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January 30, 2007 at 2:49 am Leave a comment

An Ode to the Blowgun in Entertainment

Question:  Do blowguns actually entertain even people who never actually shoot them (if such people do indeed exist)?

Or, in other words, do you have to actually be shooting a blowgun yourself (at the time in question) in order to derive enjoyment and entertainment from said blowgun?

Now what I’m leading up to with the above line of questioning is this:  Up until now, I have not really seen in literature or on websites an overview of how blowguns help to entertain us vicariously.  Which is surprising, since, as I will demonstrate below, we owe a heavy debt to the blowgun for the spice it’s added to many a book, movie, and more. 

As you’ve probably gathered by my use of “vacariously”, when I speak of how the blowgun entertains us, in this particular posting, I mean not the direct entertainment involved in the sport and discipline of actually shooting blowguns ourselves, but rather the indirect entertainment involved in the vicarious thrill of seeing someone in a movie or on TV use a blowgun, or reading about something on those lines.  

Now, in this particular post I also won’t be considering the vicarious thrill of being a spectator at a live or broadcast blowgun tournament (that perhaps, is a story for another day). Rather, I will be focusing on those types of vicarious thrills enjoyed by the reader or viewer of blowguns that make their sometimes dazzling, often mysterious, and often delightfully chilling appearances in books and movies and TV, when the dart leaps off the page at us, or zips across the silver screen.

There is, I believe, a special quality or set of qualities about the blowgun, perhaps some deeply engrained, subliminally stored jungian archetypal image of “BLOWGUN” that evokes unique emotions and feelings for the viewer or reader that perhaps no other weapon quite has the self-same ability to elicit. 

Interestingly enough, many of those “other weapons” have a certain personality of legendary status associated with them in the public consciousness. Here’s a brief list of examples: 

  • The longbow has Robin Hood 
  • the crossbow has William Tell
  • the sling has David and Goliath
  • the javelin has Ben Hur and countless roman legions or legionaires or legionairies
  • the slingshot has Dennis the Menace
  • the club has Bam-Bam
  • the 6-gun has the Lone Ranger
  • the lever-action rifle has Chuck Conners as The Rifle Man

The boomerang, the spear-thrower, and the blowgun, on the other hand, are weapons that seem to have more anonymous proponents; no particular one person or character necessarily stands out in strong association with them, as of yet.  There may, of course, be other cultures not sufficiently familiar to me as of yet where the blowgun has its Robin Hood. 

Be that as it may, fairly recently the blowgun has enjoyed exposure on the silver screen in at least 3 movies that come easily to mind. The Mummy Returns, The Time Machine, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.   And even more recently, the blowgun has graced Apocalypto and Night at the Museum with its sterling presence.  I won’t say much about Apocalypto and NATM yet, in order to avoid plot spoiling, but as soon as I can I’ll put up something about them too, with suitable plot spoiler warnings.  For now, I will just say of Apocalypto that it provides an example of a story where it’s just as interesting to see how the blowgun is made, as it is to see how the blowgun is shot; after ingeniously procuring and poisoning a set of darts, the protagonist keeps us in actual suspense as to how he will supply himself with a blowgun, and then seems to pull one right out of thin air.  (Stiff competition for David Copperfield and Mr. Blaine, if you ask me.  High marks for stage presence.)

Well, without further preamble, let us plunge into the list of memorable appearances of the blowgun in various works of entertainment:

