The Gatling Gun (1973), like Winchester 73 (1950), is another western ode to an innovative, game-changing firearm. At first, the Reverend Harper (John Carradine) calls it evil. He is right. But while trying to convince Two Knifes to approach and talk to “your friend” he is shot through with arrows. It may not seem as though there is any rhyme or reason to intractable disputes that must be settled by means of force of arms, but human civilization from its dawn to the present has pinned its ultimate hope on the assumption that its wars are decisive and meaningful. In brief, the Winchester repeated and the Gatling spewed out five hundred rounds a minute. One can only imagine how the double-edged sword or maybe the pike once changed the basic rules of engagement.
It was Richard Jordan Gatling who invented this movie’s deux ex machina machinery, a fact brought out in dialogue. The year was 1861, the beginning of the Civil War. At the time, Gatling was a businessman residing in Indianapolis. Next door, the Indiana governor was calling for yankee ingenuity to help quash the South. It was an era of inventions. Lincoln himself, it turns out, was into technology. The steamboat, locomotive, repeating pistol, and telegraph had stirred everyone’s imagination. The idea of inflicting large-scale casualties on a battlefield could not have been new, but in 1860s America this warfare technique reached a new state of potential. Death by the bushel, slaughter, overkill — these were the concepts and visualizations that lurked behind the new gun. Earlier versions had already seen the light of day, but this one was much more dependable. And in passing one can only note how slippery man’s conscience is, assuaging the guilt for one death by adding to it another and another.
The movie on dvd has suffered deterioration from old age and neglect. It shows. In addition, it is an odd story. Without horses, the cavalry, along with two women and a few others, must trek on foot through territory held by Two Knifes and one hundred braves. All the while, the gun needs to be fixed. The Apaches, according to Lt. Wayne Malcolm (Guy Stockwell), holding everybody together, “don’t know it.” Nonetheless, they are well aware of what it can do and who it will be trained on. Also, there are images throughout the movie of a prisoner incapacitated, roped, tied to a wagon, and in one instance, burned. Perhaps this dark thematic sub-text was employed as an exploitation device. It is hard to tell, looking back, what audience expectations and hidden desires were. Unfortunately, this stuff was probably meant for the sake of box office return — mild, of course, by today’s standards. Not surprisingly, audiences are eventually treated to a spate of dubious images of Native Americans being mowed down by a scientific breakthrough.