When I told the founder of our movie blog that I was reviewing Carbine Williams for today’s post, I was not shocked by his reply: “What is Carbine Williams? Never heard of it.” I am sure many reading this have never heard of it either.
In comics there’s an era called “The Silver Age”. People can tell you comic number, story plot, writers, and artists of many of them, especially when it’s a first appearance of a superhero.
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In comparison, “The Silver Age” of movies is often overlooked; except for those few cult classics that continue to have followings.
Carbine Williams is one of these “Silver Age” films that few know about that are not in their 70’s.
In 1950… Yes 5 0… the actor Jimmy Stewart heard the rumor that a biographical movie was being done about the inventor of the automatic rifle, M-1 Carbine. This rifle was carried by soldiers into WWII.
Inventing the short stroke piston and floating chamber, this inventor helped make smaller and lighter rifles, which allowed our soldiers to carry more essentials on them in battle and gave them a smaller rifle that was easier to maneuver with on the battle field.
The story behind David Marshall Williams is an intriguing one. The fact that Jimmy Stewart sought out this role, even though he was older than the character would have been in his life at this time, is an indicator that this actor was passionate about the project. The passion Stewart possessed about the project is transferred onto the silver screen.
First: it was released in 1952. If you know old movies, you know that acting is different back then than it is today. Older movies are like plays: there’s a lot of over acting and stiffness in the actors. So if you choose to watch this movie, which I’m hoping you do, be prepared that not a single person in this movie would win an acting award by today’s standards.
Second: In 1952 special effects were not what they are today. There’s a gun fight: no blood is seen, there isn’t a dead body seen, and there aren’t computer generated fire sprays coming out of the end of the guns. It’s simply bang bang…pop pop.
Now, Biographies weren’t done often in Hollywood at this time. So when Stewart suggested and insisted that the real Marshall Williams consult on the film, it was a pretty much unprecedented demand back then.
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Marsh Williams was the eldest son in a large family of 7 children. His father was a preacher that also owned and farmed thousands of acres. Marsh was the headstrong son. He did things his way and he fought the “normal” way of life.
Marsh Williams quit school after junior high and joined the Navy. He struggled in the Navy with authority and guidelines. (In true life, he was returned home once the Navy discovered his true age.) Marsh returned home to marry his childhood sweetheart, Maggie Cooke, played by a young Jean Hagen, against his father’s wishes.
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He gets a job on the railroad and he continues to struggle with foremen on this job, too. You see this in the movie as Marsh is busting rocks along the track and stops to drink. The foreman gets on him stating that they aren’t paying him to get a drink every five minutes. Marsh snaps back about getting paid only 40 cents an hour. We see a different drive in his character: greed.
Marsh becomes more and more focused on money, a new house, a large piece of property, and more and more and more. He can’t get enough. Greed has plagued man for centuries. God even gave a commandment against greed/coveting in the Law for the Jews. Exodus 20:17 “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.” It wasn’t just an Old Testament thought, though. It continued in the New Testament in Luke 12:15 “And he said unto them, Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”
As Marsh complains about his little salary of 40 cents an hour, or $4 a day, he meets a railroad acquaintance that offers him a way to make more money. What comes next is his greed and covetousness mixed with his stance against authority spiral out of control. We see Marsh choose the illegal “job” of making moonshine over an honest one that requires hard work with small, but honest pay. His loving wife, Maggie, knows nothing about this. He lies to his wife in order to allow himself to keep on making “good” money compared to his pennies an hour.
One still isn’t enough. He wants more and more money; he builds 4. As he discusses building a 5th with his partners in crime, his still blows up on him burning his face, chest, hands, and arms. He can no longer keep this life from Maggie. Maggie tells her husband, “I didn’t marry an outlaw and I won’t stay married to one either.” Marsh promises his wife that he will stop. Once again, Marsh breaks his word. His greed drives him to disaster.
