The Gunfighter

(USA - 1950)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Gregory Peck, Millard Mitchell, Karl Malden, Helen Westcott, Skip Homeier, Jean Parker, Anthony Ross
Genre: Western
Director: Henry King
Screenplay: William Bowers & William Sellers based on the story by Bowers & Andre De Toth
Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Composer: Alfred Newman
Runtime: 85 minutes

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"That's a fine life, ain't it? Just trying to stay alive. Not really living. Not enjoying anything. Not getting anywhere. Just trying to keep from getting killed… Just waiting to get knocked off by some tough kid, like the kind of kid I was" - Jimmie Ringo

With the sad news of the passing of Gregory Peck, we've heard much about his iconography in the past few days. We've heard about a rugged handsome heroic noble earnest everyman that brought integrity and decency to the screen. We've heard about the righteousness and virtue of his legendary Atticus Finch character in the film that head Annihilator Jack Valenti has laughably claimed was the first Hollywood film to deal honestly with racial issues. But there was a lot more to Peck's screen work than this, and it often came out in his collaborations with director Henry King, who continually cast him against type.

The duo combined for six films from 1949-59 (King, who was born in 1886, made only one film after this), the best remembered being the great Twelve O' Clock High where Peck takes over a floundering bomber group and has to be much less likeable than he's known for and perhaps his character can stand to be in order to whip the unit into shape. In the bible film David & Bathsheba, Peck's character has everything but falls in love with the wife of one of his soldiers and brings the wrath of God on the kingdom. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, he's a very successful writer that reflects largely on his failures, particularly the love that got away because he was too busy roaming the earth in search of material, as he lies badly wounded. Probably his most interesting role is The Bravados, an Anthony Mann type western where he's a hardened obsessed man relentlessly hunting four unknown men that raped and murdered his wife, and he's so hell bent on killing he's not going to worry about getting any proof. In Beloved Infidel, he plays famous writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, but during his last years when his wife was in an asylum and he was a has-been battling alcoholism.

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At least to my mind, the best of the King-Peck collaborations was the first great penetrating psychological antiwestern The Gunfighter, which I'd rank among the top 10 westerns of all-time. Peck brilliantly plays Jimmie Ringo (based on the real killer Johnnie Ringo, who was arguably a faster shot than more famous contemporaries Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, & Wild Bill Hickock), an aging weary gunslinger that returns to try to see his estranged wife Peggie who is going by the last name Walsh and meet his child in hope of finding some reason to go on living. The role was written with John Wayne in mind, but beyond Wayne not being in Peck's class as an actor, the big reason Peck is a better choice is that he's not invincible. Everyone in the film is always saying he doesn't look that tough, and it's true of Peck who seems much more vulnerable because he's one of those guys that simply gets the job done.

Instead of cool gunfights and glorious scenery, the film depicts western life as a vicious cycle of brash wild young punks being hunters until they've knocked off one of the top dogs, at which point they graduate to being the hunted. The thing is, they don't know what the real west is like until they've tried going out in it. The difference between the hunter and hunted is seen in how they act. The hunters are braggers and showoffs, annoyances that are just out for glory and attention, while the hunted act like they've done it before and don't draw attention to themselves with any special emotion or expression. The hunters want what the hunted has, while the hunted want what they left behind.

