Off the Top of my Head: Realism and the Reload Mentality

I’m a big fan of movies.  Bigger than most probably.  Due to my OCDs I tend to get stuck in a loop and watch and rewatch films over and over, so I can say without a doubt I’ve seen hundreds of shoot outs.  I can probably sit down one weekend and spend about 36 hours typing out the best 50 shoot outs I’ve ever seen and why they’re great.

Sometime during the late 80s and early 90s a trend began to become more common mocking great shootout scenes as being  “unrealistic.”  From the great westerns of Clint Eastwood and to the cartoon blast ups of Rambo and Commando scoffs of “how stupid look how fake that is” started to be heard in living rooms and theaters all over the country.  Then this sentiment spread to the internet.  Though this mockery has many facets one theme tended to overshadow the rest: guns use ammo, this ammo is limited, they never reload the guns so the movie is saying that six shooter hold 50 bullets.

I personally think this is a misunderstanding.  Just because we never SEE a gun reloaded doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.  The filmmakers have just decided that watching someone reload a gun isn’t as exciting as watching them shoot said gun.  I’m not sure who wants to see Josey Wales placing bullets in chambers, priming the caps, and cocking the hammer.  Not when we can see him taking out Kansas Red Legs with abandon.

As I said at the top of this post I’ve seen so many great shoot outs I can’t possibly count them.  I have seen only TWO scenes ABOUT reloading I’d consider to be good though.  Both worked into the story of the scene and both were used for tension.  Furthermore only one was in a really good movie!

  1. The first good reloading scene I’ve seen was in A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone’s take on Yojimbo, when Joe and Ramon Rojo face off with pistol vs rifle.  One bullet each.  Who can load their weapon and get the other guy first?  Using music, short shots, and timing this scene made the reloading of those guns seriously effective.  It made sense to see it as it added to the scene and made for a great climax to some already fantastic shooty action.
  2. The second good reloading scene was in the Mel Gibson American Independence fantasy fiction The Patriot where Gibson’s film son, Heath Ledger and the movies Banastre Tarleton copy have a single-shot musket reload fight.  This tension was caused by the time it took to reload those 18th Century guns.  The best scene in the film, the two duelists miss their first shot then race to reload to get their second shots at close range.  Also tied into the story of the scene and integral to the tension, it was important to see them reload because who was first was going to get the other guy.

So why is reloading NOT important to see, despite the calls for “realism” in a movie?  Because it can be implied.  Yes that gun holds 16 rounds and one in the chamber.  It doesn’t mean we have to see every time they change the clip.  Yes that peacemaker holds 6 shots but they were remarkably dull to reload (open gate, expel spent shell, load new shell, one at a time) so why do I need to see this on film?  Filmmakers I think should stick with entertainment over the rallying cry for “realism” because movies aren’t real.  Don’t stop the action so we can see our hero put new bullets in his or her weapon unless it’s essential to the story or tension in the scene as above.  Otherwise it should be done as “stage business,” added in during a lull in the action.

That being said, I don’t need to see action heroes reload their guns, bows, or quivers any more than I need to see them go grocery shopping, fill a PEZ dispenser, or get gas…  Let’s use our imaginations to assume it happened and just enjoy some cordite-fuelled violence.

Now let’s forget how many bullets each kind of gun can hold and watch the kick-ass shoot out at the end of Hard Boiled.  This is the greatest shootout in history.  Any reloading done is incidental.  You DO see it, but those guns keep shooting long after they should but who CARES.  One of the best action runners in history…  Here’s how it’s done people…


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