Right before he made The Gauntlet, a movie that could be described as one long and excessive shootout, Clint Eastwood witnessed the real gunfire between the Los Angeles Police and the Symbionese Liberation Army in South Central Los Angeles. It’s why he says, “The overkill is satirical but at the same token it’s real, we see it in real life.” The thriller might play like a comic book today (and the poster suggests it was meant to) but at the time of its release in 1977, the violent road trip wasn’t that different from the nightly news during the hunt for Patty Hearst and the SLA.
The radical and violent crimes of the SLA were broadcast into American homes when the group kidnapped Patty Hearst, granddaughter of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst in February 1974. “They just rocketed into the headlines, and it’s hard to explain to people now what a huge story that was,” AP reporter Linda Deutsch told CBS news. But the true-crime chase was on with the news revealing that the 19-year-old heiress had decided to stay and fight with the group that had abducted her. Soon, she was seen holding a rifle at a bank robbery in which two civilians were shot in San Francisco. The next month, it was reported that she shot up the front of Mel’s Sporting Goods Store in Inglewood, California with a submachine gun and a carbine. When the police finally got a tip leading them to a SLA safe house in Los Angeles, they didn’t hold back.
“You can just imagine the mentality of the police officer or a group of police officers that had been all their life on the police force and never fired a gun,” explains Eastwood. “Here they’ve got the kidnappers of Patty Hearst. They’ve got the SLA all trapped in this building. You can just imagine what happens.”
More than 400 LAPD officers surrounded the neighborhood. The shootout lasted two hours, attracted a crowd of more than 10,000 and hundreds of police were on hand. SWAT teams fired 5,371 rounds. “They set three or four houses on fire around there and completely ripped that house to pieces,” says Eastwood. The violence was broadcast live nationwide. Six SLA members perished in the shootout; Hearst wasn’t one of them. It would take another deadly bank robbery and another year before the FBI finally caught up with her in San Francisco.
That shootout got Eastwood thinking. “Imagine what would happen in a small town? In this case it was Las Vegas,” he says about a specific shootout scene in his film. The police surround a house with Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) and the witness he’s trying to protect (Sondra Locke) inside. Shockley isn’t anything like Patty Hearst or other members of the SLA but the police want him dead just the same. So, they shoot the house to pieces — literally. It falls to the ground. Excessive? Or just a sign of the times.
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