Some of the tension is created by the fact Ringo is on the run again. Well, he's always on the run, but this time from very specific people. After once again drawing second and killing a squirt trying to make a name for himself, he flees to the area Peggie is in to avoid the squirts three brothers, who have nothing to say when Ringo asks, "What was I supposed to do, just stand there and let that little boy shoot me full of holes?" This noirish storyline of a man who can't escape his past is aided by the use of the clock, which like the whole adult antiwestern bit is for some reason instead attributed to High Noon despite Gunfighter coming out two years earlier. I think the clock creates much more tension here because there's no set time for the brothers arrival. The unknown is always more terrifying than the known, and King works the references to it in much more naturally through the unease of Ringo and the few that know and care what he's up against. Every minute he tries to meet his wife to patch things up is a minute closer to getting blown away if the brothers arrive, but also to screwing things up if the town finds out that school teacher Peggie (Helen Westcott), his old running mate now Marshall Mark Strett (a fine turn by Millard Mitchell), & son Jimmie's (B.G. Norman) are linked to him. Despite how much Ringo's fame has grown in the last 8 years, it's not very plausible that no one knows who Mark & Peggie really are. However, if you can suspend disbelief enough to run with their angle on stardom determining who can't start over, the script works excellently.

More tension is created by the fact that any number of people could kill Ringo because people are after him even for killings he wasn't involved in, but mostly because the thinking is that they'd all gain from it. Aside from the brothers, the top prospect is local hot shot Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), who is extremely jealous of Ringo's reputation and fame (and wants Peggie though like virtually everyone else he doesn't know she's linked to Ringo). His lust for what he thinks Ringo has grows that much more when all the boys in the town are disappointed to see him because they thought it might be Ringo. "Ah shucks, that's just Hunt Bromley." Another adds, "Ringo wouldn't spit on Hunt Bromley."

Most of the tension is the awkward tension of human relations. In the more amusing cases, characters are indicting Ringo to either Ringo or someone that is fond of him without knowing it. These show a retrospective side of Ringo that is pretty realistic and fair about himself, certainly less narrow-minded than the people that believe they know him. The more serious examples involve Peggie or Mark. The perspective here, like the rest of the film, is wise and intelligent. The ways these relations are effected by how others would view them, and how that will in turn affect their community standing, is more important than what the people themselves would like. The hunter brothers are commonplace to Ringo because he has people gunning for him all the time. What's rare is that he's around people who are truly important to him. When it comes to Peggie, Ringo can't bring himself to be realistic because he needs a reason to live. Peggie and Mark would like to help provide that but don't want to compromise what they've worked to achieve any more than they have to, especially for a pipe dream. While you can long for the good of the past, you still have to live in the present. Every time Ringo is ready to keep living by fleeing the three brothers, a strand of hope that the present could be worth living for is dangled before him.

The whole thrust of the film is that Ringo badly wants to change, but isn't allowed to. It illustrates the point that you can adjust all you want, but that can do you no good if others are totally unwilling to adjust to your adjustment. Ringo bears the heavy burden of his past, but in essence he's no different than many performing artists. He wanted badly to make a name for himself, but later realized he made it on something that wasn't good and/or no longer interests him. Despite his fame, he's stuck because the only opportunity is for another repeat performance.

The film is always timely because it's more about society making heroes of killers. Would be killers think it's cool because they see the positives of this stardom, all the attention and how these stars are treated special by everyone. After becoming killers they eventually see the bad of it, that you can never relax because you are always being hunted and you are also a constant danger to everyone around you, especially the ones you care about. Then they want to change, but it's too late; there's no way out except the grave.

One aspect that makes the film so successful is that the entire population of the town is brought to life. Everyone's point of view comes out through conversations with other characters, but there are enough characters and these conversations come at the right time and in a believable setting so they don't seem like contrived lines that exist solely to tell the audience the plot. Too often, you get the star and then you get a collective whole. Here, the star is still the focus, but he doesn't have to be on the screen as long as he's the center of attention. What this means is that the star can be defined by other people's perceptions of him, but also importantly the other characters can be defined by their perception of the star. There are so many people in the town that they will be broadly defined if not types, but the film is using people that really exist in an honest rather than insidious manner. It is extremely well thought out and written, succeeding in getting across where the character is coming from and/or their mentality in one or two lines. For instance, a guy in the bar warns his brasher friend, "If he ain't so tough there's been an awful lot of sudden natural deaths in his vicinity."

