The finest Western Peck ever made
I reviewed The Gunfighter back in 2016 but having just seen it again and also listened to Matthew Chernov and Andrew Patrick Nelson’s discussion of the picture on How the West Was Cast, I thought I’d revise my post today. It’s such a great film that one can always find more to say!
In Brownsville Girl (Knocked Out Loaded, 1986), Bob Dylan sang,
Well, I’m standin’ in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck
All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck,
He wore a gun and he was shot in the back.
Well, any half-serious Western fan will remember a lot more about The Gunfighter than Mr Dylan did (shame on you, Bob), for it is one of the finest examples of the genre ever made.
Gregory Peck (1916 – 2003), one of the greatest of all Western actors, stars as a killer wanting to hang up his guns and settle down on a small ranch with his wife and son but is prevented from doing so by a young “squirt” on the glory trail, anxious to make a name for himself by killing the famed shootist. A cliché, you may say. Well, it wasn’t then. This was the archetype of that legend.
It is a legend, of course, as was the whole notion of ‘the fastest gun in the West’ (see Jeff’s Montaigne-like essay Quick on the Draw). The name chosen for the central character, Jimmy Ringo, is redolent with myth. John (often in movies referred to as Johnny) Ringo, although in fact not a notorious ‘gunfighter’ at all, is the dashing name used to define a celluloid fast-gun outlaw of the mythical West. By calling him Jimmy Ringo, the writers and director immediately established him as a figure of Wild West folklore.
John (not Johnny) Ringo, the real one, despite the 1959/60 CBS TV series or the cheesy 1964 Lorne Greene song and numerous appearances (played by John Ireland, Henry Brandon, Myron Healey, Jim Davis, they all had a go) as a psychopathic ultra-skilled gunman in various Wyatt Earp films like Wyatt Earp or Tombstone, was no aristocratic, highly educated, lightning-fast gunslinger. There’s a good book on him by Jack Burrows which I enjoyed and recommend, John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1987).
Ringo (John Wayne) was also the free ex-convict in Stagecoach, of course. To a Western fan, the name Ringo had instant semiotic impact. Actually, there’s an interesting Wayne connection to The Gunfighter: Columbia boss Harry Cohn had bought the script with Wayne in mind, and writer William Bowers was thinking of Wayne when creating the part, but Wayne was still so angry at the way Cohn has mistreated him when he was a contract player for Columbia (he did three very weak Westerns in the early 30s, but was then fired) that Wayne wouldn’t do it, though he longed for the role. In the end neither side would bend and Cohn sold the script to Fox who engaged Gregory Peck, and John Wayne as The Gunfighter was a might-have-been. How different would it have been? Well, it depends if you believe that there is such a thing as ‘a John Wayne Western’ or ‘a Gregory Peck Western’, I suppose. One reader (see comments) remarked justly that in a way Wayne played the role in the end, in his last film The Shootist, though there he was actively seeking death in the saloon.
Peck was magisterial in Westerns. He did the odd mediocre one, like Shoot Out (Universal, 1971) but most were first class. Yellow Sky (Fox, 1948) and The Big Country (United Artists, 1958) in particular, were top-drawer films. His height (he was 6′ 3″) and athleticism and quiet, stoical style suited Western roles very well and he was a fine actor. Like Gary Cooper, he was capable of transmitting subtle nuances (only occasionally required in the genre…) He was not always lucky with his directors and scripts but even in the weaker vehicles he added class and in the better ones he was magnificent. The Gunfighter might rank as the best ever.
Despite its publicity poster, the picture has none of the lurid quick-draw showdown-at-noon about it. No dash and color and zip. Black and white, indeed, noir, somber, like High Noon or the first 3:10 to Yuma, it shows a haunted man whose past is coming up like dark shadows from behind, and only the faint glimmer of a future lies before him. It’s moving, powerful and tense.
