The Gunfighter

How come I’ve got to run into a squirt like you nearly every place I go these days? What are you trying to do? Show off for your friends?

There can be absolutely no doubt that the 1950s represented the coming of age of the western, the genre’s full flowering as a mature and thought-provoking art form. Under the circumstances, it’s highly appropriate that the decade should open with a prime example of this growing assurance, a film which confidently presents a drama of great subtlety and humanity, and also happens to be one of the best pieces of work its director and star ever achieved. I’ve heard The Gunfighter (1950) described as a film which broke new ground and took the western in a whole different direction. I’m not sure I’d completely agree with such a sweeping comment as I feel there’s ample evidence of this move already being underway as the 40s drew to a close. I think it’s more accurate to say the film stands as a significant milestone in that process of development.

Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) is a big man, one of those guys everyone knows by reputation alone. He’s made a name for himself as a gunman, a deadly killer whose fame or notoriety has become something of a curse. As the credits roll we see him riding hard across a bleak, twilight landscape. Is he running from his past or forging ahead towards a more hopeful future? I guess it’s really a bit of both; Ringo’s personal history and skills with a gun have left him open to challenges from every young tough with a hunger for the limelight. His first stop at a cheap-looking saloon sees yet another glory seeker (a very young Richard Jaeckel) goading him and throwing down the gauntlet. Despite his best efforts to avoid an unwanted fight, Ringo is left with no choice but to shoot the young hot head and make himself three more enemies in the shape of the victim’s brothers. And so he’s on the move again, away from his own legacy and also on towards what he hopes may be his salvation. Eight  years before he left behind a young bride (Helen Westcott) and an infant son, and his one dream now is to see them and maybe try to make a new beginning somewhere else. However, finding and contacting his wife won’t prove so easy as she has changed her name and determined to raise the boy without any knowledge of his infamous father. Ringo’s only ally, and he’s a reluctant one at that, is an old outlaw buddy turned marshal, Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell). Mark has given his word to safeguard the woman’s identity and will do no more than pass on Ringo’s message requesting a meeting. And so this tired gunman’s only choice is to wait it out in the saloon, besieged by rubbernecking locals and hero-worshiping kids, to see if there’s any possibility of a reunion and a fresh start. All the while the three revenge obsessed brothers draw nearer, and a young ne’er-do-well by the name of Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier) itches to take his turn at throwing down on the great Jimmy Ringo.

What we have here is the classic western scenario of a man hemmed in by bad choices in his past, desperate to make some kind of amends and striving for salvation, redemption and renewal. One tends to think of the western frontier in terms of wide open spaces, of boundless possibilities and the promise of personal freedom. Ringo dreams of these of course, but his world has narrowed and closed in around him. The west of Jimmy Ringo has shrunk to the dimensions of a saloon bar in a nowhere town. His fame has imprisoned him and he’s living out a sentence written out and pronounced upon himself by his own actions. But that’s not to say Ringo is a villain in the classical sense; he’s as much a victim of poor judgment, and his obvious love for his estranged family and his desire to make a clean break with violence means he cuts more of a tragic figure. According to one of the extra features on the DVD, writer William Bowers (co-credited with Andre de Toth) got the idea for the story when he spent some time in the company of the legendary boxer Jack Dempsey. It seems that Dempsey was confronted by some blowhard eager to show off and prove his courage by challenging him to a fight. It’s that dark side of fame that’s explored here and the Old West setting, with its inherent focus on the myths of masculinity and machismo, is an ideal canvas for its presentation. The script necessarily confines the action to a handful of sets but director Henry King and cinematographer Arthur Miller never allow any sense of staginess to dominate. The restrictions on Ringo’s movement are essential to the telling of the tale, since his room for maneuver in life is limited it helps that the viewer shares that feeling of being unable to get out into the open. In the end our anti-hero does attain his goal, albeit in an oblique fashion, and the final image, by mirroring the opening, has that perfect symmetry that is always the mark of top class filmmaking.