We see how the entire town is changed by the presence of the celebrity. Everyone that ever came into contact with him remembers vividly, and hopes he remembers them. Everyone that hasn't come into contact with him feels the need to check him out. School is called off because all the boys skip to see him. They all have to have their opinion on him and how he should be treated. For some reason (isn't every town supposed to be the same for him?) Ringo is very slow to see that his presence or absences is always at the root, originally blaming others for things he sees that aren't right then having to swallow his tongue.

The mistake of most films is in going overboard to convince us the criminal hero shouldn't lie in their bed. Despite Peck's integrity and quiet strength, the film is wisely wavering in its sympathy toward him. We grow closer to him because what he says is true and we see what a good non-confrontational citizen he's trying to be, with his plea of "Now listen partner, I come in here minding my own business. Now how bout letting me go out the same way?" But then we are pulled away by negative revelations about his past. There's certainly a part of us that would like to see how he would do if given the chance to be an honest family man. This is justified by how well Mark & Peggie, now the two most respected members of the community have turned out. But it doesn't try to delude us into thinking he could ever get that chance, with Peck playing Ringo with great regret and fleeting hope stemming from desperation. The film is much better for being more about getting people to think about what they are getting themselves into, as the next generation still has the chance Ringo longs for.

It's hard to understand why this film doesn't get the recognition it deserves. I suppose at the time people weren't ready for it. It is a great story with a lot of truth, but it is a dark film that turns the tables on the viewer and asks them to inspect the reasons they love westerns. We later saw how well Michael Powell's Peeping Tom was initially received for doing that type of thing. The Gunfighter gets rid of most of the gun fighting, the romance, the horse riding, the scenery, the spaciousness, the nostalgia, and the phony Hollywood glamorization. It replaces them with a more realistic distanced view of the trials and tribulations those people went through with the strained relationships, life on the run, and fools killing to be "special", mainly all seen from inside nondescript interiors. In trying to be as authentic as possible, Peck sported a walrus moustache. Typical of trichophobic Americans, members of 45 different Peck fan clubs responded by begging the studio to make him shave it. So when the film wasn't a success (it even failed to earn Peck a nod from the bogus Academy despite him being nominated four of the previous five years, all for lesser performances), Darryl Zanuck, who had been against it all along, blamed the moustache.

The big thing against this film in retrospect, other than the lack of showings, is it's directed by Henry King. King was one of the fine directors that thrived under the studio system. He was sure and steady, giving everything room to breathe and just letting the story and actors do their job. His films didn't always work, sometimes even bombed, but he worked on many types of films and usually succeeded. It's just not cool to like him because of the auteur theory. There's nothing individual or distinguishable about his films, no visual style, no traits or common themes, so obviously he must suck.


The one place the film goes wrong, and badly so, is the finish. When you are making a grim tragedy, you have to have the balls to end with grim tragedy trusting that great art is always uplifting no matter how bleak it is in its greatness. Hunt jumps out and shoots Ringo in the back, and Ringo should die right after asserting the story be that he drew first. We are intelligent enough to know Ringo is saying this to place the curse of fame on Hunt. We don't need the big speech explaining what was already put across extremely well in a much more natural and less direct manner; it just dumbs the film down. Mark beats Hunt up, perhaps to show he is as tough as Ringo says, perhaps to show he hasn't changed as much as we thought, or maybe just to provide a little action, it's tough to say. To make things even more corny, we get Peggie and little Jimmie finally admitting they are Ringo's family to get in the funeral, but there's no sign of shock, no funny looks, no hint that they'll now be branded and tarnished by their association with him. Finally, we get a hokey shot of Ringo riding off into the sunset to delude us into forgetting he's dead and buried or who knows what kind of nonsense as long as it delivers a happy shiny feeling. Luckily, the first 80+ minutes are so intelligent and exceptional that no tacked on stupidity could kill the overall quality of the film.



* Copyright 2003 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *