Misfire

In 1973, a fiction novel by Douglas Fairbairn was published under the title Shoot. In late 1975, a feature film based on the novel, starring Cliff Robertson, Ernest Borgnine, and Henry Silva was shot in Canada and released in the United States by AVCO-Embassy Pictures in the summer of 1976.

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The plot of the novel and its subsequent film adaptation involved a clash between two groups of WWII combat veterans, which occurs through a deadly combination of chance and poor judgment, during their respective annual hunting trips in a remote woodland river basin.

Here’s the full-length movie, available so far only on a 1986 VHS release:

IF YOU SEEK TO AVOID SPOILERS ABOUT THE FILM AND NOVEL, READ NO FURTHER!

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Neither group knows the other, but a brief exchange of gunfire between them results in a fatality.

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After the fatality’s reported to law enforcement as a hunting accident and the hostile exchange of gunfire goes unreported, the primary group of hunters (led by a successful department store owner, Rex) becomes convinced the rival hunters are planning revenge.

Anticipating an ambush by the other group during their upcoming hunting trip in the same stretch of woods, Rex convinces his fellow combat vets/hunters that it’s in their interest to bring as much armed assistance with them as possible in order to survive. Each man is tasked with recruiting ‘volunteers’ for the impending skirmish, with fully-automatic weapons (i.e. machine guns) provided by fellow WWII vet/hunter Lou, who’s also Rex’s lifelong friend.

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Unlike the other members of Rex’s hunting party, Lou’s terrified of participating in this private war, becoming the sole voice of reason among Rex’s six-man group of “gun nuts”. The other guys can’t wait to go to war again. Lou initially balks, but changes his mind and shows up to go into battle with his friends on the day of the second hunting trip.

Returning to the river basin, i.e. the scene of the crime, Rex and his group, along with several dozen armed ‘volunteers’, are suddenly ambushed by the rival group, which has reinforced its own strength with machine-gun-toting ‘volunteers’. When the firefight’s over, all of Rex’s friends and ‘volunteers’ are dead.

The story ends very quickly after the ambush, with a wounded, blinded Rex lamenting on his group’s annihilation, specifically its failure to ambush the other group. “If only we’d gotten there first, we could’ve cut them to pieces”, he says from his hospital bed.

The End

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Having missed any promotion for the film during its theatrical release in 1976, I first became familiar with Shoot in 1988, when the picture was broadcast as an afternoon movie on the USA Network. Reading the brief plot description in the TV Guide, I expected a Peckinpah-esque Action flick. A dramatically satisfying shoot-’em-up. A combination of The Wild Bunch and Deliverance. A precursor to Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, perhaps.

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The first fifteen or twenty minutes were adequate, as the situation, the characters, and the conflict were set up, but I immediately keyed in on Cliff Robertson’s Rex as being a bit of an asshole. Maybe his character becomes more sympathetic as the story progresses, I thought.

Nope. In fact, he becomes even more unlikable. Maybe it’s Robertson’s acting choices, as he seems to merely drift from one shade of monotone to the next.

After the initial shoot-out, Rex and his group return to civilization and begin endlessly discussing what happened, why it happened, what might happen next, and what they would have to do to make sure it didn’t happen, I soon realized that all these guys, save for Lou (Ernest Borgnine), were merely variations of the same ignorant, macho, bloodthirsty, gun-crazed asshole, each character ridiculously over-eager for combat.

Hesitant, pleading, peace-loving Lou, on the other hand, came across as the only reasonable– dare I say realistic– member of the group, expressing a cautious perspective on gratuitous armed warfare, which one would expect from your average middle-aged WWII combat vet. He’s the only thoughtful character in the entire film. A lot of that has to do with Borgnine’s performance, which is typically solid.

Though the other guys in Rex’s group almost seem gleeful in their anticipation of jumping into another pointless, bloody gun battle with strange hunters, they didn’t resemble any combat veterans I’ve ever met, certainly not like the few whom I’d grown up around. These characters seemed more like delusional, teenage wannabes who’d only seen combat in the movies and on television.

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The rationale for returning to the woods with a small army, to “get them before they get us”, just wasn’t plausible. Not for these kinds of characters, anyway. Having grown up around a few middle-aged WWII veterans, I can’t recall any of them waxing nostalgic for the ‘good ol’ days’ of combat. Quite the opposite– these guys didn’t talk about it at all.

