Patient, methodical, silent, ruthless and calculating – these are the attributes of the silent assassins who lurk in the distance with their high powered rifles waiting for the exact right moment to pick off their prey. Mark Fraser takes a look at some of cinema’s most pedantic killers.
12. Two-Minute Warning (Larry Peerce, 1976)
A lone rifleman (Warren Miller) – who remains completely anonymous throughout the film (except at the very end, when he is identified as an out-of-state transient) – goes to a Super Bowl game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to assassinate the US President. His ambitious plan, however, is cleverly foiled by a clear-thinking police captain (Charlton Heston) and a serious SWAT sergeant (John Cassavetes). As a result the wannabe hitman inexplicably goes nuts and starts shooting spectators at random, causing mass stadium panic in the process. While extra footage was added to the movie’s TV version – in which the gunman’s motives are attached to a nearby art gallery robbery – it didn’t provide any further insight into his character.
11. Sniper (Luis Llosa, 1993)
The titular cold blooded character (Tom Berenger) is as efficiently ruthless as they come, but his understudy (Billy Zane) can’t figure out why. As it turns out the muddle-headed explanation is not worth the wait. Conveniently pointless, but adequate enough to generate a franchise (Sniper 2, Sniper 3, Sniper: Reloaded, and Sniper: Legacy).
10. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
Two US bomb disposal experts (Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie), operating in Iraq sometime after the 2003 US-led invasion of the Middle East country, prevent a group of western mercenaries and contractors from all being killed by some Iraqis when they set up a long distance rifle and patiently pick off members of a nearby enemy contingent. A strangely quiet moment in a film where most of the conflict involves deadly ordinance explosions.
9. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
German soldier and marksman extraordinaire Private First Class Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) plays himself in the Nazi propaganda film Stolz der Nation (Nation’s Pride) after having killed 250 soldiers in a real World War II battle. Like Daniel Jackson in Saving Private Ryan (see below), the fictionalised Zoller – in a black and white segment directed by torture porn pioneer (and fellow Inglourious Basterds cast member) Eli Roth – successfully picks off enemy soldiers from a tower. Although he remains undefeated on celluloid, he’s not so lucky off screen when he is killed by cinema manager Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) after accosting her in the projection booth at the movie’s gala premiere.
8. JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
Director Oliver Stone purports that the best known sniper in American history – Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) – may not have shot either President John F Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally or police officer JD Tippet in Dallas back on November 22, 1963, instead suggesting the riflemen who fired upon the US Commander-in-Chief were located elsewhere around Dealey Plaza. While the famous 8mm footage shot by Abraham Zapruder makes it clear that JFK was shot at least once from the front, Stone’s insistence that Oswald really was just a patsy is questionable. (This was also the position of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, on whose book about the murder – and subsequent court case – this film is mostly based.) In his 1988 novel Libra, for instance, American author Don DeLillo makes a convincing argument whereby the enigmatic gunman thinks he is the only assassin, only to realise he’s been set up after his third shot from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository completely misses the Kennedy motorcade while “a white burst in the middle of the frame” causes two “pink-white jets of tissue” to come “blazing off the President’s head”.
7. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)
While a US marine patrol scouts around the ruins of Hue during the Vietnam War, it gets pinned down by a teenage Vietcong sniper (Ngoc Le), who successfully picks off a few of the soldiers before they manage to outmanoeuvre her. In the end it’s up to a member of the press corps accompanying the group (Matthew Modine) to put the critically injured girl out of her misery. Although this work came out quite late in the cycle of 1970s/80s Hollywood Vietnam War movies, its use of the sniper-as-metaphor for the desperation of battle was an effective addition to the genre.
6. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)
Private Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper), a left-handed sniper with a good eye, manages to take out a few Germans attached to the 2nd SS Panzer Division as he helps a small group of Americans led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) defend a bridge in the rubble-strewn French town of Ramelle from the advancing Nazis. His mission is cut short, however, when he is blown to bits by an enemy tank shell while perched in his belfry vantage point. Jackson’s talent with the rifle is highlighted earlier in the movie when he efficiently brings down a German sniper in the ruins of Neuville.
5. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014)
Bradley Cooper plays the late US soldier Chris Kyle who (according to Wikipedia) clocked up 255 kills during four tours of Iraq. As with Enemy at the Gate (see below), a cat-and-mouse game emerges between opposing marksmen as Kyle takes on the Iraqi sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) who – in real life – was known as Juba. Being a Clint Eastwood war movie, the audience knows whose side it should be on – even though the heroes are part of an invading army which really should never have been in the country in the first place.
4. Enemy At The Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001)
When rookie Red Army soldier (and eventual historical figure) Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law) cleverly picks off a group of resting German officers just after he arrives at the Nazi siege of Stalingrad during 1942, the Soviet brass stops treating him like cannon fodder and makes him a national hero – mostly for propaganda purposes. They also let him go out and do his thing, which is assassinate Germans from a distance. Like Kyle in American Sniper, he meets his match when Major Erwin Konig (Ed Harris), who is also a handy shot, turns up to avenge his son’s death. This film is partly based on the exploits of Zaitsev* (1915-1991), whose tally of hits in the battle depends on what history books one reads. According to British historian Antony Beevor in his 1998 opus Stalingrad, for instance, the marksman killed 149 of the enemy during the siege, while in Heroes of the Soviet Union and Russia (author unknown) the number is 225 – including 11 snipers. (*The spelling of his name also varies from source to source.)
3. Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)
After the seemingly upright gun enthusiast Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) snaps, he kills his wife (Tanya Morgan), his mother (Mary Jackson) and a grocery delivery boy (Warren White) at home before buying a healthy bunch of ammunition and going on a shooting spree. His first targets are some motor vehicle drivers travelling along a local freeway (who he knocks off after enjoying a packed lunch), while his second are the patrons at a drive-in where he is hiding from the law. While this movie – which is director Peter Bogdanovich’s first film – could be construed as a reaction to Charles Whitman’s murderous lark at the University of Texas in 1966 (during which 46 people were killed and injured in a hail of bullets), its anti-gun message remains just as poignant today in the wake of Stephen Paddock’s efforts in Las Vegas last October, when he opened fire on a country music crowd from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino, claiming 58 fatalities and wounding 851 others in circumstances that are still kind of unclear.
2. Jarhead (Sam Mendes, 2005)
US marine Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Corporal Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) are teamed up as shooter and spotter during the 1990 Gulf War. The only problem is they never get to fire a shot in battle – even when they are finally given a mission. Instead, they are forced to endure every other crappy aspect of the military before serving out their time and re-entering civilian obscurity. If anything, these guys are the true Sad Sacks of cinema’s snipers.
1. The Day Of The Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973)
As with Two-Minute Warning, a lone assassin (Edward Fox) sets his sights on a country’s president – only this time it is France’s Charles de Gaulle (Adrien Cayla-Legrand). Unlike the 12th entry on this list, this is a full blown (albeit somewhat detached) character study of a ruthlessly methodical – and enigmatic – contract killer who has been hired by terrorists to carry out the murderous assignment. It’s an amazing performance by Fox, and one which should have led him to much better films later in his career.
Written and compiled by Mark Fraser
Over to you: what are your fave appearances of a sniper in film?
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