All You Need To Make a Movie Is a Girl and a Gun

Jean-Luc Godard? D. W. Griffith? Evelyn D. Miller? Frederick James Smith? George W. Sears? John Philip Sousa? Abel Gance? Fredric Wertham? Charlie Chaplin? John Boorman? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A powerful and jaded film director once listed the two crucial ingredients to achieve success:

All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.

This adage has been attributed to French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard and influential early filmmaker D. W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith). Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In May 1922 the periodical “Shadowland” published an interview with D. W. Griffith conducted by Frederick James Smith. Griffith complained that audiences wanted unrealistic films with romanticized characters and broad humor. Boldface added to excepts by QI:[ref] 1922 May, Shadowland: The Magazine of Magazines, The Public and the Photoplay by Frederick James Smith, Start Page 47, Quote Page 47, Brewster Publications, Jamaica, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive at link [/ref]

“I fear that we must go on sugar-coating life, idealizing our celluloid characters and falling back upon the absurdly palpable demand for crêpe-paper comedy, such as you find in ‘Way Down East’ and ‘Orphans of the Storm.’” And Mr. Griffith smiled.

We once heard an interesting tale of Mr. Griffith’s formula for screen success, a rather striking sidelight upon his view of what the public wants. “A gun and a girl,” ran his reported recipe for film popularity. And, when one comes to consider the matter, probably the director is right.

Thus, Smith credited Griffith with the remark about “a gun and a girl”, but Smith did not claim that Griffith spoke the phrase during the 1922 interview. Instead, the quotation was second-hand, and it was from Smith’s memory.

Jean Luc-Godard received credit for presenting this formula by 1992, but it was already in circulation. See details below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A precursor outlining the joys of a sportsman’s life appeared in 1881 within “Forest and Stream: The American Sportsman’s Journal” which published an excerpt from a letter penned by conservationist George W. Sears.[ref] 1881 November 24, Forest and Stream: The American Sportsman’s Journal, Autobiographical Fragments II, Being Extracts from an Editor’s Private Correspondence, (Letter from George W. Sears in the character of “Nessmuk”), Quote Page 326, Column 3, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

I love a horse, a dog, a gun, a trout, and a pretty girl. I hate a pot-hunter, a trout-liar, and a whisky-guzzling sportsman, and Dittmar powder. I smoke and take an occasional glass of wine, and never lie about my hunting and fishing exploits more than the occasion seems to demand.

In 1919 “The Los Angeles Times” of California attributed a pertinent remark to popular composer and band leader John Philip Sousa:[ref] 1919 July 20, The Los Angeles Times, The Realm of Melody–News and Gossip of the Local Musicians, Part III, Quote Page 24, Column 3, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“A horse, a dog, a gun, a girl and music on the side,” that is John Philip Sousa’s idea of heaven—one not entirely apart from that of the average American’s. No other band leader has ever intrigued the imagination, nor remained in the hearts of his countrymen as has Sousa, who is to bring his band here in November.

The following title of a musical composition with a copyright date of January 19, 1920 suggested the existence of the entertainment blueprint under examination:[ref] 1920, Catalogue of Copyright Entries, New Series: Volume 15, Number 1, Part 3: Musical Compositions, Quote Page 39 (711), Column 1, Government Printing Office < Washington D.C. (Verified with scans at link [/ref]

“Two Men, a Gun and a Girl”
Lyrics penned by Evelyn D. Miller and melody by W. Renick Smith of Dallas, Texas.

In May 1922 a writer in “Shadowland” magazine attributed the formula to filmmaker D. W. Griffith as mentioned previously:

We once heard an interesting tale of Mr. Griffith’s formula for screen success, a rather striking sidelight upon his view of what the public wants. “A gun and a girl,” ran his reported recipe for film popularity.

In August 1922 “Kinematograph Weekly” of London reprinted the principle ascribed to Griffith while acknowledging “Shadowland”:[ref] 1922 August 31, Kinematograph Weekly, Supplement: Kine Technicalities, Showmanship and the Public by E. Fletcher Clayton, Quote Page vi, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

It appears that in the magazine, Shadowland, the famous film producer, D. W. Griffith, who some time ago declared that “the public has the mentality of a child of nine years and, to make successful films, it is necessary that they be adapted to that mentality” has added to his former statement by saying that what spectators demand as the story-basis of a film is, in general, “a girl and a gun.” Well, this may be what is necessary to suit the mentality of the American kinemagoing public, but it will not suit that of the British.

In September 1922 the “Daily Herald” of London also credited Griffith:[ref] 1922 September 5, Daily Herald, Seen Screen, Quote Page 7, Column 2, London, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

D. W. Griffith says that what spectators generally demand as the story basis of a film is “a girl and a gun.” It’s what they generally get, anyway.

In March 1923 French film director and actor Abel Gance published a piece in the periodical “Comoedia” of Paris. Gance presented a French translation of the remarks made by Griffith. The formula appeared in English and French. The ellipses appeared in the Gance’s French text:[ref] 1923 March 16 (16 mars 1923), Comoedia, Editor-in-chief Gaston de Pawlowski, “Le Cinématographe c’est la Musique de la Lumière” by Abel Gance, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Paris, France. (BNF Gallica) [/ref]

Je n’entrevois aucune possibilité de se lancer dans des thèmes serrant de près la réalité avant très longtemps, le public ne le supporterait pas. … En résumé, pour le public il faut : « A gun and a girl » … « Une jeune fille et un revolver ».

The text above may be translated into English as follows:

I don’t see any possibility of embarking on themes close to reality for a very long time, the public would not support it. … In summary, for the public it is necessary: “A gun and a girl” … “A young girl and a revolver”.