Gregory Peck was a big box office draw at this point, a leading man with a strong female following and the role of Jimmy Ringo, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the image, was to prove somewhat problematic. King wanted to nail the look of the period as well as he could and that meant making a few alterations to his star’s appearance. It’s been said that Darryl Zanuck laid the blame for the film’s lack of financial success squarely on Peck’s mustache, although it’s hard to know how seriously we’re supposed to take that. Nevertheless, Peck himself rated his performance highly and I guess it’s fair to say time has borne out his assessment. He brings a genuine feeling of the weariness of the burdens of his reputation to the role. The way his dusty and tired character carries himself as he enter the saloon for the first time hits just the right note, and his nervy twitchiness befits a guy who’s learned the hard way that he has to watch his back at all times. Peck was the same age as the character he was playing, although his look and demeanor suggest a man older than that. Apart from the conflict within Ringo which the script calls for, Peck also injects a touch of impish humor from time to time which rounds out the character and makes him seem more human – for example, the little interlude in the marshal’s office where he debates the merits of his being run out of town with the local ladies, all blissfully unaware of his true identity, and ends up conceding that hanging might indeed be a suitable punishment for him, is delightfully played.

Of the other cast members, Millard Mitchell really stands out. His portrayal of the reformed outlaw caught between his sense of duty to the community which has offered him a second chance and his loyalty to an old friend is spot on. As good as Peck is, it’s Mitchell who acts as the glue which binds everything together. Gruff, laconic and earnest, he displays a great sensitivity in his moments as the go-between passing Ringo’s message on to his wife, and his toughness is wheeled out too on the occasions when he has to confront the weaselly braggart Hunt Bromley. Skip Homeier always made a fine villain, and this early role is a memorable piece of work. He does a fine job of capturing the bravado, irreverence and resentment of youth, and I think it’s heavily implied in the final shot of the film (although other interpretations of that scene are possible) that Hunt Bromley is essentially a mirror image of a younger Jimmy Ringo. Karl Malden’s entrepreneurial barkeep is an entertaining turn too; obsequious in the face of opportunity and always calculating the profits to be gained, he comes to resemble a circus ringmaster wooing and shooing the onlookers keen for a peek at his prize exhibit. And of course there are the ladies. Helen Westcott as the conflicted wife is never less than affecting as she conducts an internal duel over her love for her husband and the need to protect her son, while Jean Parker is all guts and wistfulness as the widow of another gunman.

The Gunfighter was released on DVD by Fox some years ago as part of a box set of westerns in the US. There are also editions available in other regions but I think the US version is the best of the bunch in terms of picture quality – crisp, clean and sharp. Among the extra features on the disc are short pieces on the film itself, and its significance within the genre, and one on cinematographer Arthur Miller. While both are very welcome, I feel the movie actually deserves a more comprehensive analysis. The Gunfighter is one of the great westerns of the 50s, or any decade for that matter, and it’s always a pleasure to revisit it.

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45 thoughts on “The Gunfighter

  1. Big favorite of mine, too Colin. Mitchell was always a welcome presence and this might be his best work. That “Fox Box,” incidentally, came with Rawhide and The Garden of Evil, all nicely remastered. That’s about as much bang for the buck as you can get..between those three the thing hardly ever gets refiled on my shelf! Anyway, great review as always.

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    • Thanks. Yes, Mitchell passed far too soon as he was a very good character player.
      That Fox western set is indeed a little gem with three very fine titles bundled together, and I seem to remember it was quite cheap when it came out, maybe still is.

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  2. I do really like this film (and got it in the same set that you have I think) and Miller’s work is very well rendered to disc – it is of course downbeat and I think you’d have to blame the somber subject and low key treatment rather than Peck’s tache! Great write up Colin – love that story about Jack Dempsey – hope it’s true!

