Hollywood guns: Behind the curtain [SLIDESHOW]

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The first movie star I ever saw was a disappointment. Beautiful on screen, in life she turned out to be scrawny, sullen and surly. No eye contact, no communication save muttered bromides, she clearly hated meeting the press. Her hair was bigger than she was. She was a kind of Kewpie Doll from hell. Okay, so it was Jane Fonda, shilling a movie called “Rollover.”

The last movie star I saw was a vast improvement. Regal, queenly, majestic, she was an essay in charisma. The sense of presence generated, the recollections launched, the fondness warmly felt, the grace in aging well, all represented her as a true star in the best Hollywood tradition. Katharine Hepburn? Lauren Bacall? Okay, so it was a machine gun.

It was, in fact, the Browning water-cooled Model 1917A1 around which Sam Peckinpah constructed his great film “The Wild Bunch” in 1969. When last seen, some Mexican guerillos were hauling it off for use against the Federales in a movie that happened to be set four years before the gun came into existence. We don’t turn to Peckinpah for history but for insight into the nature of male behavior. Besides, who’d want to see a movie built around a Colt “potato digger?”

That Browning may or may not be your idea of the coolest gun ever used in a movie, but even if it’s not, you’ll probably find your first choice in “Hollywood Gun,” the just-opened temporary exhibit at the National Firearms Museum, a follow-up to NRA’s most successful exhibit, “Real Guns of Reel Heroes,” of a few years back and possibly even better.

If you love guns or you love movies or, still luckier, you love guns and movies, this is a trip you cannot miss.

I was fortunate enough to get an advance prowl through the museum’s vault where, pre-exhibition, the guns were being accumulated and stored. It was like going to Valhalla without the inconvenience of having to die first. So many guns, so little time. As karma decreed, my eyes first lit on the cut-down, suppressed Remington Model 11-87 Javier Bardem committed such mayhem with in “No Country For Old Men.” Who could not notice this twisted sister of a piece, but appraisals of it vary considerably. My good friend Michael Bane called it “the coolest gun ever in a movie” on his blog. I disagree; to me it looks like a beautiful, modern shotgun truncated by butchers, then stuck muzzle-first in a can of Crisco. The bad news is, it’s not even functional, just as was, in my humble opinion, the movie in which it was featured.

More to my liking was a sleek piece of blue-steel artistry lying quietly on a table. It was so classy, it had no need to call attention to itself. It came readily to shoulder and in hand morphed into something almost alive, as the best firearms inevitably do. It could have been Clark Gable’s Model 70, but it wasn’t; that beauty lay on another table. Possibly you’re guessing the arts-and-crafts styling of the Remington-Keene with which James Wainwright and Clint Eastwood engaged in a mile-off sniper duel in the gun-rich “Joe Kidd” of 1972. No again, though that dream of a rifle was there as well.

This happened to be Melvin Purvis’ Mannlicher-styled Mauser 8 mm Sporter with which Purvis (Christian Bale), for some unaccountable reason dressed like Frank Buck of jungle explorer fame, brought down Pretty Boy Floyd in the beginning of “Public Enemies” last summer. No matter that it was either a .32-20 Win. or a .45 ACP (accounts vary) that ended Pretty Boy’s career and that it happened long after, not long before, Dillinger was felled, the gun is still a fine piece of high Euro-craftsmanship and a movie star in its own right.

My one moment of minor triumph came when I pulled a suppressed MAC-10 off a table and, in my imagination at least, dispatched a 32-round burst at various enemies of the state and the person. Then I identified it triumphantly as the gun that John Travolta used in … ha! Thought you had me, didn’t you, Philip Schreier, curator and presiding genius of the museum. Somewhere deep in my movie/gun brain cells, an urgent telegram notified me that this wasn’t Travolta’s but the Duke’s. The Duke? With a Mac-10? Indeed, yes, from a late-career move in which the big guy was attempting to segue into the urban cop mode after the decline of the Western genre at the box office in the early ’70s. He used the MAC to hose down a Seattle drug gang in the game but not very good “McQ” (1974).

Obviously, I could go on and on. The Barrett M82 from “The Hurt Locker?” Yep. The two Smith 9 mms Harvey Keitel used in “Reservoir Dogs?” Mais oui. The P.38 that Scorpio (Andy Robinson) used in “Dirty Harry,” that is until Harry dirtied him permanently? Affirmative. What about the gats from “The Departed,” including Di Caprio’s PPK? Yep, there it was, along with Damon’s SIG P228 and Jack Nicholson’s .380 Beretta. And that near-Howdah cut-down double-barrel 12-gauge Sean Connery carried in “The Untouchables?” It was there, too.

I save the best for last, of course. Compared to some of the beauties, it’s pretty prosaic, a beaten-to-heck ’92 Winchester in .44-40 Win. Yet to touch it is to feel the electricity. You won’t be able to—it’ll be safely behind glass—but for me it was like reaching through time and shaking hands with the big paw of the star of stars himself. It was the large-looped (you can see the welding scar where he and his pal, the stuntman Yakima Canutt, melted on the exaggerated fixture), short-barreled Trapper that a nobody who had played “Sandy the Singing Cowboy” swung-cocked under his big arm in 1939’s “Stagecoach” and became an enduring myth called John Wayne. That, my friends, is a thrill.

The larger point, however, is that once again, the exhibit offers an opportunity to see at close range many of the iconic pieces (and many of the non-iconic rubber generics as well) by which American movies captured something of the history, the heroism, the folly and the tragedy of their nation’s love affair with the gun.

Read more at American Rifleman