First category:  The Blowgun in Movies

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Director Ang Lee puts a blowgun to memorable use and also puts what I can only describe as an almost-blowgun ( or perhaps near-blowgun? un-blowgun?) to unforgettable use near the movie’s end — you’ll see what I mean a little further below. The blowgun makes its first appearance in CTHD during a showdown between the villain Jade Fox and a man who has been trying to track her down for some time, seeking justice/vengeance for the death of his wife at the hands of Jade Fox. As the moment comes for these enemies to face each other in a pre-arranged fight in an abandoned, isolated courtyard at night, the man’s daughter steps forth with the request that her father let her avenge the death of her mother. The fighting begins posthaste, but complications ensue with the arrival of two outside parties– a local, and slightly bumbling, policeman, followed shortly after by none other than the legendary swordsman Li Mu Bai. Melee ensues, and a particularly kinetic, balletic melee it is.  And at some point in the midst of that melee comes a moment when we find out that the pole or staff carried by the daughter is actually able to double as a blowgun. As Jade Fox is engaged in hand-to-hand, or blade-to-blade, with one or more other antagonists, the daughter loads a dart into her weapon and launches it with a silent puff. The camera follows the swift flight of the dart as it zips towards the back of the apparently unsuspecting Jade Fox. The silence of the flight of the dart is emphasized by the white feather fletching on the slender shaft, like the down of an owl’s wings. Yet, despite the silence and speed of the dart, and the din of shouting, shuffling feet, and clanging blades, the Fox’s senses and reflexes are so sharp that she whirls, catches the dart in mid-air, and sends it back towards the daughter with a flick of her hand. What happens next is a little unclear to me, either the daughter bends limberly back and avoids the dart point, although it sticks in her clothing, or else she really is hit and swoons limply, almost doubling over backward. Whatever the case, if the daughter really was hit, then either the poison on the dart was not lethal, or else someone administered an antidote to her in time to save her, for in the next scene she appears apparently in good health, although grieving for her father, who was slain later in the combat by a parting shot from Jade Fox. The use of the blowgun in this first showdown scene (the one we just looked at), which is perhaps halfway through the movie, besides being interesting in its own right, also serves brilliantly as a set-up to help us understand the action near the movie’s end, when the climatic battle between Li Mu Bai, Yu Shu Lien, and Jade Fox plays out at fever pitch. A lot happens in the space of a few seconds, the action is supercharged in fact, but the earlier blowgun scene helps us to understand. A vibration of the air and a chill down the spine, then the swordsman and swordswoman begin wheeling their blades with superhuman speed and accuracy, like the whirling propellers of an airplane almost; and only barely in time, for a volley of tiny darts fills the air in relentless streams, only to be deflected as they come within the arcs of those two whirling blades. We see the witch, Jade Fox, enter the cave, flying sinisterly through the air, and understand that the short staff she holds is spewing the swarms of swift darts, and that they are all similar to the dart we saw in the previous scene that she dipped in a bottle before searing the tip over a flame. Now in fact, the first time I saw the movie, what with the speed at which all the action in this speed transpires, as well as the considerable spinal chill factor involved, I thought that Jade Fox was holding the short staff/cane to her mouth as a blowgun, and propelling the darts with her lungs. It was made evident in a slightly previous scene that the staff had several holes in the tip, implying several very narrow barrels contained within the staff (the holes were tiny, which was fitting, since the darts were little more than needles with a slight swell at the back). It seemed a worthy creation, a blowgun that fired tiny poison darts in swarms that rivaled a gattling gun, suitable for chilling the blood and quickening the pulse of any witness to – or object of – such an assault. However, when I viewed the movie the second time, I realized that Ang Lee had utilized what, as I said before, I can only call an un-blowgun or almost-blowgun in this scene. Actually, when you look closely, although it is clear that Jade Fox holds the dart-spitting staff close to her head, she definitely does not hold it to her mouth.  Some unknown motive force, perhaps the same chi or formula that allows her to levitate and fly like an ominous crow, is what is propelling the darts towards her enemies/intended victims. And, to use an adjective Tolkien was rather fond of, a fell weapon indeed it was, for Li Mu Bai was not quite able to defend against all of those envenomed messengers of death. One tiny dart slipped through the arc of the green destiny, lodging in LMB’s neck with such a slight prick of its needle tip that he did not register it in the heat and fury of the concentration and effort of trying to deflect the barrage and turn the tide of battle. All in all, very interesting uses of our weapon of choice. Interesting also because the actual blowgun is put into the hands of one of the good guys. This is a perhaps not rare, but definitely not extremely usual instance of the blowgun being used by someone who is not sinister/sneaky/plainly up to no good. (however, I’ve included quite a few other such instances below)

2. The Time Machine (2001 movie). This movie version of H.G. Well’s classic science fiction tale departs from the book in many ways, while staying true to the original in such visual details as the way the sun’s passage overhead becomes one continuous “streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; …Presently… the sun belt swayed up and down, from solstice to solstice, in a minute or less…” (in one of H.G. Well’s marvelous word pictures). One of the notable ways that the 2001 movie departs from the book is in the physical appearance of the grotesque and formidable morlocks, and the fact that the time traveler sees them using blowguns to stun their prey (the prey, by the way, pretty much appearing to be normal humans in the movie instead of the diminutive, rather hobbit-like Eloi of the book). Of course, in the book, it is quite possible that such a method of using blowguns to capture victims alive might have indeed been used by the morlocks, although it is never explicitly described or hinted at by the time traveller during his recount of what transpired during his stay in the future.  Furthermore, a hypothesized use of the blowgun by the Morlocks could help to explain the swoon of Weena during the tragic night in the forest after she and the Time Traveler leave the museum.  That swoon, or faint, from which the Time Traveler could not awaken her, might have been caused by a silent dart delivered under cover of night, perhaps even a dart with a notched shaft that would snap off in the wound and thus be highly difficult to detect in the dark.  Nor would it make it easier to notice such a small detail when the Time Traveler was first being burdened by the sick panic of the hunted, and subsequently by the rage of the defiant. However, the book never explicitly states just what means the morlocks use to subjugate or capture intended Eloi victims, nor is it clear if would even be necessary for the Morlocks to employ any specialized device or poison, since the Eloi seemed susceptible to a sort of fatalistic resignation, bordering on near-paralysis, in the face of danger. Anyhow, the darts used by the movie Morlocks seemed rather heavy and clumsy, and appeared to be smeared with some sort of dark tarry substance that would probably serve as a tranquilizer. True to the book’s original story line is the Morlockian prediliction for semi-cannibalistic repasts (after all, they had differentiated into a different species, but STILL…cannibalism is cannibalism, man!)