Marsh is inevitably found by the federal agents enforcing the 18th amendment, Marsh threatens them defying authority once again. In a shoot out caused by Marsh refusing to respect authority, an officer is shot and killed. As history documents show, and the movie displays, there was no evidence to prove Marsh was or was not the shooter of the murder weapon. A mistrial would take place and a second trial would follow. To avoid a second trial and to keep his father from selling part of his land to pay for it, Marsh agrees to plea guilty to a lower charge. He’s assured that his sentencing would only be about 10 years. As fate had it, a new judge only looked at one fact: Marsh Williams pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree murder and sentenced him to the max of 30 years.
The hard personality of Marsh Williams becomes stone-cold. Going away for 30 years hits him hard and he tells his family to not think about him, forbids them to visit him, and tells his loving and still supportive wife to file for divorce. Instead, Maggie promises to stand by him. She makes him promise he won’t try to escape. It’s a promise Marsh intends to keep; and even fights to keep.
Carbine Williams Train
In prison Marsh in transferred a few times from basic a basic prison, to a chain gang, and then fate lands him in a work farm. The work farm is run by Captain H.T. Peoples, played by Wendell Corey. Captain Peoples believes in treating men squarely if they earn it through hard work and respect. An angry and rebellious Marsh Williams goes head to head with this stubborn and determined prison warden, though.
Trying to break his stubborn will and not give into Williams in front of the other men, a decision is made that changes the life path for Marsh Williams. He is sentenced to the sweatbox, where all he is given is bread and water, until he begs to come out. Who will give in first is the challenge handed down. 7 days was the longest stint in the box. The prison doctor confronts the warden on the 30th day of William’s stint. Peoples breaks in his power struggle against Williams and Marsh comes out a softener man. Peoples shows his new approach of mutual respect for Marsh by his first offering; he sends for Maggie and has her there for when Marsh comes out of the box. Marsh, with a new perspective on life, agrees, for the first time in 2 years, to see his wife.
Marsh finds a focus of repentance, solitary focus, and true respect for Peoples. Marsh focuses his efforts in becoming a better man. God gives us direct commandments for repenting and doing better. Acts 26:20 “but declared both to them of Damascus first and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the country of Judaea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance.”
What transpires leads us to an unprecedented event for prisons. Marsh is permitted to work on, in his spare time, a brand new rifle that he designed in his head while in the box. The first gun he made by hand was when he as just 10 years old. He was good with guns and even became the repairman for the guards while in the prison. For 6 years he worked on his rifle with his bare hands, a file, sandpaper, and a polishing cloth.
Finally, the integrity of Captain Peoples is tested. He is called in front of the state prison board for allowing Marsh to build a rifle, but also the rumor that he was going to allow Marsh, his prisoner, to test fire his new invention. The board refuses out of concern that Marsh will attempt to escape with his rifle. The Captain, with confidence in this new friend he has grown to respect, assures the board that if Williams escapes, he would serve the remaining nearly 22 years of his sentence. The board in disbelief at the statement questions his understanding of those words. Captain Peoples then puts his pledge into writing. The test fire takes place.
2 guests were permitted by the inmate Williams; his wife and his father. Reporters flocked in. And Captain People’s invites a main person from Winchester. With the success of the firing of his new Carbine, Winchester offers him a contract inside the prison walls.
With the help of his father and the publicity of his new rifle, the governor releases Marsh Williams and grants him a full pardon just a few months later.
Marshall “Carbine” Williams goes on to patent his 2 inventions which leads to more guns: gun patents of his design that truly might have changed the possible outcome of many battles and even wars.
As a fan of older movies, this is a favorite of mine. Jimmy Stewart is my favorite actor of all time. I can not think of another actor from the 50s that could pull off the personality of the true Marshall Williams like Stewart did.
This movie is a 4 out of 5 for me.
I sought it out on DVD when word of its limited release was advertised a few years ago. I watch it a few times a year.
By today’s standards would this be a 4? No
Will you sit down and be blown away by the acting? No (Especially if you aren’t familiar with acting styles of older movies.)
It’s a solid story though. It’s biographical of a man and his true struggles as he goes from a head strong and independent young man to a loving husband, father, and American inventor.
It’s a good watch and worth the 1 hour and 32 minutes. People who look for movies with strong stories, this will appeal to you.
In today’s standards, I still believe it would be a 3 out of 5.
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Tell me what you think? about Carbine Williams.