The suspense and tension are heightened by the almost bomb-like ticking of the clock as Ringo’s time runs out. This idea was most famously done in High Noon of course and later Westerns too used it, such as 3:10. It became a commonplace, like other aspects of The Gunfighter.
It is really an existential stage play and the action, which more or less respects the classical unities, takes place in a common saloon. It’s a proper tragedy in the sense that an essentially noble hero is doomed by fate. Even at the lowest level, any middle-aged person wanting but unable to pack it all in will identify with Peck. But the film soars far above that into high tragedy.
Producer Nunnally Johnson, no mean scriptwriter himself, and director Henry King worked on the script with writers William Bowers (The Sheepman, The Law and Jake Wade) and William Sellers (his only Western), with story input, interestingly, from André de Toth, who had done so well a year or two before directing another dark Western, Ramrod. De Toth would receive an Oscar nomination for it, and Bowers and Sellers would also be nominated by the Writers Guild of America for “Best Written American Western” (they probably meant Best-Written American Western, but hey, they’re only a writers’ guild). The dialogue is actually terse and effective. Andrew Patrick Nelson says that Bowers got the idea first from a talk with retired Jack Dempsey, who said that he was tired of young men who kept trying to pick fights with him, wanting to “measure their manhood” by fighting the champ. Bowers wanted to transpose that idea to the West.
King had a strong cast of supporting actors. Millard Mitchell in particular is fine as the brisk, no-nonsense marshal, a former badman friend of Ringo. He only did three Westerns, this one, Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur (he chose three of the best Westerns of the 1950s), but was very good in all three, probably best in this.
Karl Malden, usually in Westerns an overacting embarrassment, is not too bad this time as the barman, reasonably restrained. This was his first oater.
Skip Homeier is effective as the punk kid who wants to be a gunman. This was only former child actor Homeier’s second Western and he went on to carve out quite a career of the ‘punk kid’ role, making it his own. As he aged, he dropped the punk kid persona and just did punk.
A young Richard Jaeckel is Eddie, the first would-be gunslinger kid to bite the dust, in the first reel, memorable even in that short part, goading the famed gunfighter but not living to regret it. His three brothers set out after Ringo for revenge, and we assume it will be with them that the final (and fatal) gunfight will occur. Tension builds as they get nearer town, all the more so because we the audience know they are nearer than Ringo thinks, the danger is more.
Helen Westcott is the estranged wife of Ringo, Peggy. Ms Westcott had got a big part in a Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams Western in 1934 but this was only her second outing in the West. The following year she had a smaller role in a Glenn Ford Western, The Secret of Convict Lake, and in ’52 she was female lead opposite Lex Barker in Battles of Chief Pontiac. Most of her Westerns were low-budget stuff and, later, TV shows. But she is good in The Gunfighter as Peggy, if rather virginal and prim. Well, she is a schoolma’am.
The secondary female role is Molly (Jean Parker) and really, as Mrs Ringo is a schoolteacher she ought to have been named Molly, because The Virginian had established Mollies as schoolteachers in the West. If you wanted to show that a woman was ‘good’, you made her a schoolma’am. Maybe a nurse (Four Faces West) but usually a schoolma’am. Gene Tierney tried to be ‘good’ as a journalist in The Return of Frank James but it was just too racy.
There aren’t many other important parts, though quite a few townspeople here and there. It’s not a big expansive Western but a taut ensemble piece, an exciting, tense drama which is a good movie even if you don’t like Westerns (what an absurd idea).
Arthur C Miller did the (largely interior) photography and managed to create something of the lowering, dark tension that he did in The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943. Actually, the town street was the same one used in The Ox-Bow Incident. There’s high-contrast black & white of a quality that reminds me of Floyd Crosby’s in High Noon and Charles Lawton Jr’s in 3:10 to Yuma.