The idea that anybody could, on a moment’s notice, recruit a couple dozen similar-minded, combat-experienced, reckless men willing to go to war with total strangers they personally have no beef with, just for the sake of being able to shoot at other armed men, consequences be damned…

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…well, the words ‘staggeringly implausible’ keep springing to mind. 

If one were to solicit that many law-abiding gun owners or combat veterans with the chance to pick up machine guns and ambush other civilians– basically, to commit mass murder or die trying– at least one, if not many, of those guys…because such a plot would be FUCKING INSANE…are going to tip off the authorities. Which never happens in this movie.

After revisiting the 1976 movie around fifteen years ago, I became intrigued after realizing it had been based on a novel. After purchasing the paperback for a cheap used price on Amazon, I read through it and came to the realization:

Everything about this book’s even sloppier than the movie.

The author’s characters all spoke with the same voice. They were all unlikable, unsympathetic and one-dimensional, even the book’s few female characters. Without the gravitas of Ernest Borgnine’s screen performance, the novel’s character of Lou just came across as cowardly and weak.

The married Rex, whose adultery in the film is only hinted at, is depicted in the novel as maintaining a mistress, whom he sexually assaults with a handgun at their ‘sugar pad’ when she tells him something he doesn’t like. Robertson’s interpretation of the character may have made him unlikeable, but the novel’s Rex is truly a despicable character, sadistic and sociopathic.

The novel also offered no more plausible rationale for either the initial shooting incident, nor for the subsequent ‘war’ engaged in by both sides. As in the movie, both groups of hunters are white, middle-aged, WWII and Korean War combat vets.

As in the movie, both groups manage to get their hands on dozens of machine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition, and recruit a few dozen like-minded combat veterans, including many younger Vietnam vets, to participate in the war. Not because any money’s changing hands, at least not among Rex’s side of the fight, but…just because.

The movie never showed any of these other ‘volunteers’ being recruited. In the movie, Rex is the company commander of his local National Guard unit, so he merely utilizes his weekend warriors and the unit’s armory for the big shootout…

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…which either means Rex hasn’t told them of the danger they may be marching into, which means he doesn’t care if any of them get blown away, or we’re supposed to believe every single Guardsmen has agreed to go along with the insanity of Rex’s personal vendetta, plus keep quiet about it, before the ‘mission’ as well as afterwards, regardless of any casualties that might occur.

I guess because they’re soldiers and we all know how soldiers love going to war. Nothing simplistic or uninformed about that particular stereotype, is there?

The fact that Rex would trust every guy in his command to keep their mouths shut, no matter what, makes him look carelessly inept and extremely naive when his character had earlier been presented as shrewd, calculating and paranoid. 

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In the novel, Rex and his buddies discuss a few names of some local guys they know who’d be up for a good firefight. Next thing we know, Rex and his private army are hiking through the woods, fully armed. They even think to bring along a Vietnam vet who’s a combat-disabled demolition expert (this character wasn’t carried over to the movie).

Another character from the book, but omitted from the film adaptation, is a decorated African-American Vietnam vet, Ogilvie, who’s an expert at guerilla warfare and, of course, a PTSD-afflicted social outcast.

After the fatal ambush of Rex’s buddies and volunteers, Rex and Ogilvie spend the rest of the day engaging in hit-and-run attacks on their pursuers. A hand grenade finally takes out both men, killing Ogilvie and maiming Rex, who somehow manages to survive the end of the novel.

Though this ‘hit-and-run’ segment is only briefly mentioned in the last few pages of the novel, it hinted at a slightly more satisfying conclusion than the film adaptation’s one-minute ambush/slaughter finale provided.

Since the film was a low-budget tax-shelter production shot in Canada, I can only assume the production either didn’t have the budget for an extended battle scene…

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…or, worse, the filmmakers decided that closing the movie with a brief, one-sided slaughter would make a more effective statement about the futility of war and, perhaps, the LUNACY of gun-loving, militaristic, middle-aged, combat veterans who love hunting just because they love shooting and killing SO MUCH that they’ll start a firefight with total strangers over ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, then, instead of walking away and counting their blessings, escalate that random encounter into an organized, calculated war with machine guns and hand grenades.

Although I felt the novel was a piece of garbage…thin on characterization, with zero dramatic payoff, written from a biased ideological perspective hostile to American gun owners, hunters and the military…the characters, the setting, the conflict, and that final skirmish, I felt, were loaded with possibility.