3. The Mummy Returns. Here, once again, the blowgun is put into the hands of things that are sort of human, or ostensibly human, but look to be, in reality, perhaps another species entirely.  The ambush by pygmies in an area of dense vegetation, tropical grasses essentially tall enough and thick enough to hide the pygmies as they go running around through it, but short enough to reveal the shoulders and heads of the normal humans “wading” through the grass, has been recognized elsewhere and earlier as a sort of sendup/homage to the attack by velociraptors on a party of humans wading through grass in the sequel to Jurassic Park, The Lost World. Besides zipping around unseen except for a sort of contrail of rustling leaves, and pulling humans down with a comic zip, the pygmies are also shown firing big darts from short-barreled blowguns.

4. Jungle to Jungle. This movie puts the blowgun into the hands of an essentially good and definitely non-creepy, sunny-dispositioned boy/teen, who is a wholesome child of nature/innocent savage to boot.  The blowgun is also put briefly into the hands of the boy’s harried-but-trying-to-be-a-good-dad father, who is a child of modern civilization/post-industrialization to boot. Here, much of the use of the blowgun is for comic effect, and it is, I would submit, successful in that regard, especially when Tim Allen’s character shoots himself in the foot (I have forgotten if he did it on purpose) and promptly dozes off for a good night’s sleep. (However, despite Jungle to Jungle’s admitted success, I must note here that the award for the funniest and most delightfully screwball use of a blowgun in a movie must rightfully be awarded to another film, which will be revealed “all in good time,” a little further down the list. )5. Legend. In this fairytale fable, the blowgun is once again placed in the hands of the disgusting, the vile, and the sinister. A gruesome goblin, a most pitiless and spiteful assasin, launches a venomed dart at a noble, radiant unicorn, and the goblin does not so much puff the dart as he does SPIT it. As the slender missile strikes home, and poison races through the unicorn’s veins, the fleeing animal falters and falls, and the whole world is plunged into darkness as a freezing winter descends all of an instant, though but a moment before the sun had been shining on the brilliant greens of summer verdure.  The goblin, and other goblins now with him, laugh in cruel delight, rejoicing that they have troubled the very magic at the foundations of the world, and to make sure their foul deed will not be undone, they hack the horn from the head of the unmoving unicorn’s head. In terms of painting the blowgun as a nefarious assassin’s tool of choice and sinister stealth, and the blowgun dart as a fearsome instrument of poison, poison that creeps insidiously and inevitably to chill and freeze the fires of life, I would rate Legend as one of the movies that takes such themes to a higher level than what we saw in The Mummy Returns or The Time Machine. Jade Fox is perhaps in some ways more chilling still, but the goblin is definitely more disgusting, more a personification of cruel relish just for the sake of spite.6. A Breed Apart.  A movie which I saw late one night during my first year at college, playing on the tv in the reception lounge of the ladies’ dormitory.  Part of the reason I mention it is that it’s probably not widely known or remembered, yet the blowgun scenes are crisp and well-paced.  Rutger Hauer plays a character who is a sort of isolationist who lives on an island inhabited by a rare, in fact, extremely endangered species of bird. It turns out that on the mainland, a ruthless and filthily rich rich-man has contracted a most eccentric and appalling appetite: with his breakfast toast he prefers to dine on the eggs of rare species of birds, even if it means wiping out the only surviving offspring and the only chances of a species for survival. A small army of the rich-man’s henchmen arrive on the island one night and Hauer’s character polishes them off one by one with bead-and-wire darts shot from a blowgun. Despite the fact that he’s an excellent shot and stealthy woodsman, and that he’s humane enough to use a mere tranquilizer rather than a lethal virus, Hauer’s character still can’t prevent one of the evil henchmen from blowing himself up with some dynamite which he was unwisely wearing around his neck.

