Gun Crazy: Life and Times in the Warfare State

Still from “Gun Crazy.”

The recent death of British actress Peggy Cummins, at age 92, prompted my quick return to her 1950 film noir classic Gun Crazy – a movie that still resonates with historical and cultural force.   Regarded as something of a transcendent work, Gun Crazy with its fugitive lovers on the run (Cummins being described as a “female Dillinger”) would actually turn out to be far less transgressive than generally believed when the picture was first released.   Cummins’ passing occurred just before the most recent episode of mass killings in Broward County, Florida.

Cummins teamed with John Dall in one of the enduring romantic sagas of Hollywood cinema – a gun-crazed crime spree mixing brazen outlawry with sexual adventure, forerunner to Bonnie and Clyde, Natural Born Killers, and True Romance.  The ultimately doomed couple was said to go together “like guns and ammunition go together”.   While Joseph Lewis’ movie lacked certain noir characteristics (it was, for example, brightly lit), it did celebrate a familiar icon of the genre, and of American culture – the gun.   Here Gun Crazy fit the trajectory of earlier Hollywood traditions: Westerns, combat features, gangster movies.   In contrast to those blood-soaked features, however, noir filmmakers usually preferred the more concealable handgun.

In his book simply titled Gun Crazy, Jim Kitses could write: “In noir, all of America is gun crazy, the inevitable side-effect of a ferociously aggressive patriarchal capitalism fueled by a violent national history and ideology”.   It is easy enough to impart such a reading to a film that for decades has remained a cult favorite, including among progressives.  In 1972 Paul Schrader rated Gun Crazy, despite its slim production budget, one of the best American films ever made.

MacKinlay Kantor’s superb screenplay was conceived as something of a riff on the nineteenth-century frontier myth, with its glorification of the outlaw hero.  Kantor’s partner in crime was co-author Millard Kaufman, but Kaufman was just a front man for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, who would go to federal prison in June 1950 for contempt of Congress.  (Trumbo refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.)  In fact Gun Crazy would be the first of Trumbo’s 45 ghost-written Hollywood scripts – and probably his best.

In tapping deeply into the American psyche, Gun Crazy would come to symbolize a dark postwar fascination with armed violence that ultimately extended far beyond what its creative figures – Lewis, Kantor, Trumbo, Cummins, Dall – could have foreseen.  The film (and later incarnations) would parallel a U.S history of continuous military interventions, massive gun and arms industry, lucrative international weapons trade, and media culture saturated with guns, crime, and every imaginable type of violence.

Going back to the origins of U.S. military power, the gun was widely embraced as an instrument of “civilization” against “savagery”, a facilitator of enlightenment and progress that would be modernized during the wars against native Americans and then perfected with the onset of imperialism.  The gun/warrior culture was passionately taken up by leading political, intellectual, and religious figures across the ideological spectrum, a shared crusade driven by national exceptionalism.  U.S. warfare, then and later, would be carried out from the overwhelming advantage of superior military weaponry and technology.   This superiority came with an unwavering common belief in the absolute goodness – even Divine goodness – of American imperial ambitions and military prowess.  Far more than a material device for killing, the gun was elevated to a kind of metaphysical status.

More recently, it was in precisely such an ideological milieu that Chris Kyle, real-life protagonist of the blockbuster American Sniper, could attain posthumous recognition as both mass killer and national hero.   Much like the actors of Gun Crazy, Kyle’s life was shaped by a gun obsession (weapon, in Army parlance) – in this case, a sophisticated military rifle equipped with high-powered telescopic lens.  A sharpshooter in Iraq, Kyle was said to have racked up the largest number of kills in U.S. history – familiar tale of good Americans murdering evil foreigners to save freedom and democracy.  The fact that guns (high-tech weapons) were used in Iraq to routinely kill men, women, and children was treated a routine fact of life in the movie, as it was across the corporate media and political culture.  Regarding the morality of all this – well, U.S. military operations speak for themselves.

Gun Crazy extolled a violent Zeitgeist that would intensify throughout postwar America.   Worth noting here is that the harshest attacks on American militarism just before and after the appearance of Gun Crazy – General Smedley Butler’s “war is a racket”, C. Wright Mills’ “power elite”, President Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”, Fred Cook’s “warfare state” – ring much truer today than when initially put forth.   Of course the wielders of firepower in Gun Crazy were ill-fated, destined to self-destruct; the Hollywood code of that period would have it no other way.  Unfortunately, there has been no political code to reign in these other, more catastrophic, mechanisms of death and destruction.

At a time when the U.S. has erected the largest military behemoth in history, it has attained global supremacy in other measures: gun-related murders, serial killings, armed massacres.   At present Americans possess an estimated 90 guns for every 100 adults – possibly 300 million all told, including vast stores of assault weapons, more than 40 percent of the world firearm total in personal hands.   Only one other nation (cartel-ridden Mexico) can match the annual 38,000 gun-related killings recorded in the U.S.   This murderous legacy has been salaciously dramatized in thousands of novels, movies, TV episodes, video games, and tabloids.

Viewed from the distorted vantage point of the second Amendment, a thriving American gun/warrior cult is sustained in large part by the paranoid fear of looming threats – demonic enemies that recall the frontier era of settler colonialism and the resistance it generated.   The NRA has long manipulated these phantoms for all they are worth, dedicated as it is to creating the most fully-armed citizenry the world has ever known.  Setting limits to available firepower not only subverts Constitutional rights but poses a deep existential threat to every law-abiding, gun-toting “good guy”.

With every mass shooting, the American gun lobby defiantly stands it ground.   As popular anger builds and public opinion for tighter gun regulations broadens, the NRA and its vile spokespeople clamor for more deadly weaponry.  Should any restrictions be imposed?   The answer, coming from the legion of gun fanatics, ends up obscured in propagandistic blather.  If Cummins and Dahl seemed rather content with their shiny 38 pistols, the NRA would surely be happy with AR-15s in every household – and distributed to every school, college campus, office building, church, theater, sports complex, and shopping mall.   Investment in guns and ammunition would flow.

Legalization of rocket-launchers and sting-ray missiles?   Open-carry laws everywhere?   Unlimited high-capacity ammunition magazines?  All that would be the crowning NRA fantasy, a paradise built on guns and death – meanwhile extending the Hobbesian reality of Iraq that the U.S. military painstakingly created right back into American society itself.   One big problem remains: how to distinguish the “bad guys” from the “good guys”.


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Carl Boggs is the author of The Hollywood War Machine, with Tom Pollard (second edition, forthcoming), and Drugs, Power, and Politics, both published by Paradigm.     

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