If I could add my own touch to the basic source material from the novel, I thought, maybe I could turn it into a spec screenplay that…

1) …made at least a few of the principal characters more sympathetic.

2) …made the motivations for continuing “the war” more plausible, thus making the characters’ behavior more believable.

3) …made the participation of the ‘volunteers’ more grounded in something resembling reality.

4) …expanded on the final shootout that had been given such short shrift in both the Fairbairn novel and its 1976 film adaptation.

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Homemade Fake Criterion from 2017.

Since the novel was published in 1973, I made that the distinct setting of my spec script. I had been reading the IMDb Message Board for Shoot and had come across some interesting fan speculation regarding the origin of the novel.

According to a few posters at IMDb, the name Douglas Fairbairn was really just a pseudonym for legendary CIA honcho James J. Angleton. What Angleton had actually written about, according to the poster, was a successful attempt by the CIA in preventing Soviet double agents, accompanied by Russian Spetsznaz commandos, from crossing the border into the United States from Canada.

The Russians’ alleged purpose was to conduct a reconnaissance of NORAD’s nuclear missile sites in the Dakotas for possible future infiltration and neutralization. In the event of Cold War escalation, the Soviets could dispatch these double agents and commandos to overtake and commandeer these sites to remove the U.S. nuclear option.

According to the anonymous IMDb poster, the CIA, upon learning of Angleton’s sneaky attempt at a feel-good PR effort, forced the novel’s publisher to muddy the details of the book and remove all references to the CIA, the Soviets and their Cold War machinations. 

Pondering this crackpot fan theory, I wondered, if such a thing were to be believed, then the otherwise despicable characters of Rex and his unlikable hunting buddies had to be, in all likelihood, the Soviet double agents ambushed by the CIA’s field operators. Their ‘volunteer’ force, under this speculative scenario, would likely be stand-ins for the Spetsznaz commandos.

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While telling the story from the perspective of the Soviet bad guys– without actually identifying them– might help explain the author’s gratingly negative principal characters, it’s a bizarre way to attempt to win over your readers.

These characters are irritating, shallow belligerents. They want to wage a suicidal private war with like-minded assholes in the middle of nowhere? Why should I care? Especially when their motivations and behavior are so patently ridiculous and implausible. 

If, in the immediate aftermath of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, you, as an author, were trying to tell a positive story about a successful American effort in the Cold War, even if you weren’t able to identify the CIA, why not tell the story from the point of view of the winning side?

I wasn’t convinced that the novel was written under a pseudonym by James Angleton in order to toot the CIA’s horn during the Cold War, nor that the CIA had found about the book and quashed its classified details before the ‘uncensored’ novel was published.

(If anyone reading this can offer proof otherwise, I’d love to see it.)

That said, I found the IMDb poster’s conspiracy theory compelling enough to use as a springboard for my spec script adaptation. In my version, the members of the opposite hunting party are the Soviet double agents, but this information isn’t discovered until after the final shootout/hit-and-run skirmish begins.

After re-reading the novel and viewing the film yet again, I decided that, while it would always be a hopelessly flawed piece of work, the 1976 film had clearly improved upon the novel’s painful dialogue. The endless conversations between Rex and his friends in the novel were poorly written, repetitive and largely banal. At least the screenwriter, Dick Berg, managed to condense the novel’s rambling, atrocious chit-chat.

While my spec script retained the novel’s premise, principal characters and structure, I attempted to make the characters a bit more nuanced, and certainly less obnoxious, than either the novel or the original film had done.

I gave Rex a fractured relationship with his only child, a rebellious college dropout who’d rejected his conservative, successful businessman father and set upon a dead-end path of drug abuse, petty crime, and generally anti-social behavior.

I had this as a topic of private conversation between Rex and Lou, who were also revealed to have grown up together from early childhood. I wanted it to be clear that these two characters were closer to each other than they were with any of the other hunting buddies.

My script 86’d Rex’s extramarital transgressions, as well as removing the scene with Bob’s younger, flirtatious wife, which added nothing to the plot apart from making Rex look like a bigger asshole. I also wrote some scenes to highlight that one of the hunting buddies, Pete, is a divorced alcoholic unable to hold down a job and reliant on Rex for financial support.

In my script, Pete’s also the most quietly paranoid of the group, regarding whether or not the rival group of hunters have been stalking them beyond that first fatal shootout in the woods.