In 1924 the Paris periodical “Demain” (“Tomorrow”) also credited the saying to Griffith:[ref] 1924 Avril (April), Demain (Tomorrow), Volume 1, Issues 1, Publié Sous La Direction de Raymond Escholier (Published Under the Direction of Raymond Escholier), Section: Ciné (Cinema) Le Septième Art (The Seventh Art) by Marcelle Chaumeix, Quote Page 219, Éditeurs J. Ferenczi & Fils, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

… a dit avec mélancolie et dédain : « Que réclament les foules? un revolver et une jeune fille. » (A gun and a girl!) Cela seul fait de l’argent.

… said wistfully and disdainfully, “What do the crowds want? a revolver and a young girl.” (A gun and a girl!) That alone makes money.

In 1954 psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published the controversial book “Seduction of the Innocent” which warned about violence in comic books. Wertham reprinted a comic book formula he had heard:[ref] 1954, Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham, Chapter 10: The Upas Tree, Quote Page 258 and 259, Rinehart & Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

The type of cynicism that we found in the dialogue of comic books parallels some of the published statements that comic-book publishers and their representatives have made off and on when confronted with public opinion. These are some examples:

“There are more morons than people, you know.” . . .

“Sure there is violence in comics. It’s all over English literature, too. Look at Hamlet. Look at Sir Walter Scott’s novels.” . . .

“We do it by formula, not malice. A cop, a killer, a gun and a girl.”

In 1964 movie star Charlie Chaplin published “My Autobiography”, and he described the ingredients he used to create a comedy:[ref] 1964 Copyright, My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin, Chapter 10, Quote Page 159, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

This was true, for Ford had not fared very well since leaving Keystone. But I told Sennett, “All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.” As a matter of fact I had made some of my most successful pictures with just about that assembly.

In 1975 “Film and the Critical Eye” by Dennis DeNitto and William Herman attributed the saying to Griffith:[ref] 1975, Film and the Critical Eye by Dennis DeNitto (The City College of the City University of New York) and William Herman (The City College of the City University of New York), Part Three, Chapter 18: Jules and Jim – Directed by François Truffaut, Quote Page 482, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

The bedroom scene might have been made under the influence of D. W. Griffith’s dictum that “all you need to make a movie are a gun and a girl.”

In 1992 French critic Jean-Louis Leutrat published “Le Cinéma en Perspective: Une Histoire”. Leutrat stated that Godard referred to the formula, but Godard was quoting Griffith:[ref] 1992, Le Cinéma en Perspective: Une Histoire by Jean-Louis Leutrat, Chapter 3: Eclats, Section: David Wark Griffith, Quote Page 66, Nathan Université, Paris, France. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Le cinéma américain se développera surtout à partir de deux schémas de base griffithiens, le duel et, selon une formule du maître que Godard aime citer : « a gun and a girl ».

American cinema will develop above all from two basic Griffithian patterns, the duel and, according to a formula of the master that Godard likes to quote: “a gun and a girl”.

In 1992 the collection “Projections: A Forum for Film-makers” included a set of diaristic entries by filmmaker by John Boorman. In an entry dated July 15, 1991 Boorman ascribed the saying to Godard:[ref] 1992, Projections: A Forum for Film-makers Edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue, Bright Dreams, Hard Knocks: A Journal for 1991 by John Boorman, Date: July 15, 1991, Quote Page 76, Faber and Faber, London. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Jean-Luc Godard once said, ‘All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.’ In Thelma and Louise, Ridley Scott has a gun and two girls, women rather, and what glorious women they are: Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon! The same cannot be said for the characters they play, two dumb broads.

In 2000 “The Observer” newspaper of London printed a set of statements attributed to Godard including the following four items:[ref] 2000 November 26, The Observer, Review: SCREEN: Godard only knows: For decades he was regarded as a genius and a revolutionary, but Jean-Luc Godard – 70 years old next week – has spent the last 20 years alienating everyone, Quote Page 11, London, England. (ProQuest) [/ref]


‘There is no point in having sharp images when you have fuzzy ideas.’

‘I don’t think you should FEEL about a movie. You should feel about a woman. You can’t kiss a movie.’

‘Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self.’

‘All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.’

In 2015 the “Financial Times” of London printed the following:[ref] 2015 October 9, Financial Times, Women and Hollywood by Francine Stock, Quote Page 1, London, England. (ProQuest) [/ref]

Jean-Luc Godard’s maxim (which was borrowed from the early film director D W Griffith, just one of the American idols of the French New Wavers) that cinema is “a gun and a girl” may have been a joke but the reductive formula was true not just of Bande a Part (1964) but a series of later films in which a beautiful (if slightly troubled) girl hangs out with smart guys as they play with the gangster genre.

In 2020 the “Los Angeles Times” attributed the formula to Godard:[ref] 2020 December 11, Los Angeles Times, A ’70s crime thriller for 2020 by Justin Chang (Film Critic),Quote Page E2, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

It was Jean-Luc Godard who once said the best way to criticize a film is to make another one. He also said all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, an aphorism that will prove equally relevant here.

In conclusion, D. W. Griffith should receive credit for this formula about moviemaking based on the testimony of Frederick James Smith in 1922. There is substantive evidence that Jean-Luc Godard also referred to this formula, but he was knowingly repeating Griffith.

Image Notes: Illustration of a film projector from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to amindfv whose inquiry indirectly led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. The inquiry was about another quotation attributed to Godard. QI encountered the remark “a girl and a gun” while conducting research.)

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