Guns on film: a loaded issue

Their longtime on-screen alliance has always been troubled. But for Hollywood and the gun industry, it's still paying off.

Armed and Profitable

January 17, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,sun film critic

In the 1971 movie "Dirty Harry," Clint Eastwood pointed a huge revolver at a scruffy hoodlum and uttered 12 words that would leave an indelible mark on the gun industry.

"This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world."

Until the release of "Dirty Harry," the Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver was relatively unknown outside the gun world. Smith & Wesson had begun manufacturing the firearm in 1955 to be able to make the very claim Eastwood did. But people weren't buying. In fact, Smith & Wesson was thinking of discontinuing the model.

Then Eastwood's Detective Harry Callahan growled that memorable line. Suddenly the Smith & Wesson Model 29 was so popular that retailers had trouble keeping the gun in stock. Twelve years later, when Harry carried a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum pistol called the Auto Mag in "Sudden Impact," there was a similar run at stores, even though the company had long since discontinued production of the gun.

Gun brands had gotten plugs from Hollywood before "Dirty Harry" -- in movies like "Dr. No" and TV series like "Gunsmoke" -- but Eastwood brought home a lesson that the makers of any product, from Reese's Pieces to Coca-Cola, know: Get your product in a movie and receive millions of dollars' worth of free advertising.

Guns, of course, pervade American popular culture, from prime-time television to cartoons to popular songs that extol the virtues of Glocks, Uzis and Desert Eagles. But nowhere is the gun so revered as in Hollywood.

On the surface, the movie business and the gun business would seem to have a symbiotic relationship. From the 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery" to "Lethal Weapon 4," guns have provided Hollywood easy visceral thrills and box-office sales. In return, Hollywood has provided the $20 billion-a-year gun industry with extraordinary amounts of free advertising and brand recognition. The National Rifle Association is even headed by an actor, Charlton Heston.

But the relationship between Hollywood and the gun industry is complicated. Some gun manufacturers decry the connection. Under increasing attack from the gun-control lobby and recent lawsuits, they insist that movies draw as much criticism as attention to guns and their users. And some industry leaders object to the tide of screen violence and even refuse to provide their products to filmmakers.

Still, this mix of art and politics must be weighed against a huge audience eager for yet more gunplay and bloodshed. The fact remains that when guns are stars, it's good for the gun business.

Product placement

A gun may appear for only a few moments in a movie, but it's usually a name brand (or a reproduction) recognizable to hunters, target shooters and collectors who can spot brands of firearms as easily as kids can identify sneakers.

But while sneaker companies often hire a product-placement firm to get their brands into high-profile movies, gun manufacturers don't pay to have their guns put in films. (Smith & Wesson, no doubt trying to repeat the "Dirty Harry" experience, tried a product-placement company briefly but terminated the relationship last year.)

The way guns are "placed" in films is most often by prop houses. Some of these companies specialize in weapons, and serve as on-set advisers on their use. Others are general prop houses with armory sections. All prefer to acquire their stock for free, so that more of the money they charge movie studios for services ends up in their pockets.

Some gun companies actively court Hollywood with free merchandise, hoping that their products will be "cast" in the coveted role of "hero props." Not surprisingly, the more guns a company provides, the more likely it is that those guns will wind up in the hands of a film's leading protagonist -- or villain.

If there is a current success story on a par with the "Dirty Harry" Model 29, it's the Desert Eagle. Since it was introduced by the Minnesota-based Magnum Research Inc. in 1984, this enormously powerful handgun -- made for specialty hunting and target practice -- has appeared in more than 40 movies, co-starring with action heroes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Jean-Claude Van Damme in such movies as "Eraser," "Red Heat," "Last Action Hero," "Rambo III," "Cliffhanger," "Demolition Man," "Assassins," "The Last Boy Scout" and "Double Impact." Elizabeth Hurley even carried one in the PG-rated comedy "Austin Powers."

With a retail price between $800 and $3,000, the Desert Eagle pistol, available in five calibers and with a 6- or 10-inch barrel, is designed for high-end users whose financial status and shooting abilities can match the gun's price, size and powerful kick. But with the Desert Eagle's charismatic screen presence, the demand for the gun has grown beyond connoisseurs.

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