“There’s one problem to be solved,” said the mercenary colonel portrayed by Richard Burton as he pointed at the map of the army base and looked at his compatriots.
“The sentries at the barracks . . . Here, here and here. A hundred yards of clear killing ground.”
Richard Harris chimed in, “And we can’t afford to make one sound. They have to be killed instantly and silently.”
The South African soldier played by Hardy Kruger sat up, “And there’s no cover for 100 yards? I’d use a crossbow.”
Across the table, Roger Moore laughed, “Who do you think you are, William Tell?”
But the plan worked, thanks to a crossbow.
It was that scene from 1978’s The Wild Geese that changed it all for me. In the African raid sequence, seeing Hardy Kruger run out, bolt in his teeth, drawing that Barnett Wildcat Crossbow against his chest and taking out the last sentry as he went for his FAL, made it clear: This was not William Tell’s weapon.
Of course I’d seen crossbows in movies before, in medieval epics from the original Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood back in 1938 to Julia Ormond taking out Prince Malagant’s evil soldiers in the 1995 King Arthur tale First Knight. In the video-game-inspired Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Jake Gylanhall faces several sizes of crossbow, from light to massive.
Heck, my earliest recollection from any movie was the giant crossbow used to kill the dragon at the end of Ray Harryhausen’s classic Seventh Voyage of Sinbad back in the ’50s.
But it was the use of the scoped crossbow to take out three sentries in the mercenaries’ The Wild Geese rescue mission that made an indelible impression: The crossbow can be a star in movie combat.
Here are some notable guest appearances by our favorite weapon in Hollywood.
WEAPON OF THE STARS
Soon after that explosive introduction in The Wild Geese, I began to notice crossbows popping up more and more in modern Hollywood action films. Director Sam Peckinpah had given us one of the greatest Westerns with The Wild Bunch. In his last film, 1983’s The Osterman Weekend, Peckinpah gave us hero Rutger “Blade Runner” Hauer popping out of his pool to down a machine-gun-toting CIA assassin with a pistol crossbow.
In the 1981 Mad Max sequel, The Road Warrior, we are presented with a post-apocalyptic world where centerfire ammunition is as rare as hen’s teeth. The survivors in this Australian desert hellhole have reverted to “primitive” weapons like blade-edged boomerangs and bows. When Mel Gibson’s Max approaches an apparently abandoned Autogyro, its owner-pilot jumps up out of the sand wielding a crude crossbow. Meanwhile, the film’s big baddie, the Mohawk-topped psycho called Wez, played by Vernon “Commando” Wells, has a crossbow mounted on his wrist, and when he shoots a wild rabbit on the run, we know he should not be screwed with.
Cinematic crossbows don’t always shoot regular bolts — sometimes they shoot energy bolts! Star Wars fans will remember that Han Solo’s hirsute co-pilot Chewbacca carried a laser firing crossbow in the original 1977 film Episode 4: A New Hope. While highly modified by studio prop masters, the screen-used crossbow fit with Chewie’s “primitive” appearance and was probably a Horton Safari, Magnum or Monarch Supreme. It was enhanced with discs, dials and optics and a Pro-point sight. Did you notice that Chewbacca’s crossbow proved far more accurate from the hip than the blasters of the Imperial storm troopers?
After the mediocre reaction of critics to the flashy-trashy Moonraker, the James Bond producers decided to go “old school” on the 1981 actioner For Your Eyes Only. It was a real Cold War epic with Roger Moore’s Bond racing the Russians to a nuclear-sub-controlling ATAC code device trapped in a wreck at the bottom of the Ionian Sea. And in the process, he teamed up with the beautiful former Chanel fragrance spokesmodel Carole Bouquet. While Carole herself was a feast for the eyes, her Barnett Commando crossbow, featured on the movie’s poster, is just as beautiful taking out the Cuban hitman who killed her parents in mid-dive into his swimming pool.
Bond, who relieves her of the Commando, later sees her buying a Barnett Wildcat in a store in Cortina, Italy. At least she was brand-loyal!
Bouquet uses her second crossbow to silently take out a guard about to cut Bond’s rope in the film’s climactic raid on the bad guy’s fortress in the St. Cyril monastery in Greece. Thank God!