Director Henry King went right back to the silent days, as a lead actor from 1913 and director from 1915, including many Westerns. His biggest was probably The Winning of Barbara Worth in 1926, which we recently reviewed (see index). Then of course he’d helmed Fox’s big color Jesse James with top star Tyrone Power in 1939. The Gunfighter was his first Western since. He worked well with Peck – they made six films together, including King’s last Western, The Bravados, in 1958. George N Fenin and William K Everson in their book The Western: From Silents to Cinerama say that The Gunfighter “was a far more stylish and intelligent film than one had come to expect from this veteran actor-director.” Fenin and Everson add that many of King’s films, Jesse James among them, “were typical spectaculars with nothing very cinematically creative about them, and thus it was somewhat of a surprise when King made The Gunfighter and Twelve O’Clock High (not a Western), both fine, mature films, within a few months of each other.”
Matthew Chernov highlights the quality of the editing on the picture. Much of the tension is to the credit of Barbara McLean, known as Bobbie, a highly respected cutter, Oscar-nominated seven times, winning one. She worked often with King. It is said that Zanuck valued her advice above all others.
The Gunfighter wasn’t a great box office hit, partly perhaps because it’s downbeat and dark, partly because for some reason studio boss Darryl Zanuk took a dislike to it and didn’t push it. Head of production Spyros Skouras reportedly commented, “That mustache cost us millions.” Skouras said he’d been out of town when production began and by the time he got back, so much of the film had been shot that it was too late to order Peck to shave it off and re-shoot. Like the clothes, the mustache had an authentic, rather than a ‘Hollywood cowboy’ look. The costumes, by Travilla, the man who draped a fringed Idaho potato sack on Marilyn Monroe for a famous snapshot to prove that she looked good in anything, were actually excellent, Peck’s cut-away swallow-tail coat and narrow-brim hat especially. It is said that Peck actually turned down High Noon soon after The Gunfighter, feeling that the mediocre commercial success of the picture meant that he should look to other genres. If true, he may have regretted it!
But the critics liked The Gunfighter. As an example, Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called it “one of the tautest and most stimulating Westerns of the year,” adding that “good writing, good direction and good acting in this chronological span of a couple of hours provides some of the slickest, sharpest drama that you will get in this type of film.” It was perceptive. The film was certainly highly influential on the genre.
As Herb Fagen said in The Encyclopedia of Westerns, “This sophisticated western has grown in stature over the years, and for some time now it has been considered a genre classic.” And Phil Hardy in The Encyclopedia of Western Movies wrote, “Bowers and Sellers’ bleak script is enhanced by Miller’s stark, sombre photography and King’s restrained direction. But the centre of the film is Peck’s magisterial performance.”
By the way, there’s a hilariously bad trailer for the movie in which Gene Tierney (for some reason I know not as she has nothing to do with the picture) faces the camera and reads some nonsense off a card and her eyeballs swivel like ping-pong balls. Do watch it on YouTube if you can. You’ll laugh all day.
A television adaptation of the script, written by Sam Peckinpah, titled End of a Gun, was broadcast on the CBS network’s The 20th Century-Fox Hour in January 1957.
But as for the movie itself, it’s in the unmissable class, absolutely superb.
Comments on the 2015 post were as follows (you may wish to add your own!):
Some would place The Big Country as Peck’s best western, but I’m unable to admire it as much as I do The Gunfighter.
To me “The Gunfighter” has always stood out as a top western. I greatly appreciated your comments.
Great movie, great actor. And I love your blog.
John Wayne did the movie in the end as “The Shootist”, though with a different edge to it – seeking death in a gunfight instead of trying to avoid it
Thomas Leary says:
I don’t know how anyone cannot like Gregory Peck – both as a human being and as an actor. Certainly one of the giants in the genre and, like you Jeff, I think this is his best. He could even elevate a mediocre film – like he did towards the end of his life with ” Old Gringo” (1989).
Jeff Arnold says:
Truly fine actors, such as Peck, could lift a bad film and make a good one great.
David Arnold says:
I love this movie! My favorite Peck film is “The Bravados”, which I have watched at least 5 or 6 times! To me, he and Joel McCrea are the best western actors ever.