Imprisoned for allegedly killing a federal revenue agent, a fiercely independent bootlegger spends his time in jail inventing an improved rifle. Based on a true story. [Dir: Richard Thorpe/ James Stewart, Jean Hagen, Wendell Corey/ 90 min/ Drama, Biography/ Creator as Hero, Legalize Drugs, Second Amendment]
Marsh (later nicknamed Carbine) Williams was an ingenious self-made inventor who ultimately earned seventy patents for weapons design, including one for the M-1 Carbine. This light, short-barreled rifle, adopted by the U.S. in World War II for troops previously armed with pistols, saved the lives of countless GIs.
Marsh was also a strong-willed man who believed deeply in his own freedom, so much so that he openly defied Prohibition and its enforcers and was incarcerated as a result. It was while in prison that he developed some of his most important inventions, actually producing rifle prototypes by hand with nothing more than scrap metal and the most primitive tools. His amazing story is told sympathetically here.
As the film begins, Marsh’s young son has just learned that his father is an ex-con. The son is humiliated by the revelation, and the two become estranged. So Marsh turns for help to the one man who knows enough about him to be able to explain and vouch for his character and actions, his former prison warden. The warden tells the son, and thereby the viewer, Marsh’s full story: how Marsh became involved with bootlegging in order to raise money to buy a farm; how he took the rap when a federal marshal was killed trying to shut down his bootlegging operation, even though he may not have been responsible for the death; and how, while in prison, he impressed the warden as a man of honor and invented an entirely new type of rifle that became a crucial part of American defense in World War II.
By the end of all of this, the son is tearfully reconciled with the father, and indeed the viewer also develops a sense of admiration for this inventive, rugged individualist. Stewart is ideal in his portrayal of Williams, projecting a character of great determination and toughness through subtleties of expression, speech, and even posture. In other respects, this is basically a B movie, but the story and Stewart’s performance raise it a notch above average. It’s a satisfying film that Second Amendment fans in particular will not want to miss.