When they made a big-screen adaptation of my childhood favorite spy comedy series, Get Smart, Steve Carell’s Maxwell Smart gets promoted from the geek squad to full-time field operative and receives a gift from his buddies in weapons design: a Swiss Army knife that’s actually a mini crossbow and flame thrower. In one of the film’s most painful sequences, Carell’s Smart has a hell of a time trying to access a secret escape door in an airplane bathroom, basically skewering himself six ways from Sunday as the mini bolts ricochet off the sheet metal walls and pierce just about every exposed area on his body. Ouch.
And speaking of action and comedy, one of my favorite recent films is the retired, extremely dangerous Bruce Willis in Red. In this very fun 2010 thriller based on the DC Comics graphic novel, Willis’ buddy, the paranoid ex-CIA agent played by John Malkovich, patrols his bayou property with a PSE TAC 15 Crossbow, PSE’s extremely serious compound limb upper attached to an AR rifle lower.
While these films, and real life experience, prove that crossbows are clearly viable weapons against human combatants, Hollywood filmmakers also discovered that they also made just about the coolest weapon for slaying vampires!
John Carpenter’s Vampires of 1998 had James Woods carrying a massive crossbow as he led Daniel Baldwin and a band of Nosferatu hunters. In 2009, Daybreakers found a world where almost everyone is a vampire, and crossbow-toting Ethan Hawke fights to save what’s left of humankind. And 2005 brought us the sequel Underworld: Evolution, where Kate Beckinsale is also a vampire, and she fights werewolves with her crossbow and her skintight leather outfit.
“Let’s move to the crossbow,” said the instructor on TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from 1997 to 2003. Nary an episode of her seven seasons went by without Sarah Michelle Gellar or one of the other “Scooby Gang” members arming themselves with a crossbow to take on the full spectrum of demons from simple vamps to giant worms.
In the 2011 remake of the ’80s classic Fright Night, David “Doctor Who” Tennant and young Anton Yelchin (Chekov in the new Star Trek movies) take on Colin Ferrell and his blood-sucking pals with stake-firing crossbows and holy water. Unfortunately, the vampire played by Ferrell isn’t impressed. “What were you thinking, Charley? That you were just going to walk in here with your little crossbow and put to bed 400 years of survival? No, Charley. Not likely.”
And speaking of stake-firing crossbows, the award for that has to go to 2004’s Van Helsing. I’m not sure in what year this film is supposed to take place, but I’m pretty sure the apparently bottomless drum magazine, silver-bolt-firing automatic crossbow carried by Hugh “Wolverine” Jackman wasn’t in service at the time.
NO MERCY FOR ZOMBIES
And I’m also pretty sure you’re watching The Walking Dead on AMC — while the survivors of the zombie apocalypse are pretty gunned up as they make their way through undead overrun Atlanta, backwoodsman Daryl Dixon (played by Norman Reedus) takes out the “walkers” with his Horton Scout HD 125. And it’s not only the cool factor in Dixon’s choice of weapon — the sound of a gunshot is sure to bring on a wave of flesh-eating ghouls. A crossbow bolt to a zombie head hardly makes a sound.
TV has also recently brought us bow-firing superheroes. Before Smallville’s Clark Kent finally donned the Superman outfit in the last episode of his pre-Superman series on the CW Channel, he teamed up with Oliver Queen, a.k.a. the Green Arrow. GA, portrayed by Justin Hartley, uses a pistol crossbow to take out the bad guys of Metropolis.
MIDDLE EARTH MAYHEM
Peter Jackson brought the Lord of the Rings Trilogy to life at the start of the 2000s. The Middle Earth battles hit their high point in The Two Towers as an army of Uruk-Hai and Orcs assaulted the humans of Rohan in their safe haven of Helm’s Deep. It’s human and elf long bows versus Orc crossbows, and literally thousands of movie-magic-generated arrows blacken the skies over Middle Earth in that battle. Expect more crossbow action in next year’s two-part LOTR prequel The Hobbit.
While we’re busy killing movie monsters with a crossbow, we can’t forget Milla Jojovich’s Alice in the movie adaptations of the video game Resident Evil. In Resident Evil: Extinction, Alice has to lead a group of survivors to a vacant Las Vegas. While she prefers a pair of ParaOrdinance Nite Tac .45s, she also wielded a highly modified C-More sighted Impact crossbow sporting a spirit level.
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From ancient battles to futuristic skirmishes, the crossbow often will be on the screen before the end credits crawl. Now I am jazzed to throw in my DVD of The Wild Geese, pop open a diet A&W root beer and get online to order an old school crossbow. Or maybe a new carbon fiber unit. Or maybe a PSE upper for my LMT MRP. . . .