The Thompson Submachine Gun in Pop Culture and Movies
It is one of the most iconic and recognizable firearms in history, and that has a lot to do with the fact that is has been a darling of pop culture and the silver screen since it was introduced a century ago.
While the AR family of firearms gets most of the bad press about guns, 90 years ago, what you could call the original “black gun” had the attention of the media, legislators, and—of course—filmmakers.
It was the Thompson Submachine Gun, which was developed during WWI by General John T. Thompson. The original concept was an automatic rifle that would provide more firepower than the bolt action Springfield Model 1903 rifle in use by the U.S. Army and United States Marine Corps.
Thompson acquired a patent issued to John Bell Blish, for a friction-delayed blowback action, but the .30-06 round was too powerful for Thompson’s design, so he opted to use the smaller and far lower pressure .45 ACP pistol round. A similar design had already proved effective with the German MP-18, the world’s first successful submachine gun, which fired the 9mm parabellum round designed by Georg Luger for his semi-automatic pistol.
Thompson’s full auto “Trench Broom” design soon evolved into a weapon he dubbed the “Annihilator,” but the first prototypes weren’t ready until early 1919—by which time the fighting in France had mercifully ended. In 1921, the gun was marketed commercially as the Thompson Submachine Gun, but it was far from a hit with consumers. Ironically, the gun was even marketed to ranchers, but at $200, it was very expensive at the time and few needed a handheld machine gun.
While the “Tommy Gun” did end up in the hands of gangsters during the prohibition gang wars in New York and Chicago, it was still too expensive for most gangsters! However, a few high profile shootings – notably the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 – led Congress to adopt the National Firearms Act of 1934, which put restrictions on civilian ownership on such firearms and others. This included an extensive background check and a $200 tax transfer, both of which have remained in effect to this day.
When you realize the price of the tax stamp is the same as the retail cost of an exorbitant Tommy Gun at the time, you understand how restrictive it was at the time.
Over the past 100 years, the Thompson has been used by gangsters, lawmen, and, of course, soldiers in the real world, but also in gangster films, war movies and even a few comedies! Along the way it has been seen in the hands of the likes of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Nicholas Cage, Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, and even Michael Jackson. Simply put: the Thompson has credits longer than any of those stars.
Thompsons in the Movies – The Gangster Gun
Just two years after real life gangsters used the Thompson in Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre the weapon made its big screen debut fittingly enough in the 1931 gangster film Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson in his breakthrough role that made him a major film star. It was also among the first full-fledged gangster films and set the tone for similar crime dramas to come.
Throughout the 1930s, the M1921/M1928 Thompson appeared in several gangster films including Scarface, G Men, San Quentin and High Sierra with its distinctive vertical foregrip and drum magazine. After World War II the Thompson became the “go to” example of a gangster’s weapon – even if the $200 price was rather high for most of their real world counterparts.
The Thompson was seen in such serious gangster films as the The Godfather, where several of them were used to great effect to take out Sonny Corleone in one of the film’s most iconic moments at the toll plaza. Director Francis Ford Coppola staged the scene to be reminiscent of the death of bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.
Though in some ways, the choice of Tommy Guns here is interesting and a bit out of date considering the scene takes place in 1951. So does this mean Barsini’s men had been using the same Thompsons since the 1930s? The examples in the movie are the commercial versions from the 1920s/30s, and can’t be explained away as being military surplus. But when making a gangster movie, what else would a director choose?
Other directors clearly thought the gun was iconic enough that it simply looked the part.
The real life “Bonnie and Clyde” mostly used Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs) that were stolen from a National Guard Armory and cut down for their full auto firepower—but in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway used the more familiar Thompsons in their portrayals of the infamous outlaws, though the more recent The Highwaymen used more accurate guns.
It is easy to see why the Thompson continued to be the choice of onscreen gangsters and hoodlums—it’s just so distinctive and mean. It was seen in The Untouchables (1987), Public Enemies (2009), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Road to Perdition (2002), and Gangster Squad (2013) – the latter of which is notable for featuring vocally anti-gun actor Sean Penn wielding a Thompson.
The gun also appeared in campy gangster films and even quirky comedies such as Dick Tracy (1990), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and in the series of low budget gangster films from Roger Corman including Bloody Mama (1970) and Big Bad Mama (1974). One notable low budget film, 1960’s Pretty Boy Floyd, mocked up the later M1 version of the Thompson (see below) to appear to be the M1928A1.