7.  Spider-Man (2002).  There are so many things I admire and appreciate about one of my very favorite movies.  However, here I will merely point out a brief and rather amusing blowgun cameo that might have slipped under your radar in the midst of all the interesting things going on in the same general scene.  You may remember Peter Parker first discovering the way that time seems to slow down, due to his reactions speeding up to a superhuman pitch in the face of danger, when Flash Thompson started a fight, and, in Uncle Ben’s words, Peter “finished it.”  Now one of the ways in which the very visually astute Mr. Raimi communicates to us an inkling of the sensations Peter is experiencing in this particular scene, in addition to the wondering, delighted-yet-bemused way in which Peter looks up and down the slow motion sliding of Flash’s futile fist past him, and the slooooowwww flap flaaap  fllaaaaaapppppppuhhhh of a fly’s wing (with an accompanying lowering of pitch of the whine of the selfsame fly), is the super-slow-motion trajectory of a dripping spitball, along with it’s satellite cluster of saliva droplets, as it hurtles on its way from the barrel of an eviscerated ballpoint pen clapped to the mouth of a gleeful teenage prankster.  Mr. Raimi, kudos on a very nicely understated and deft sampling of two staples of the American high school experience:  flies and spitballs.  By the way, this scene is interesting in that it helps to set up this sensation of Peter’s as something more than just a neat special effect; during his final confrontation later with the Green Goblin, when Spidey leaps from the bridge, grabs M.J. as she falls, swing on his webbing in a tight loop, and strains to grab the severed cable of a plummeting cable car, we can appreciate that the slowed sense of time must in this situation be downright brutally agonizing for our hero.  Despite his superhuman speed, will his fingers indeed close upon that cable and arrest the hurtling plunge, saving the horrified occupants of the cable car?  For Peter Parker, it must have seemed like ages before he made contact. 

8.  Independence Day.  Yes the “alien invasion big willy weekend blockbuster mother of em all” Independence Day.  Where on earth (hee hee, get it?) were the blowguns?  Well, if I’m not mistaken, after the aliens are distroyed and the fragments of their evil mothership are raining down through the atmosphere as a sort of impromptu patriotic fireworks display, there is a rapid montage of scenes of various people in different places all around the world cheering and celebrating victory and deliverance.  If you look closely, I belive you will see one group of celebrants holding things in their fists and waving them in the air, and those things bear a close resemblance to blowguns.

9. Raiders of the Lost Ark. I saved for next-to-last one of the grand-daddy-of-em-all examples and a film so well made that when you see it again you are suprised at how much of its masterful execution you had forgotten. To digress, the editing during the fight to prevent the ark form being loaded onto a german flying wing, when the plane is slowly wheeling around, propellers whirring and pilot slumped unconscious, and the slow but inexorable sweep of one of wing tips knocks the cap off of a fuel truck, and flames spread over the runway and towards the plane, is a masterpiece of timing in storytelling and sublime storyboard logic in visual exposition, absolutely logical, sequential…nothing seems far-fetched even though it happens so perfectly.  I suppose that you might call such a thing a natural perfection of the inevitable, rather than an artificial perfection of the contrived. Anyhow, to return to the blowgun aspect of the story, which occurs in the opening sequence, the preface to the story proper, in which we are allowed a preview of Indiana Jones to establish him as a man of action and an adventurer extraordinaire (and in the process to also establish us as being hooked on the further unfolding of the tale), the blowgun plays a key role, being one of the weapons of choice of the redoubtable Jovitos (a fictionalized tribe, I believe), who are native denizens of this stretch of perhaps Amazonian jungle.  A pointed wooden shaft lodged in a tree is noted by Ford/Indiana, who calmly examines it for a second or two and then tactiturnly drops it to the ground with his customary and characteristic coolness and sangfroid. His more excitable companions, local guides, pounce on the shaft, knowing it as a sign that the Jovitos are active in the area. But how recently?  They wonder. One of the guides puts the tip of the dart in his mouth and sucks lightly (note that this detail is consistent with the fact that it is typical of the curare employed as a dart poison in South America that the curare may be eaten and digested with no ill effects–or perhaps more it may be more accurately said that curare is in fact indigestible and passes through the human alimentary canal without absorption, and therefore without doing harm.  However, the self-same curare is deadly when it enters the blood stream directly, as is the case when introduced into the system by a puncture wound from a blowgun dart.) “Three days,” the guide mutters fiercely. Later, but not much later, after Indie’s celebrated and oft-imitated narrow escape from a giant rolling stone in a stone temple, he looks up to see that very same guide topple face forward right in front of Indie, the guide’s back riddled with darts. From this it might be deduced that the Jovitos were evidently extremely adept at volley firing in unison to dispatch an enemy with unusual alacricity, since death was so instantaneous that the guide’s eyes are still open.  Now in real life, curare is probably actually much slower acting, even when “overdosed” by multiple dart wounds.  However why quibble with such good storytelling and what we might call adrenal plausibility, if I may coin a phrase? Besides, we don’t know that curare was definitely the alkaloid or other poison employed by the Jovitos.  By the by, blowguns also apparently come into play in Raiders as mechanized versions embedded into the walls of the stone temple from which Indie snatches the small golden idol, and then has to run for it when the chamber begins crumbling. As he runs and steps on the sinking stones that trigger the ancient defense system, the darts spring from the small holes in the stone wall, although Mr. Jones is always just a step ahead. Another by the by:  As Indie runs for the waterplane on the river, the Jovitos run after him, and many of them snap off shots with blow guns and bows and arrows as they run. I would have to say it’s probably slightly easier to shoot a bow while running than to shoot off a blowgun dart. But please remember, dear reader, that such taking of shots, while literally on the run, severely violates important safety protocols with either type of weapon.  Because if a bow twists in your hand while you’re running with an arrow nocked on the bowstring, you could very well end up as a shish -kabob skewered on your own arrow.  On the other hand, if you happen to trip on your shoelace (for example) while running or even walking with a blowgun clamped to your lips, your smile as you have known it will enter a sort of afterlife, since your “front grill” will have consequently been dispersed to the four winds, as well as perhaps down your gullet, and fitting for dentures will be next item on your agenda.  That is, if you haven’t sustained some other additional injury, such as a broken neck, that would make a mouthfull of broken teeth seem like a walk in the park.

8. Thoroughly Modern Millie. For last, I have saved the hands down winner for the funniest and most delightfully screwball use of blowgun in a movie award, and probably for any other type of entertainment medium as well. The blowgunner is a sort of dragon lady who is intent on kidnapping two young ladies (one of them Julie Andrews of Sound of Music fame) and selling them into slavery in chinatown (probably San Fransisco–the time period, the roaring twenties I believe). One of the dragon lady’s rather bumbling henchmen you might recognize as Pat Morita of Mr. Miyaggi fame. Anyhow, the young ladies are accompanied by a manly young college man whose hunkly charms seem to make weak the knees of any young woman who sees him.  This young Adonis wears a letter sweater and handsomely sucks on a pipe at the slightest pretext, perhaps a little woodenly it is true, but nevertheless with great personal charm. When, in one particularly enjoyable scene, the dragon lady pulls out one of the chopstics that is holding her hair in a bun, and loads a tiny dart into it, and fires it at the handsome young man as he sits in his car, a cascade of surprises buffets us, washes over us, leaving us gasping with delight and awe. Our initial surprise at this cool hiding place for a small stealthy blowgun, our secondary delight at the comically malevolent expression with which a skillful actress can puff a dart from said blowgun, and then our third and crowning delight at the gloriously unexpected reaction of the handsome young man when the dart hits him–well, i cannot say more except that i hope i have whetted your appetitie to check out the movie and see it for yourself. And then wait for an encore; you’ll know what i mean when you’ve seen it.

9. An additional blowgun appearance that just came to mind is a brief one, really just a cameo, during Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, when the diminutive but evil Mini-Me makes use of an appropriately diminutively-scaled blowgun as the Me pops up from a perambulator and zips a dart into one of Dr. Evil’s luckless henchmen, just as said luckless henchmen was about to reveal vital information to Austin Powers.

Second Category:  Blowguns on TV

Blowguns make fairly frequent appearances on TV shows, but usually the blowgun visits the small screen merely to make guest appearances on an occasional episode during a series’ life. Nothing (at least that I’m aware of) like the long-running appearances of the compound bows and dynamite arrows employed by the Duke Boys of Hazard County, for example. So here’s a short list of small screen appearances; I’m sure there are many more:

1. A James Bond cola (or more likely uncola) advertisement, probably with Timothy Dalton as 007, when a blowgun dart launched by a “ninja” perforates both sides of an aluminum soda can held gracefully by the suave and debonair British secret agent man, thus pouring the drink perfectly and simultaneously into the glasses of Mr. Bond and his date.  (Not hygienically reccommended for the rest of us mere mortals, however.)2. Gilligan’s Island. In one episode, the castaways discover a sort of “wildboy” who has apparently grown up in the jungle from infancy after the fashion of Tarzan or Mowgli. In one scene Bob Denver and the boy engage in a firefight with peashooter-type blowguns, much to the annoyance of the other people trying to carrry on a conversation. In another episode, peashooter blowguns are used as a form of heckling during a beauty pageant by the supposedly more mature Professor and Mr. Howle3. An episode of VIP, the blowgun is used to comic effect, when Pamela Anderson is doing some kind of repetitive exercise on an exercise mat on a beach somewhere under the California sun (I suppose) and a would-be assasin keeps firing the dart just at the wrong point of the cycle of repeated movement, so that in consequence a little grouping of darts accumulates in the mat before Pammie/Val notices what’s going on and realizes she’s being targeted.

4. The Master. A not too terribly long lived series, I believe, about a halfway-ancient westerner who is purportedly the first to be schooled in the ultra secret completely-ancient arts of the ninja. The Master uses a blowgun in at least one episode to dispatch a nasty (a nasty truck driver, I believe, a henchman of an evil truckdriving empire), with only the plastic bead of the dart visible after a hit to the neck of said nasty.

5. Best for last, hands-down: An X-files episode about a sort of pituitary vampire, who uses tiny seeds of a plant as darts to paralyze his victims without killing them, yet immobilizes them until he can do the horrifying things he has to do to extract their pituitary essences for his own metabolic purposes.  The villain has a creepily original place to store his small blowgun. Mulder takes a dart to the neck, and it is Scully to the rescue. Highly reccommended viewing.6. A made-for-tv Ewok adventure from quite a while back, put together by George Lucas & ILM.  An early scene in the movie featured an ewok using a blowgun to terminate a very large and mean wolf-bear creature that had not been amenable to (ahem) lesser weapons such as spears.Third Category:  Blowguns in Books and Short Stories

1. One of my favorite books in grade school was The Pushcart War. In the pushcart vendors’ battle against the monster-sized trucks that are squeezing the pushcarts out of existence, the blowgun (in the form of a peashooter cut from a short length of plastic tubing with darts made with pins and needles pushed through dried peas) becomes the ultimate stealth weapon in the hands of pushcart merchants and their allies who launch guerilla style hit-and-run attacks — or in at least a few cases, hit-and-don’t run attacks — on the seemingly invincible trucks, the slow hissing of air out of tires allowing plenty of time to either escape or else stand nonchalantly by, unsuspected and unremarked. Probably the largest-scale blowgun battle, albeit a one-sided one, that I’ve found in literature or any other form of entertainment, and so The Pushcart War may be considered as a kind of blowgun equivalent to the famed decisive use of the English longbow at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 to defeat the French forces that included crossbowmen.

2. A short story I used to read in a sort of old anthology or collection of short stories, but which i lost track of and so cannot at the moment supply a title or author for it. In it, an old man, the owner of a shop filled with curios and antiques, probably in South America somewhere, is visited by a couple of customers, a husband and wife. The old man’s keen judgement of human nature and the tension between the couple, the cruel remarks and insinuations dropped by the husband, tells him that the wife is trapped in a rather sadistic, loveless relationship. in response to the husband’s questioning, the old man explains his rather considerable catalogue of blowguns from various parts of the world, in all manner of sizes, some shooting pellets, some darts. The husband, callous cad that he is, reveals in front of his silent wife what if he would do if he suspected a rival for his affections, a sort of deceitful trap in which he would challenge and trick the rival into making a small scratch on his palm with a poisoned dart. The husband inquires of the shop owner if any of the shop specimens are indeed poisoned, and the old man smiles and seems to indicate that a set of darts are harmless by placing the tip of one between his lips and sucking “audibly” (if memory serves correctly). The husband, carried along by his machismo, then actually scratches his palm-the story-telling of the original makes this seem much more plausible than perhaps it sounds when i retell it here- and the couple departs. But, just as Captain Hook once told Smee that little did the Lost Boys know the dangers of eating dark, moist cake, so too did the brutal husband of this blowgun story little reckon the true properties of curare, which you will remember we touched on in the Raiders of the Lost Ark section. And, as Hook said of the Lost Boys, “They will die!” Surely enough, a rather spooked local resident comes to the shop later that day with the strange news that the husband had died rather suddenly after the couple went back on board their cruise ship. The old man, absolutely unperturbed, shrugs, smiles and asks (as near as I can remember), “Shall a tool complain in the hands of the Master?” In this we observe a theme of the dart as modus operandi of providence or destiny. Incidentally, the fact that the couple had time to return to their ship before symptoms begin to be felt by the husband, seems much more true to the gradual relaxing action of curare, rather than the instantaneous death of the dart-riddled guide in Raiders… although massive hyper-overdose might account for the dropped-in-his-tracks effect seen in the movie. But to me it seems a perfect illustration of how artistic license may take the facts and extrapolate in two diametrically opposed directions… but each quite satisfactory and necessary in its own context.

