Rock rides again
Next in our series on the Western of 1953 (o epic year) comes the other Raoul Walsh/Rock Hudson oater of that vintage, this time, though, for Columbia, released in November – just before Warners’ Hondo (click the link for our review), which was unfortunate timing in that Hondo was greatly lauded by the critics and did hugely well at the box office, so it stole some of Gun Fury’s thunder. We’ve already reviewed the first Walsh/Hudson effort, the John Wesley Hardin biopic (aka whitewash) The Lawless Breed (click for our look at that one), released in January ’53.
Gun Fury was another 3D movie, the trendy format of ’53, though in fact by the time it was released the craze was petering out. There were problems of projection and some viewers complained of headaches. In any case not all theaters were equipped to screen these pictures. But while it lasted it was a big fad. Warners’ André De Toth-directed horror House of Wax was a monster hit, and many Westerns, including Hondo, went for it too. Director Walsh had only one eye, after a car smash in 1928, so he couldn’t see 3D at all. But then that was the same with De Toth. De Toth shot another 3D Western, The Bounty Hunter, with Randolph Scott but by the time it was ready (1954) 3D was ‘out’ and the picture was released in standard format.
Gun Fury is in Technicolor and was photographed by Lester White, who also shot The Stranger Wore a Gun and Fort Ti (the latter another 3D oater) the same year. The locations are great, those orange rocks round Sedona, Arizona that we are so fond of. The colors are bright and the print on the DVD very good.
When you first start watching Gun Fury, you might be tempted to think ho-hum, a 50s Western with Rock Hudson. And up to a point you keep thinking that all the way through. However, at one point the picture suddenly starts to grip you. The movie is tight, action-packed and has some very good dialogue. Could it be written by Burt Kennedy?
Actually, the screenplay was by Irving Wallace and Roy Huggins, from the three-author novel Ten Against Caesar, by a gaggle of Grangers. Novelist and short-story writer Wallace, author of The Chapman Report and The Prize, also contributed to the Western movies The Gambler from Natchez and The Burning Hills, as well as penning episodes of TV Westerns such as Yancy Derringer. Huggins had directed and written the excellent Hangman’s Knot with Randolph Scott the year before Gun Fury and would go on to write many Cheyenne and Maverick episodes, and later The Virginian. Both Wallace and Huggins knew their business and the story and dialogue of Gun Fury are pretty darn good. The basic theme is anti-pacifist: the hero hates violence but eventually comes to see that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do – with a gun. Still, to be fair, our hero never actually shoots anyone in the picture.
The ubiquity of the word gun in the title of Western movies says something on its own. Gun Fury was not the first, or last. On this blog alone we have reviewed 77 Westerns with the word gun in the title.
Rock is Ben Warren, who has come out of the Civil War revolted by violence and determined not to fight ever again. He is going to California by stagecoach with his fiancée Jennifer (Donna Reed) to start a new life.
But also traveling on the stage is smarmy but crazed Confederate Frank Slayton (Philip Carey, the captain from Springfield Rifle) and his sidekick Jess (Leo Gordon – the same year he was also the lowdown Ed Lowe, shot by John Wayne in Hondo).
The soldiers who are the stage’s military escort are in reality Slayton’s thugs and they hold up the coach, shoot Rock and leave him for dead, and the whole gang run off with Donna. Rock comes to (the bullet only creased him, you know how they do) and naturally gives chase. He soon joins up with Jess, who has fallen out with Slayton and wants revenge, and an Indian, Billy Whiskers (Post Park), also out for vengeance because Slayton abducted his woman too. Of course the Indian immediately becomes the gofer, being given the menial tasks in a slightly Tonto-ish way.
So Jess now becomes a semi-goody, an unusual departure for Leo. He was one of my favorite ever Western bad guys. My spirits always lift when I see his name in the cast.
In the gang we also find Blinky, played by Lee Marvin, 29 years old but already in his 14th film and 5th Western, and Brazos, impersonated by Neville Brand, 19th movie and 3rd Western. They have very Elvis-style oiled haircuts. Blinky is rather bolshie and doesn’t care for the dame being taken along and slowing them down.
The notion of the Californian idyll, that ranch where they will live happily ever after, is a standard trope in Westerns. California was (even) farther West, so in a Western it could still be the promised land where a man would be free. When the West got too violent, or too civilized, that was where pioneers headed. Sometimes they went to Mexico but usually it was California. Hondo and Angie Lowe set out for there at the end of the movie Hondo, as do Henry Fonda and Betsy Palmer in The Tin Star. You will be able to think of other examples.
There’s a Mexican girl Estella (Roberta Haynes) who had been Slayton’s squeeze but he throws her over in favor of Donna, and even gets Blinky to shoot her horse (he shoots his Winchester into the 3D camera) to leave her afoot. So she joins up with Ben, Jess and Billy Whiskers. So now they are four.
A gang member, Curly (Bob Herron) tries to help Jennifer but the ploy fails and Curly is staked out and trampled to death for his pains. Gradually the arithmetic is changing. Ben started alone and it was 1 against 9, but then it became 2:8, then 3:8 and it’s now 4:7. Slayton’s gang is slowly being whittled down and the odds are shifting. Something similarly mathematical happened in another Walsh Western, Along the Great Divide.
John Dierkes appears briefly as a sheepherder from whom they get another horse and some guns.
Jennifer is a bit wet. She faints when Ben is shot during the stage hold-up, then screams when she sees a rattler. Not sure how’s she going to cope on that California ranch. Still, she does her best to shape up and she at least tries to make a run for it when the gang aren’t looking.
Eventually Slayton proposes a deal. He will give Jennifer back if Ben hands over Jess. The ending is, I must say, on the improbable side. Dennis Schwartz said, “The terrible ending, where the Rock Hudson character suddenly acts out of character, almost wrecks this straight-forward Western actioner.” But as you may imagine, there’s a last-reel reunification of lovers prior to the Calif journey and all’s well that ends well – except for the various corpses littered on the red Arizona earth.
Rock suffered an attack of appendicitis on the last day of filming, so he timed that nicely.
Gun Fury never becomes a great Western. It’s not in the Hondo class and certainly not anywhere near other ’53 offerings like The Naked Spur or Shane. But it is nevertheless very enjoyable, with a strong cast giving some very good performances (Carey nearly steals the show). Hudson is excellent, as he often was (after all, he was Oscar-nominated for Giant). It rattles along – Walsh was very good at pace – and it’s well written. If you like a 50s action Western with zip (and why are you reading this blog is you don’t?) you’ll enjoy it.
I did. Again.
Nice to see Leo Gordon with a big, almost sympathetic part, for a change. And he rises to the occasion. Compared to Phil Carey, he almost seems like a nice guy.
The blu-ray, btw, faithfully renders the 3-D effect, which is used more subtly than in some other films — House of Wax, let’s say — and actually enhances the cinematography.
I agree about Leo the Great.
Nice that various ’53 3D movies are now coming out in Blu Ray and once again available in that format.