Haunted by the initial encounter and becoming unglued due to sleep deprivation and his reliance on the bottle, he’s convinced himself that if he returns to the woods and nothing happens, he’ll be able to quit looking over his shoulder and return to his own version of normalcy.

I also gave Lou some lines illustrating my own screenwriter’s doubts about the likelihood of recruiting substantial ‘volunteers’ for the firefight. During this roundtable discussion between Rex and his hunting buddies, Rex decides to offer each volunteer $500 a day (in 1973 dollars).

In my adaptation, Rex never utilizes his company of National Guardsmen, aside from a few drivers who haul the other volunteers and supplies out to the river basin in the Guard unit’s heavy trucks.

The roundtable discussion comes to a head when Lou breaks his cooperative cover and tries one last time to persuade his friends to back down from their war plans.

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In the novel, Rex and the other guys have doubts about the legitimacy of Lou’s combat medals earned in WWII, but they all agree not to talk about it. During an earlier exchange in my adaptation, Rex brings it up during private debate with Lou, insinuating that Lou’s guilty of stealing an unknown soldier’s valor. Really nasty stuff between lifelong friends.

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I felt this argument/insult barrage made for good drama and added to the tension between Lou and Rex, but I also realized that, by using this underhanded approach to guilt Lou into participating, Rex would be firmly positioned as the script’s principal villain…

…so I decided to make Lou the character who survives the final ambush and fights alongside Ogilvie during the script’s final 25 to 30 pages (the finished draft ran just under 120 pages). Rex didn’t survive my adaptation.

I also had Rex identified as the owner of much of the woodlands in the river basin, in order to have him advise the local Sheriff that he’d be hosting an invitation-only shooting exhibition with Lou’s arsenal of federally-licensed machine guns on the property that weekend, in case any passerby or neighboring residents reported hearing automatic gunfire in the area.

As far as revealing the opposing group of gunmen as Soviets, I tried to keep it a little ambiguous, having Lou and Ogilvie, during a break in their hit-and-run counterattack, overhear their pursuers communicating to one another in Russian, which Ogilvie identifies. He and Lou then trade speculation about the Russian-speaking gunmens’ identity and purpose.

The setting’s nearby NORAD missile sites were mentioned earlier in the script through some dialogue I’d given Rex. As I had written it, the Spetsznaz/Soviet double agent connection to the nuke sites was only hinted at, never fully confirmed.

Since I’d set the spec script in the months following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from combat in Vietnam, I had both of the younger veterans, Ogilvie and the demolition expert, Ronnie Prince, mention the war in a few conversations with Rex and Lou, as well as in a single conversation they had with each other. I enjoyed writing this material, which was my own, nothing found in the novel.

During revisions, however, I realized a lot of my topical Vietnam War dialogue was not only gratuitous, but on-the-nose political, bordering on preachy. So I removed it.

Much of the novel’s dialogue, I condensed, then rewrote, making an effort to punch it up, yet not to make it repetitive in the way the novel had been. A smart audience only needs to hear a piece of information once; twice if emphasis is appropriate.

At the end of my fifth revision, about to embark on a sixth, I had a sudden realization that, regardless of the alterations and additions I’d made to the source material…I still couldn’t buy the story’s basic premise:

That so many combat veterans, young and old, would willingly join up and engage in armed combat with like-minded adversaries…for the thinnest of reasons…and that they could keep this private war a secret and behave so recklessly, as if there’d be no consequences, physical or legal, when the war kicked off. 

Through these different revisions, I’d been twisting my imagination and my reasoning into a veritable pretzel in order to rationalize a premise which was undeniably, unequivocally absurd. In order to make the source novel’s narrative believable, its plot and characters would have to undergo some radical revisions.

Perhaps I could merely start with its characters and the initial shootout, then scale back the rest of the story, changing characters’ behavior and motivations along the way, arriving, somehow, at a similar conclusion– a second shootout with the other group– without resorting to the absurdity of having both sides build up private armies equipped with massive amounts of military-grade weapons and explosives.

Or maybe the novel was always intended to interpreted as broad comedy. Maybe the Canadian tax-shelter production got the source material all wrong.

It’s over 12 years since I’ve given this spec project any thought. I’ve yet to resume work on my sixth revision. 

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Maybe someday, I’ll take another crack at it, when I’m up for the challenge of once again rationalizing the irrational.

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