3. My hands-down, saved-the best-for-last entry in this category is definitely Sherlock Holmes – The Sign of Four. This adventure is only the second to be chronicled by Dr. James Watson after he begins his acquaintance with the renowned detective, who had not at that time quite become so widely renowned. In The Sign of Four the blowgun is used in short, accurate, and highly effective doses. The first encounter is a study in aftermath, a rather lurid scene in which a man is found dead in a locked room, his features pulled into an appalling grimace or rictus, his body seated lopsidedly in a chair. It is Holmes’ elvishly observant eye, which rarely if ever misses any significant detail, that detects a small object lodged lightly in the scalp of the dead man. The object is a sharp thorn, not of a variety familiar to England, and Watson does not know what to make of it. Holmes, although he seems fairly sure already, slips into silence and bides his time to unfold to Watson the significance of the thorn. Later, pulling an encyclopedia from a shelf, he reads to Watson from an article about the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands and the weapons they employ, and states that he would rather face a Martini bullet than a poisoned dart from such a blowgun (or as Holmes terms it, “blowpipe”), and also that he had luckily found the quiver which contained most of the arsenal of the shooter. Later it turns out, there was one remaining within the blowpipe itself. During the speedboat chase down the Thames, the moment when the Andaman Islander claps something like a school rule to his lips and Holmes and Watson fire almost in unison, is a set masterpiece built in the mind, the Blowgunner’s bones finding a memorable final resting place at the bottom of the Thames, and his final dart seen to be lodged in the cabin door between Watson and Holmes. The latter, despite his remarks about things that scared him more than martini bullets, seems to have shrugged it off without any theatrics or breaking a sweat… very understated, very Holmes, very cool, for it leaves the fantastically brief moment of action to ring in our minds like a small bell of pure tone that is not touched by the finger that would damp the sound too soon.

January 28, 2007 at 9:15 am Leave a comment

The Blowgun Defined (or, the Blowgun Transcendent)

The Blowgun Defined

If you have ever taken the time to open a dictionary or encyclopedia and look up the entry for “blowgun,” let me ask a simple question: Why on earth did you do that?

Now don’t get me wrong. It is entirely commendable to thirst after exact knowledge. But the question is exactly what KIND of knowledge were you thirsting after? After all, the blowgun in itself is such a simple piece of equipment, I wonder if anyone ever turns to a dictionary or encyclopedia in order to merely get a basic working definition of a blowgun, or simply to get an explanation of how a blowgun works.

And yet, having voiced such a skepticism, let me indeed try setting a definition of “blowgun” before you. Not at all to increase your knowledge, but simply to observe and point out a reaction. A thought experiment, if you will. Ready?

Ok, here goes the definition— ‘Blowgun: a straight, hollow tube (generally of constant diameter and circular cross-section), sometimes equipped with a mouthpiece, through which darts or pellets are propelled/impelled by the breath of the user.’

See? Such a simple piece of equipment. After all, even if you’ve never used a blowgun yourself, but have at least seen one being used, even just once, you will very likely have a fairly complete rational and intuitive understanding of its operating principles. This is especially true if one has ever been guilty of shooting spitwads at school, or has been an innocent victim of such spitwads, or has been a morally neutral bystander/witness to such a moisture-laden assault, which it will be remembered is generally carried out with the hollowed barrel of an eviscerated ballpoint pen.

Now, the dart, it is true, is perhaps another matter, being somewhat more complex and tolerance-critical to manufacture than a spitwad or spitball, and so dart-making generally does require a little explanation on specialized construction methods and appropriate materials. As for the blowgun itself, part of the reason its construction and operation seems so obvious to us is that suitable embodiments of the straight hollow tube are so easy to find in today’s world, in a vast assortment of sizes and lengths, suitable for providing barrels for all sorts of blowguns large and small.

The Blowgun Transcendent

So, with the above in mind, it seems to me that what a blowgun “is” consists not just in being a hollow tube and a mouthpiece, along with a spitwad or other suitable projectile for launching (as wonderful and fun as that simple bit of equipment can be). Rather, above and beyond that small assemblage of simple physical parts spreads a vast web of fascination, thrill and mystery exuded by that selfsame collection of simple parts when they are placed in tandem with the lungs, eyes, and brain of the blowgunner. Especially the brain, so quick to intuit the qualities of subtlety and stealth so exquisitely personified by the blowgun, and so agile to flit through the subliminal library stocked with archetypal imagery containing bits and pieces of jungles, bamboo tubes, silent slender darts, toxic amphibians, and more, much more!

Thus, to paraphrase Thomas Edison, our interest in the blowgun is 1 percent perspiration, 99 percent imagination. And accordingly, I believe that we look up the definition of “blowgun” not so much for an explanation of what a blowgun is, but rather in the interests of feeling the ‘rush’ of seeing that someone else shared our interest enough to write about it, to tell how jungle craftsmen use a heated iron rod and hammer to drill a hole in a wooden barrel, how curare is made, and its effects on monkies, and, well, I think you get the picture….

