I’ve watched two gunfighter westerns in a row now, Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and now The Gunfighter (1950), both of which I’ve not seen in sometime. Both sharing the theme of the life of the gunfighter, not having a place to call his own. A reputation built upon fear and sheer luck, not able to stay in one place for too long. I could stop the review there,I have just summed up The Gunfighter in a few sentences, but that wouldn’t do the film justice, which isn’t fair. So I will be going to explore this very short film that takes place mostly in a saloon bar-room. Used as a place of hide-out from the rest of the world that is wanting to put a bullet in him.
After running from one town at the beginning where he is tested by a “squirt” who wants to makes his mark in the world, to earn a name is gunned down legally (back in the Wild West) which at the time is still acceptable. The right to defend yourself is enshrined into the American Bill of Right you can understand the countries relationship with the deadly weapon. That hasn’t really changed much, of course you need a licence now and a motive for defence has to be rigorously tested in court. The Gunfighter explores the psyche of the gunfighter properly for the first time here. The giant men of the west such a Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and the likes are or were dangerous men who have been glorified. Earp did as we know become a marshal as I have recently seen portrayed by Burt Lancaster. Both Earp and Johnny Ringo (Gregory Peck (in The Gunfighter)) both have learnt from past gun-fights that it’s not really a life to aspire for. It’s an aspect masculinity that is really a flaw that needs to be kept in check. To know when to draw a gun, to defend oneself.
Packed into the short running time we have the repercussions of that last gunfight as three brothers come after him. That’s not before we discover how good Ringo is with a gun, he is not a man to be messed with. Or one that wants to mess around, wanting the quiet life now, becoming to talk of the town where we spend the majority of the film. The saloon, his hide-out from the world, and probably where he killed most of his victims all over the West, it’s only the interior and people that change. It also reflects how trapped he is, unable to move freely for the reputation that precedes him. Boys skipping school to catch a glimpse of what they believe to be an idol in their town, seeing him as a role model and not a murderer.
It’s thanks to old friends such as Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell) that support him, keeping him safe from those wanting to try their luck with Ringo. Learning that Strett is himself a reformed gunfighter who went straight to now enforcing the law. We also have Mac the barman (Karl Malden) who is both in awe of Ringo yet is able to look beyond to see the man without the gun. A man who just wants to see his old flame, school teacher Peggy Walsh (Helen Westcott) who couldn’t accept him. Forcing him to leave her and his son behind.
The Gunfighter is not all about the action that comes from bar-room brawls and quarrels that have to be sorted like gentlemen out of the street. Its about having to deal with your path in life and how it affects other people. Taking the route of violence may have its appeal at first, which wears off when you start to really hurt and kill. Summed up far better by William Munny (Clint Eastwood) years later in a few lines.
“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
When you look into the life of a gunfighter once the crowds have gone, what do you really have? People living in fear, families of victims wanting vengeance and justice, the fear of someone being faster than you are. That’s before you get the glory that comes with the title of being a gunfighter, not to be crossed or wronged. Losing out on having a family and a partner to call your own. The Gunfighter starts to take the western seriously, the figures of the West before were seen as heroic figures before the law takes them down or they change their ways. Now the western is growing up as the 1950’s are beginning.
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