As the 50th anniversary of Charles Whitman’s UT Tower shooting nears, there’s no shortage of images and sounds from that infamous day.
Black-and-white photos of fallen students. Recordings of panicked police dispatchers. TV news clips of stoic city officials briefing the press about how Whitman was killed. The nation’s first mass college campus shooting is well documented.
But depictions of the shooting aren’t limited to 50-year-old press clippings and survivors’ oral histories. In each decade since the shooting on Aug. 1, 1966, artists of all sorts — songwriters, novelists and filmmakers — have alluded to or outright re-enacted Charles Whitman’s actions. Why has this tragedy from so long ago persisted in the nation’s imagination?
Perhaps the reason lies in the event’s extreme, arbitrary violence inflicted by a lone, unknown man. Whitman’s killing spree was unprecedented at the time and thus indelible in its impact.
Author Don DeLillo says as much in a 1993 interview in The Paris Review. Looking back on when he first read newspaper accounts of the tower shooting, DeLillo recalls that Whitman “took a number of guns up there with him. Took supplies with him, ready for a long siege, including underarm deodorant. And I remember thinking, Texas again. And also, underarm deodorant.” It was then that DeLillo decided he needed to write novels, he says, to try to reflect and understand the grotesque absurdity he found in Whitman’s actions.
That new form of terror Whitman introduced to America has captivated filmmakers for decades. Some film references are slight, like a detective in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” (1994) who mentions that his mother was murdered by Whitman. Others are oblique, like the villain in 1971’s “Dirty Harry” who seems to be an amalgamation of Charles Whitman and San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer. Many, though, are explicit either in their depiction of Whitman himself or in characters clearly based on him.
Here are six films, including one released this year, and one television program that evoke Whitman and the tower shootings:
The first major film to suggest the UT tower shooting, “Targets” is a strange and terrifying meditation on gun violence. Produced by Roger Corman, the king of ultra-low-budget cult classics, it's Boris Karloff’s last U.S. film and director Peter Bogdanovich’s first. Adding to the oddness, both Karloff and Bogdanovich essentially play themselves in the film: an aging Hollywood horror film legend and an up-and-coming wunderkind, respectively.
The film centers on Sammy, a young married man who, like Whitman, murders his wife and mother to launch his killing spree. Rather than climbing a tower, however, Sammy scales a drive-in movie screen and fires upon moviegoers in their cars.
“The Deadly Tower” (1975)
This made-for-TV movie dramatizes the 1966 shooting and Charles Whitman’s story. A young Kurt Russell plays Whitman in the film, which is sometimes also referred to as “Sniper” and largely presents the shooter as disturbed. This clip shows Russell, as Whitman, shooting from atop the tower.
In addition to Whitman, the film also tells the story of Ramiro Martinez, one of the police officers who shot at Whitman to stop the rampage. Richard Yniguez plays a fictionalized Martinez. Martinez and another police officer each later filed lawsuits over the film's portrayal of the events surrounding the shooting, arguing that it was inaccurate.
"Full Metal Jacket” (1987)
R. Lee Ermey may not be a household name, but the Marine-turned-actor seemed to play every authority figure and military man in films throughout the 1990s. His most famous (or infamous) role is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” a chilling film that follows a platoon of Marines through the Vietnam War.
In one scene set during basic training, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman praises the marksmanship of Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald, saying both learned to shoot in the U.S. Marines.
A love letter to the oddballs and ne’er-do-wells of Austin when rents were cheap and traffic was flowing, “Slacker” launched the career of filmmaker Richard Linklater. The film features dozens of characters, most played by friends or locals known to Linklater.
Retired University of Texas at Austin philosophy professor Louis Mackey portrays one of the more memorable roles, which is only known as “The Old Anarchist.” In this scene, the anarchist strolls with a young man and bemoans how he missed Whitman’s rampage, thanks to an errand his wife made him run on the other side of town on that fateful day in 1966.
"Higher Learning” (1995)
This drama about the lives of several freshmen on a fictional college campus, directed by John Singleton, includes a sniper scene that is widely viewed as partly based on Whitman.
Like the 1966 massacre at UT, a student in “Higher Learning” shoots at his peers from atop a campus building, prompting chaos below.
"Mad Men" (2012)
In its fifth season, the TV drama "Mad Men" twice references Charles Whitman in the episode "Signal 30," which is set in the summer of 1966. The horrible Texas shooting has just hit the news, shocking Don Draper and his friends. But Don's colleague Pete Campbell, who's showing signs of cracking under the joint pressure of work and home, displays a strange fascination with the incident, suggesting darker days lie ahead for the character.
In an episode of the webseries “The Orange Couch,” commentators suggest that the episode, in invoking Whitman, explores the broader theme of the role of violence in 1960s American culture.
The latest film to depict Whitman’s massacre is “Tower,” a new documentary that hasn’t been widely released yet but is screening in Austin and Dallas this summer. Directed by Keith Maitland, the film is based in part on Pamela Colloff’s oral history of the tower shooting, which Texas Monthly published in 2006.
Mixing archival news footage with re-enactments and animation, “Tower” is garnering praise at film festivals for its moving style and evocation of other school shootings, including Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook.
Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
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