And speaking of picture(s), blowguns appear often in entertainment, as we would expect given their potential to so strongly stir our imagination and elicit a gut-level response.  Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Mummy Returns, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon all featured blow-guns. Quite recently, the blowgun graced Apocalypto and Night at the Museum with its presence. The blowgun is also well represented on the printed page. Sherlock Holmes, for example, stated early in his acquaintance with Dr. Watson that he would rather face a bullet from a Martini rifle than a poisoned dart from an Andaman Islander’s blowgun. For a more complete list of how the blowgun helps to entertain us on the printed page, the movie screen, and the television tube, please see my post on “An Ode to the Blowgun in Entertainment.”

January 27, 2007 at 4:08 am 1 comment

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January 26, 2007 at 8:45 pm Leave a comment

A New Century Dawns for the Blowgun

Welcome, one and all, to the inaugural post of my new blog, “Blowgun Geek”.  Of course, “blowgun geek” can be interpreted to refer to myself, as well as to any other blowgun geeks out there.  Although this is technically my second blog, I only started the first one yesterday, so upon further tuning in you may be able to observe me going through a learning curve or two.  Anyway, what I lack in experience, I more than make up for in enthusiasm, so look for new posts on an average of anywhere from several times a week up to several times a day, as the spirit moves me.

 I am, it is true, all aglow with anticipation about all the things in store this century for our old friend the blowgun, and consequently all the things we’ll be able to talk about in this blog.  Here’s a list that is by no means exhaustive, but suggests some of the exciting, beckoning blowgun frontiers awaiting exploration:

  1. Growing public interest in the blowgun.
    • check out youtube if you don’t believe me–but don’t copy the abysmal safety (or rather non-safety) practices of some of the videos.
    • Growing awareness or recognition in the popular culture, as evidenced in movies such as Apocalypto and Night at the Museum, which both prominently feature the blowgun in brief but potent cameo appearances.
    • Recent growth of sports organizations and competitions in a number of countries and petitioning for creation of Olympics blowgun competition events.
  2. Rapid increase in online resources explaining how to make (or buy) and use blowguns for target shooting, hunting, fishing, science projects, and more.
    • Of course, I count this blog as one of those resources.  But there are many others, as many as possible of which I’ll be adding soon in my links section and updating ongoingly.
  3. An increase in interest in traditional and ancient blowgun techniques and technology.
    • Modern space age materials can produce very cool blowguns and projectiles, no doubt (more on that below).  But equally fascinating are techniques for making blowguns in centuries-old ways (or adaptations thereof) from natural or other low-tech materials.  But that is a story for another post.
  4. Blowguns are naturals for Do It Yourself projects.
    • You don’t need power tools to make a blowgun, and you don’t need an air compressor (other than your lungs) to operate one.    And, today more than ever, it’s easy to access a wide range of materials that are suitable for making precision blowguns, darts, and other projectiles.  As time goes on, I’ll be posting various tips, tricks, techniques, and tutorials (and anything else I can think of starting with ‘t’) on making and using some very impressive blowguns, darts, and targets.
  5. Technological innovations are on the way.
    • The wave of the future is almost upon us.  No, I’m not talking about the fabled technological singularity, or first contact with an advanced alien civilization.  But let me put it this way: if you were to be frozen in suspended animation a la Austin Powers and then thawed and reanimated a year from now, you couldn’t be more surprised than Mr. Powers was after bypassing a whole three decades to jump from the 60s straight into the 90s.  Now, you may scoff, and put a pinkie to the corner of your mouth a la Dr. Evil, and raise one eyebrow in a crushing gesture of derisive scorn and doubt, and intone in an icily imperious manner, “Per-haps we are ex-AG-erat-ing, Mis-ter POwers?  HMMMMMmmmm??”  Well if I exaggerate, it’s only by the tiniest fraction.  Why am I so sure?  Well not just because Blowguns are so Grooovy, Baby, or because using Blowguns has been proven in independent clinical studies to boost your Mojo by at least 30 percent.  It’s also, in part, because of some pretty stunning blowgun innovations I’ve been developing on my own, and which I will unveil in the course of the next few months.  And also greatly in part due to the explosion of interest in blowguns that I noted above, the rapid exchange of ideas on the web, and the inevitable outcome when you get enough people interested in and talking about a given subject:  a revolution (subject of a post to come).

 I always enjoyed Stan Lee’s habit of addressing readers as “True Believers” and signing off with an “Excelsior!”.  Perhaps “until next time, fare thee well, truegeeks, and may your barrels never grow rusty” doesn’t have quite the same ring and pizazz… but I’ll keep working on it.  Meanwhile, tune in next time, same geektime, same geekchannel!

January 26, 2007 at 6:12 pm 1 comment

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January 26, 2007 at 5:10 pm 2 comments


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