Hollywood, the 1911 & Its Stunt Double

By Peter Suciu
Posted in #Guns #History
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Hollywood, the 1911 & Its Stunt Double

August 4th, 2020

6 minute read

There are guns that are simply “iconic” due to their presence in movies and television shows. Everyone remembers that James Bond’s weapon of choice was a Walther PPK, even if he really didn’t use it all that much. On the other hand, Dirty Harry had his .44 Magnum, which he certainly did use! Then there is the M1911 .45 ACP — a weapon that has been seen literally in dozens if not hundreds of movies and television shows.

William Holden’s Pike character in The Wild Bunch is seen here with a 1911. Or is it? Image: IMFDB (imfdb.org)

John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks are just a handful of the actors who could be seen wielding a 1911 in the movies. It’s hard to think of another weapon that has been in as many films and television shows as the revered American pistol.

In many ways, the M1911 simply has become a star in its own right.

An American officer shoots at a German soldier in the 1918 film The Heart of Humanity — likely marking the first appearance of the 1911 in a movie. Image: IMFDB

A Star Is Born

It is perfect in historically based films — especially those set during the World Wars when it was the standard sidearm for the U.S. military, and even the conflicts of the Cold War era. But it has also been the ideal “go-to” weapon for crime dramas, where it has been seen on both sides of the law.

Set in the later years of the Mexican Revolution, The Professionals was among the first “westerns” to use early 20th century firearms including the 1911. Image: IMFDB

The 1911 is arguably one of the most famous pistols of all time, even more well-known than the classic cowboy-era “Single Action Army” revolver. What many movie buffs probably don’t know is the connection of the 1911 designed to prolific firearms designer John Moses Browning, who developed and perfected the design that was adopted by the U.S. military in March of 1911. And it served in that role all the way through to the 1980s, with it still remaining in service with U.S. military Special Forces. And this is not even touching on its popularity in the civilian realm as well.

First Onscreen Appearances

The earliest use of the 1911 in a film was likely the 1918 silent propaganda film The Heart of Humanity, where it is seen used by an unnamed U.S. officer. The handgun was seen in use in the subsequent 1919 American silent film The Lost Battalion, about units of the 77th Sustainment Brigade, which were surrounded by German forces in the Argonne Forest in October 1918.

The 1919 film The Lost Battalion featured the real Captain George McMurtry playing himself — it isn’t known if he carried his own sidearm, however. Image: IMFDB

The first true “star” to carry a Colt M1911 in a film was none other than John Wayne in the film Four Sons – but Wayne wasn’t a star at the time nor was he even one of the film’s leads. The 1928 film, which was directed by John Ford, tells the story of four German brothers who go off to fight in the First World War. While three fight for the Germans, one son fights for the Americans and (spoiler) is the only one to survive.

The film is notable for one of Wayne’s earliest roles and also for it being one of only a handful of Ford’s silent films to survive as well!

While it is hard to tell that is the Duke in this scene, John Wayne could have the distinction of being the first true “movie star” to carry the 1911 in a film — in this case the 1928 release Four Sons. Image: IMFDB

Early Breakout

By the 1930s the 1911 was well established as a handgun but it also was used in various “gangster” and “gangland” dramas. It was carried by James Cagney in the 1935 film G Men, but Humphrey Bogart could rank as one of the most well-known early stars to carry it for many roles — he could be seen with the handgun in Bullets of Ballots (1936), High Sierra (1941), Across the Pacific (1942), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Sahara (1943) and Battle Circus (1953).

We’re more used to seen Bogey in a suit, but he did a decent job as an American tanker in the 1943 film Sahara and can be seen holding a 1911. Image: IMFDB

Interestingly, the promotional posters for Casablanca (1942) — arguably Bogart’s most famous role — showed his character Rick holding a 1911, yet in the actual film he used a Colt 1903 .32 ACP!

Even Seen in the Westerns

Given that it was only introduced in 1911, it might seem out of place in the classic “western,” but in fact 1911 pistols can be seen in a few films that chronicled the final days of the frontier. This includes the 1966 release The Professionals, where one can be seen carried by Lee Marvin’s character Rico — and it was seen again in 1969’s The Wild Bunch, where it is used by several characters including Pike, who was played by William Holden.

William Holden’s character Pike can be seen carrying both a real M1911 and a Star Model B — but during the action sequences, it is clearly the latter. Image: IMFDB

What is unique about The Wild Bunch is that the Spanish-made Star Model B (Star Modelo B) stands in for the 1911 in nearly all the action sequences. This has been a common practice in movies as the 9mm pistol proved to be more reliable when firing blanks.

Misplaced Mockery

No article on the 1911 would be complete without bringing up the 1989 Hong Kong action film The Killer­ — not because of the inclusion of the handgun, but rather because the “.45” is mentioned in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown.

In that latter film, Samuel L. Jackson’s character Ordell offers a quick take on how the .45 was popular because “the Killer” (Chow Yun-fat) used the handgun but it had “a serious jamming problem.” There are a number of problems — which suggest that Ordell doesn’t know what he was talking about.

In The Killer, the character most certainly isn’t using a pair of Colt M1911 .45s but rather the Beretta 92FS. Image: IMFDB

First, the Killer carried a pair of 9mm Berettas in the film, and the only 1911 .45 pistol seen is carried by a Triad! Second, the military, law enforcement and gangsters stuck with the 1911 because it was a damn reliable weapon.

But perhaps the most glaring issue with the mention of the .45 in Jackie Brown is that Ordell’s friend Louis (played by Robert De Niro) and Ordell both use a 1911 in the movie.

Samuel L. Jackson’s character Ordell badmouthed the 1911 .45 but later relied on one. Image: IMFDB

No Finale

More than 100 years since it made its movie debut, and nearly 110 years since it was introduced, the 1911 shows no signs of slowing down. It will likely be ready for its close-up in movies and television shows for another century at least.

The Mil-Spec 1911 from Springfield Armory gives you a chance to own your own version of this classic autopistol.

And if you want to own your own version of this classic pistol, you can courtesy of Springfield Armory’s Mil-Spec .45 ACP. And, it’s priced at just $640 MSRP. It handles like the government-issue M1911 that the American troops carried into battle — and on the big screen — and has some modern upgrades like a stainless steel barrel and three-dot sights.

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Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers military history and hardware for The National Interest and FoxNews. He has collected military small arms and headgear since he was 12 years old. His most recent book A Gallery of Military Headdress was released last year and is available from Amazon.com here.

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