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    • Thanks, Sergio. It’s definitely low-key and generally somber but there are moments of lightness sprinkled throughout. I know I was very young when I first saw the film myself, early teens at most, and I didn’t really get it then. It’s mostly a character piece about aging, change and the desperate need to find a new direction in life – all things most can appreciate as time moves on but probably not the kind of material to fully engage a very young person or anyone looking for a quick western fix.
      I think the ending can be viewed if not as exactly positive (not in the classic Hollywood sense anyway) then at least as fitting – Peck’s character gains as much as one could realistically expect, maybe even more when you see that he’s finally accepted by both family and community.

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      • Well said Colin. As a youngster it was the sort fo thing I would have rejected out of hand as being too depressing (and probably lacking in action). Now it is very much my preferred cup of java. Let’s face it, Ringo has a target on his back right from the beginning so there are only so many places left to go.

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        • I think so. There really was only one place for the story and character to go in order to make any kind of worthwhile point. Both logically and thematically, anything else would represent a fudge, robbing the tale of its power and diluting all the realism the filmmakers obviously strove to achieve.

          BTW, I also enjoyed all those sly little digs at the legend of Wyatt Earp all through the movie, suggesting the character was at least inspired by, if not quite based on, the real-life Johnny Ringo.

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          • I think the first time I saw it I thought the name actually was ‘Johnny’! Amazing to think that Earp was still very much part of living memory at the time – he’d only been dead what, 20 years by that point?

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            • Yes, thereabouts. And of course this kind of thing helps explain why the western was such a big part of entertainment diets at the time, and also perhaps why it has declined. The whole period, and some of the figures involved, weren’t all that far removed from the public consciousness then.

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                • Quite. And this film indulges in a pretty rigorous debunking of the western myths, where the whole notion of the gunman is stripped of all its superficial glamor.
                  I’m always interested in those films which deal with violence in a mature and considered way, as is the case here, and where every act is seen to have consequences and impact on those involved. There’s a moment when Mitchell’s character talks about how the aftermath of a violent raid altered his perspective on life and where he was going. It’s only a brief scene but it sums up a good deal of what the movie is all about.

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  3. Peck in fine form here and Millard as has already been mentioned is a welcome presence in any film. A very mature role for Peck at this point in time. And wow! was Jaeckel ever young here. Always happy to see him turn up. I have that same box set and it’s a welcome trio of films.

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    • I know exactly what you mean about the youthful looking Jaeckel – I remember being surprised by how young he was when I first saw the previous year’s Sands of Iwo Jima.

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  4. Great review! I saw it more than 50 years ago and did not enjoy it. Will have another viewing soon. I noted your comment about the moustache and it really puts me off then. Best regards.

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    • You haven’t seen it since, Chris? That’s an awful long time!
      I do feel it’s a movie which connects to viewers more as they get older and I’m sure watching it now will elicit a different response from you.

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  5. A great post on a movie that gets better every time I see it. This and Winchester 73 really got the decade off to a great start.

    Glad to see you shine the spotlight on Millard Mitchell. He’s so good in this. It’s s shame he died so young. He could’ve made a huge impact on the genre.

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  6. A real “Colin Special” review of one of the true western classics. Well written, Sir!

    In 1950 the subject matter was fresh. It certainly had never previously been treated with such maturity. It would be much copied in the years to come. In its wake Frank Burt wrote a good set of stories called “The Six Shooter” which came to radio in 1953 starring the great James Stewart about a man with a reputation with a gun that he frequently has to try to live down. It was a good series. This, of course, came to TV in 1957 (albeit with a change of name) as “THE RESTLESS GUN” starring John Payne. The premise was still much the same and the character still had a horse named Scar. In early episodes Payne is referred to as The Six Shooter.

    Similar to others here my earliest view of “The Gunfighter” was through young eyes and I also was put off by the ‘tache and severe haircut. Course, now I love the authentic look of it. Quite a brave film for Peck to make at that point in his growing career.