Surprisingly, the Thompson even appeared in the Macaulay Culkin film Home Alone (1990), but no, Kevin McCallister didn’t blast away at the bandits trying to break in while he was in fact “home alone.” Rather Kevin watched a fictional gangster film titled “Angels with Filthy Souls” whereby the onscreen Johnny blasts away at another character with one, and Kevin uses the dialog along with some firecrackers in a metal pot to give one of the robbers a good scare.
There is also one almost “forgotten” gangster film that has a Thompson-like gun that is crucial to the plot. This is the 1976 musical gangster comedy Bugsy Malone, which featured a cast of child actors including Jodie Foster and Scott Baio, and features a rapid-fire whipped cream-shooting “splurge gun” that closely resembles the M1928 Thompson.
While characters don’t technically get killed, they get “finished” by the whipped cream guns, in true gangster movie fashion.
The Thompson in War Movies
When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the U.S. Army and USMC were using the M1928A1 version of the Thompson, but it was replaced in April 1942 with the M1/M1A1 versions, which featured a simplified rear sight and employed a straight blowback to reduce the rate of fire.
It also featured a barrel without cooling fins, and had the charging handle on the side of the receiver. More than 1.5 million M1/M1A1 models were produced.
However many of the early WWII films, including Bataan (1943), Back to Bataan (1945) and Guadalcanal Diary (1943) all featured the M1928/M1928A1 versions – the reason is simple however, the military couldn’t afford to supply Hollywood with guns that they needed for actual combat.
The first actual “war” film to feature a Thompson was interestingly 1941’s Sundown, which is set in British East Africa just after the outbreak of World War II. More of a spy drama than action film, Sundown was a rather subtle introduction for the Thompson as a weapon of war.
What is notable is that some of these films had the M1928A1 Thompsons stand in for enemy guns. This was the case in Guadalcanal Diary, where Japanese Imperial Army soldiers are armed with Thompson, and in other cases Thompsons were mocked up to resemble enemy guns.
The most notable example of the Thompson being modified to resemble another gun was the 1943 Fritz Lang film Hangmen Also Die!, which chronicled the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
In this one the Thompsons were mocked up to resemble the German MP-40. (As a sidenote it is worth noting that Lang’s work, notably his silent sci-fi epic Metropolis, had impressed Nazi leaders and he was even asked to make official German propaganda films. Instead Lang left for Paris, then immigrated to the United States, where he made the first film to chronicle Operation Anthropoid about the assassination of Heydrich).
Most of the films made since World War II have included the appropriate model of the Thompson. As an example, the M1921 Thompson was appropriate in the 1996 film Michael Collins, which chronicled the Irish Civil War following the First World War; while Nicholas Cage was carrying the M1928A1 version at the beginning of the film Windtalkers (2002) before changing to the M1A1 version later in the film (though there are a lot of things wrong with this John Woo war movie).
The M1/M1A1 version has been the “go to” gun in numerous WWII films – so much that some viewers might have expected that most soldiers carried Thompsons and not the M1 Garand!
In reality it was mostly issued to scouts, non-commissioned officers, and patrol leaders. While some commissioned officers, and even tank crewmen, did carry the gun, it wasn’t issued in the numbers that films such as Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and the more recent Hacksaw Ridge (2016) might suggest!
Still, it is nice to see that the appropriate models were used in such films as The Longest Day (1962), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Fury (2014), and many others.
The Thompson for Spies and Sci-Fi
The Thompson has truly crossed genres like almost no other small arm. It has been seen in numerous spy films, modern gangster films such as 1971’s Shaft, and even has made the jump to science fiction. It appeared in not only the original Star Trek TV series in the episode “Piece of the Action,” but was used in the film Star Trek: First Contact (1996)—albeit in the latter example it is a hologram that can somehow still kill the Borg!
However, one place where the Thompson might have been unexpected was fight the xenomorphs in the 1986 film Aliens. In this example it is even more modified than it was in Hangmen Also Die! becoming the M41A pulse rifle, which was described as having a capacity of 99 rounds of 10mm caseless armor-piercing ammunition along with a pump-action 30mm grenade launcher mounted underneath the barrel.
The weapon was constructed from an M1A1 Thompson fitted with a cut-down Remington 870 shotgun under the barrel as a grenade launcher and the foregrip of a Franchi SPAS-12 as a cover. Following the end of the film’s production all but one of the weapons were broken down, and the sole surviving example used in the making of Alien³. For more about the guns of the Alien movies, go here.
When General Thompson designed the weapon to be the ultimate trench sweeper it is doubtful he could have expected this weapon to become so iconic – to be as famous as the movie stars who held it, to boldly go to fight enemies and aliens alike. This is why the Thompson submachine gun has become a star in its own right.