Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department. A great success for Warners, the picture was heavily criticized for what many considered to be a fascistic political outlook regarding law enforcement as Eastwood’s Callahan regularly ignored the rulebook and civil liberties protocols in order to deliver Hollywood-style justice with a .44 Magnum [2]. (The liberal Siegel later insisted he did not condone the behavior of the protagonist [3].) And while the villain of the narrative, “Scorpio,” whose most distinguishable clothing statement was a peace sign belt buckle, symbolized an establishment backlash against the hippie/radical movement of the era, the character was in fact based on San Francisco’s notorious Zodiac serial killer (the subject of director David Fincher’s 2007 movie Zodiac).

So what were the horrible crimes Scorpio (Andy Robinson) committed that so disgusted Inspector Harry Callahan and his ultra-mannfilmsconservative movie audiences back in the early 1970s?

Scorpio, like the real-life Zodiac killer, was a sniper. In the opening sequence we see him killing, from a great distance with a scope rifle, a young woman. She, of course, has no clue she is about to be murdered. With the assassination of President John F. Kennedy still a recent and harrowing memory, the U.S. public had good reason to fear and despise snipers.

Flash-forward to 2014-2015 where we find the media and moviegoers fawning over a new Warner Bros.-Clint Eastwood movie (this time directed by Eastwood) in which a military sniper is portrayed as an heroic martyr. What a difference half-a-century makes. Compare this current studio epic with cinematic sniper portrayals from earlier decades and generations.

In director John Ford’s World War I drama The Lost Patrol (RKO Radio Pictures, 1934), which in recent years has been cited for its imperialist racism, an Arab sniper randomly kills soldiers of a British desert patrol in Mesopotamia [4]. In Full Metal Jacket (Warner Bros., 1987), Stanley Kubrick’s centrist/conservative take on the Vietnam war, a North Vietnamese woman sniper fires upon and kills numerous U.S. Marines in Hue during the 1968 Tet offensive. (Earlier in the film, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Kubrick showed a sadistic Marine drill instructor extolling the virtues of ex-Marine-turned-sniper Charles Whitman, who killed sixteen people during a 1966 Texas shooting spree.)

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, British filmmaker Ken Loach presented an enemy priest as a pro-fascist sniper in Land and Freedom, his 1995 left-wing drama of the Spanish Civil War. And while the protagonist of Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 spy thriller The Day of the Jackal (Universal) is an assassin who plans, in 1963, a sniper rifle killing of President Charles De Gaulle, the character and his actions are designed to arouse morbid curiosity rather than outright audience endorsement. (Michael Caton-Jones crudely updated Zinnemann’s film in his 1997 Universal thriller The Jackal, which also took a disapproving view of snipers.)

Other memorable films about snipers, or would-be snipers, have used the subject matter to probe deeper into everything from the all-American obsession with guns (Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 independent feature Targets) to the deadly role of the sniper in political terrorism (Lewis Allen’s 1954 thriller Suddenly and John Frankenheimer’s 1962 dark political satire, The Manchurian Candidate). A particularly underrated film from this genre is Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper (Columbia, 1952), a film noir made after the director informed on former associates following a prison sentence as a member of the “Hollywood Ten.” Produced for the liberal Stanley Kramer, The Sniper centers on a young psychopath (Arthur Franz) in San Francisco who tries and fails to curb his urge to kill women with his sniper’s rifle. What distinguishes this film from most other Hollywood productions on the subject is its efforts to get to the roots of the sniper’s sickness, with a city psychiatrist (Richard Kiley) advocating on behalf of preventive social measures.

These are by no means exceptions to the Hollywood rule, in both feature films and network television series, of depicting snipers as serious threats to humanity. Such depictions are not quaint examples from bygone eras when we consider the anti-sniper themes emerging from time to time in more recent TV series as Bones and 24 as well as the 2012 action epic Jack Reacher.

The ongoing problem with visualizing the sniper on screen in a graphic manner is the inevitable risk that the wrong audience member will regard the proceedings as a tutorial. Luis Buñuel brilliantly resolved this problem in his 1974 absurdist comedy The Phantom of Liberty, in which a rooftop sniper is never shown actually pulling the trigger of his rifle. We see only innocent passersby falling without so much as the sound of a single gunshot.

It can only be hoped that American Sniper will not set the tone for future Hollywood movies in which “sharpshooters” are portrayed heroically.

Max Alvarez is a film historian who was a visiting scholar for The Smithsonian Institution between 1997-2009. He is author of The Crime Films of Anthony Mann (University Press of Mississippi) and a major contributor to Thornton Wilder/New Perspectives (Northwestern University Press). His website is: www.maxjalvarez.com 

Sources

[1] Adam Bernstein, “Chris Kyle, Navy Seal [sic] and author of ‘American Sniper,’ dies,” Washington Post (February 3, 2013): http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/chris-kyle-navy-seal-and-author-of-american-sniper-dies/2013/02/03/f838bcfc-6e22-11e2-ac36-3d8d9dcaa2e2_story.html

[2] Roger Ebert, “Dirty Harry,” Chicago Sun-Times (December 29, 1971).

[3] B. Drew, “The Man Who Paid His Dues,” American Film Magazine December 1977/January 1978.

[4] Jack G. Shaheen addresses the bigotry in his book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001), p. 309.

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