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    • Thank you very much, Jerry.
      I keep hearing about The Restless Gun and plan to see it but I never seem to get round to it – the price of the box set never drops all that much though so I’m still waiting.
      I agree the movie was a brave move for Peck at the time. It’s not a glamorous role yet he throws himself into it and the results are very pleasing. Of course he would go on to make plenty more satisfying genre pieces.

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  7. Great stuff Colin, I had never heard the Jack Dempsey story before-fascinating!
    Just thought I’d add my admiration for Skip Homeier. Sadly, Skip does not seem to want to talk about his movie career and that’s a shame considering his enormous contribution to The Western genre in general. Skip was in a more sympathetic role in THE LAST POSSE a wonderful unheralded gem of a Western which should be far more well known than it is. Apart from his work with Boetticher, Skip was also outstanding in Joe Kane’s excellent ROAD TO DENVER as a young hothead with a fast gun to match his quick temper. A different Skip was shown in the blistering Noir CRY VENGEANCE where he played a psycho
    called Roxey. It’s a great performance and, Colin, I know that you have this one in your “to be viewed” heap; but all I can say is move it up to the top Buddy!
    Skip had a rare lead role in an engaging Republic B THUNDER OVER ARIZONA which had the advantage of being in widescreen and color. He had another lead role in a Brit B crime thriller NO ROAD BACK (1956) which is a superior example of it’s type. It is the sort of film that I hope Network will unearth some day. NO ROAD BACK had a supporting role for a young hopeful called Sean Connery who was born the same year as Skip BTW. What different career paths those two guys took. Still when all is said and done Skip is a great asset to any Western even if he had to virtually reprise his GUNFIGHTER role many times during his career.

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  8. Great write up Colin – I think I caught it on Sky on some rainy autumn afternoon and was pleasantly surprised, having approached it with trepidation thanks to its reputation. Excellent work from Gregory Peck, an actor I’m increasingly convinced was incapable of giving a bad performance and, as this film shows, had a surprising amount of range.

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  9. I know the discussion has waned and sorry this is belated. But I wouldn’t feel right if anyone is still reading it not to say something about the three film set from Fox with Rawhide and Garden of Evil along with this as I bought it last year at a very low price and it has steadily remained at that wonderful price within a few dollars either way and is right now. For three Westerns of this quality transferred this well it’s about as good a deal as you can imagine.

    Meanwhile, as always, you give a thoughtful and sensitive account of a deeply resonant Western that will always hold a strong place. Especially to the point, you wrote:

    “What we have here is the classic western scenario of a man hemmed in by bad choices in his past, desperate to make some kind of amends and striving for salvation, redemption and renewal.”

    When you discuss Westerns along these lines, I especially respond to what you say because as you know I feel great affinity with you on the redemption/renewal theme that became the genre’s most deeply explored one as the decade wore on. And The Gunfighter is interesting in that regard in that among Westerns that treat this theme, it is probably the one closest to Greek Tragedy–though in other ways the genre at its best always has some deep artistic affinities; here, it seems foregone from the beginning that Ringo is fated through his earlier actions for things to go as they do, and it’s just a question of how it will. In many later Westerns, there can be a hard-won redemption even for the most violent and negative past (Man of the West)–the Millard Mitchell character here, who one feels was never so evil but just rode the wrong trail, prefigures those who are allowed to live it down.

    I saw this initially when I was pretty young, fortunate to have a father who could talk to me about Westerns in a serious way–he couldn’t get into that revival double bill of this and Yellow Sky fast enough! Of course, when you are young, you like action and plenty of it, but you can also learn to respond to tension. Gunplay in Westerns is very important, and at its best, as here, cathartic, but it is one of many elements a Western needs and there doesn’t need to be that much of it. I believe that some understanding of that has been lost and it’s hard to imagine a Western along classical lines like this one being made now. Exactly two–that’s 2!–men die (from gunfire) in the whole film, and it happens very fast both times.

    One thing that interests me in the direction of Henry King (who I consider a great director) in this one is that one of his customary virtues, both stylistically and dramatically, is to be slow and patient, but because of the time frame of the action here, this needs to be taut. And it is, yet he remains slow and patient too–somehow it is both.

