The western is arguably the most masculine genre around, celebrating toughness and highlighting the virtues of honour, pride, independence and courage. As such, it’s ideally suited to the exploration and analysis of what we consider manhood to be. The 1950s, with the predominance of what’s referred to as the psychological western, mined this theme extensively. Gun for a Coward (1957) attempts to nail down the essence of what makes a man and how his courage, or lack of it, defines him. I say “attempts” because I’m not sure it succeeds entirely in what it sets out to do, settling for the easy option at the end and not quite satisfying as a result.
The story centres around the Keough family, their struggle to build up a ranch and the dynamic between three very different brothers. Since the death of their father the paternal role has been adopted by Will (Fred MacMurray), the eldest of the three and a man who’s seen youth pass him by as the burdens of being the head of the family took priority. Still, he’s a man who’s held onto his dreams and hopes to marry the daughter of a neighbouring rancher now that financial success is within his grasp. Of the two other siblings, Hade (Dean Stockwell) is the youngest and the most aggressively reckless. In the middle, and at the heart of the story itself, is Bless (Jeffrey Hunter), the most sensitive of the trio and their mother’s favourite. Bless is the son who’s character is closest to that of his mother; he’s cautious, passive and non-confrontational. The thing is, these are not the traits that garner respect in the rough and tumble world of the west. Bless has earned a reputation as a physical coward, a man who will always back down rather than meet things head on. Later, we learn that the roots of this lie in the past and relate to the fate of his father – although I’m not sure the explanation we get really stands up to a great deal of scrutiny. Matters come to a head during a cattle drive to Abilene, when a series of events all combine to expose Bless to one physical and moral challenge after another. The upshot is that all those around: friends and workers, the other Keough brothers and, most crucially, Bless himself come to question what kind of man he really is. The resolution, when it comes around, conveniently affirms Bless’ physical bravery, but I don’t believe that was ever in serious doubt in the first place. While the perceptions of others may have branded Bless as one who was afraid to go head to head with another in a physical confrontation, the viewer is aware that his evasiveness is based more on a kind of innate knowledge that such grandstanding is ultimately futile. The real issue is Bless’ moral cowardice: his sidestepping a showdown with his mother when she is bent on moving east to take him away from the dangers and hardships of life on the frontier; his failure to do the right thing by the girl he loves; and, related to the previous, his inability to lay the facts on the table with Will. All of these matters are resolved at one point or another, though Bless never really picks up the reins and forces things himself.
Actor-turned-director Abner Biberman worked mostly in television and I think it’s fair to say his handling of his directorial duties on Gun for a Coward are unspectacular. I don’t mean to say that his work is bad, just that it’s fairly anonymous. He knew how to compose a shot and shoot an action scene, yet there’s nothing especially memorable about any of it. What raises this movie up, and it is a good movie, is the script and the acting. The writing is layered and has a great deal of depth (even if it’s not as fully explored as it could be), slotting itself comfortably into place among the many examinations of human complexity that the decade’s western has to offer. Fred MacMurray, as was the case with a number of aging stars, drifted into the western in the 50s and found a degree of success there. He plays the stable, rock-like character, the voice of reason and the point of reference for the viewer. While he may have been a little old for the role of Will (especially when it’s borne in mind that Josephine Hutchinson, as his mother, was only something like five years older) the part does call for a degree of maturity, and MacMurray also had a knack for conveying the necessary quality of quietly wounded dignity. Dean Stockwell’s young hothead is something of a caricature and there’s more than a hint of a James Dean impersonation in there. The honours really belong to Jeffrey Hunter though, who managed to get inside the skin of Bless and create a completely believable figure. Hunter could project a certain vulnerability when called upon to do so, and in Bless he becomes that man who is aware of his own weaknesses and, consequently, has come to question his stature within both his family and the wider community. Of the supporting players I want to single out Chill Wills, not just for his part in this movie but for his all round contribution to the genre. His was one of those immediately recognizable faces and voices that seemed to turn up in every other western, and invariably enriched the viewing experience.
Gun for a Coward is now available from a number of sources on DVD – a US MOD disc, and reportedly less than satisfactory editions in France and Spain. However, when I saw that it was out on pressed disc in Australia from a company called Visual Entertainment Group (who seem to have licensed a number of Universal and Fox titles) I thought I’d give it a go. I have to say that this R4 release presents the film very nicely – it’s a strong anamorphic scope transfer that’s clean and consistent. The only weak section I noticed was a brief insert that appears during the drive to Abilene, and since that looks a lot like a piece of stock footage it’s not really the fault of the DVD presentation. The disc is very basic with no extras whatsoever. Still, the movie itself is presented handsomely, and the cover pleasingly reproduces the original poster art. All in all, I’d rate Gun for a Coward as a respectable entry among the westerns of the 1950s. When you bear in mind that the decade in question is practically bursting at the seams with classics of the genre I don’t think I’m being mean in my assessment. I certainly recommend checking this one out.