    I’d also note that King was surely Gregory Peck’s best director–something the actor is known to have felt himself (in fact, at a UCLA tribute to King they showed The Gunfighter and Peck was one of those who showed up for it and joined a panel afterward). Of six movies, only Beloved Infidel, the last one, does not work well–in the others, 12 O’Clock High, The Gunfighter, David and Bathsheba, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Bravados, Peck is unfailingly superb playing complex men defined by all kinds of inner conflict and struggle. This was a really good relationship

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    • Thanks, Blake. The lack of shootings is well worth mentioning. In a way, it reminds me of Shane, where violence there is also relatively scarce and thus much more powerful in its effect on the viewer when it does occur. It is hard imagine that kind of restraint being shown nowadays and it’s seems filmmakers, by and large, have forgotten that less is frequently more when it comes to action. And it’s not only the viewer’s who are affected, plots tend to be lent greater weight when violence is depicted as something shocking both for its rarity and its consequences.

      I also think Peck’s collaborations with King produced some of his best work. I’ve seen all of them with the exception of Beloved Infidel, although I’ll no doubt track it down at some point.

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  10. Wonderful review, Colin. I especially like what you say about Millard Mitchell. He certainly had an amazing year in 1950 playing key roles in classic Westerns.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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    • Thanks, Laura. Your own piece on the film from a while back (which can be found here) suggests you enjoyed much the same stuff that appealed to me, even if the overall fatalistic tone wasn’t entirely to your liking.

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  11. Definitely. A hard movie to watch in some ways, yet there is so much good about it that it really is must-see filmmaking. A very fine cast and screenplay, among other things. Your review does a great job capturing many of the film’s memorable details.

    Thank you for the link!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  12. Great review– I saw this long enough ago (or I’m finally getting old enough?) that I’m foggy on it and need to rewatch, but just as a general comment, westerns of this era were so great, I still need to see so many more of them (nice problem to have) but never get tired of the way the good ones work the genre ‘formula.’ Best

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    • Thank you. That’s a good point you make about the formula. Genre pictures, and not just westerns, almost always operate according to a formula – such is their nature. I get tired of hearing the lazier critics use the term as though it were some kind of insult as a formula is merely a device to frame and set up a story. What’s important is not the existence of a formula but how filmmakers use it to their advantage.

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      • Yes and it’s not at all restrictive, repetitive or predictable, when in the hands of masters it can truly be about anything. Kind of a tangent there but your review and the westerns I’ve been reading about and watching lately have been reminding me of all these good things.

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        • Exactly. What we think of as a stock situation doesn’t need to be trite. Good writers and filmmakers can use familiar tropes to present something original and, perhaps more importantly, thought provoking.

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  13. I first saw this movie about 10 years ago .Gregory Peck played a good part in this as he usually does and this was the first movie I saw Skip Homier .However after losing my son 7 years ago I found it hard to watch ,particularly the scene in the church when they are singing that Hymn and then they show Peck on his horse never coming back ,but then time heals these things .Great review of this movie Colin.

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  14. Pingback: Spring Forward: Year of Bests – 2015 | It Rains... You Get Wet

  15. An excellent film all the way around, and an excellent review from you, Colin. Peck is particularly good here as the aging gunfighter who just wants to be left alone. Skip Homier is always good in these slightly off kilter roles. Too bad he never had a longer run in films. There is a 1953 episode called “The Ledge” from the long running SCHLITZ PLAYHOUSE anthology series. It is directed by Ted (HANG EM HIGH, MAGNUM FORCE) Post. Regis Toomey lends support and 6 time Oscar nominated Russ Harlan is the D of P. Might be on You-Tube with a review up at the usual establishment. I recommend.

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    • Not seen that ep, Gord, but it is online and I’ll try to fit in a viewing. Homeier is very watchable as a villain, but I think he did get stereotyped quite quickly.

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