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Wednesday Western: 'The Gunfighter' (1950)
20th Century Fox

Wednesday Western: 'The Gunfighter' (1950)

Everybody wants a shot at Gregory Peck's world-weary legend; he just wants to hang up his guns.

Jimmy Ringo is the fastest gun in the West, a reality that causes him great annoyance and emotional pain.

When news spreads that he’s in Cayenne, the school teacher declares a holiday to let the girls go admire him — the boys didn’t even show up for class. There are other reasons the teacher let them loose.

He’s welcomed by marshals and deputies who cautiously tell him to keep moving to the next town.

It’s a simple story, but a good one: An infamous gunfighter is besieged by fame-seeking hotshots who force him into their murders. With each dead hotshot, his infamy grows, further cementing his identity as a killer and intensifying the widespread pursuit of his death.

It’s the only thing that people talk about. How will he die? How many has he killed?

This conversation takes place in every single scene, with different people using the same exact words and phrases. All the while, this notorious gunslinger just wants to see his wife and son. That is all he can think about.

The complexity of "The Gunfighter" — and for all its simplicity, it is wildly complex — comes largely from the constant irony seeping from every single line.

Even the marching squad of nagging women who condemn Ringo don't realize they're just burnishing the myth.

And yet, his son still prefers Wyatt Earp.

Nor do they realize that the kind, patient, reticent, and ultimately upright man they’re talking to is in fact the savage murderer they’re screeching about.

When the marshal comes into the jail station, one of these hen-ladies berates him, unaware that she’s literally a foot from Ringo:

“What do you to intend to do about the madman?”

“Nothing, Ma'am,” says the marshal.

“You’re going to allow him to sit right there in that saloon as long as he pleases, demoralizing the whole town?”

“Well the trouble so far ain’t been him demoralizing the town, it’s the town demoralizing him. Some fella just tried to demoralize him with a Winchester.”

With each scene, the disparity between Jimmy Ringo's murderous reputation and his private heartbreak widens.

Everybody wants Ringo to fight. They want to witness him kill or croak, but to him, it’s like swatting flies — he’s so quick that the camera doesn’t even have time to pull back to him by the time he’s fired a deadly shot. All it does is remind him of his deep sadness.

"The Gunfighter" depicts that sadness with notes of unexpected humor.

Characters make strange decisions, many of which simply fizzle out. This actually improves the drama.

The deputy guarding Ringo at the Palace Bar displays quietly comic cluelessness. He refuses to abandon his post in order to pursue a rifle-wielding maniac. This leaves Ringo to do the lawman's work.

It’s one of the great ironies in a film flooded with ironic situations and people: Our lovable “villain” might be the most lawful man in town.

Tick tock

Much like "High Noon," there’s a running countdown that keeps Ringo fixated on clocks. He’s got to escape before three men come to kill him, but he’s trapped, like an inmate awaiting execution.

For most of the movie, he’s stuck in the Palace Bar. That name is wonderfully ironic for what is essentially a prison.

In our interview, Andrew Patrick Nelson offered a list of four Westerns that everyone needs to see: “In terms of underrated Westerns, 'The Gunslinger' is probably one of the most underrated Westerns. So, I would start there.”

A loosely historic account of gunslinger Johnny Ringo, "The Gunfighter" features Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, an infamous aging gunslinger who “tries to reconnect with his wife and child, but finds that his past always is going to catch up with him, which is a kind of a timeless Western story and seems more contemporary.”

Notably, the film is directed by Henry King, a legend of the early days of Hollywood and a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"The Gunfighter" is the second of six collaborations between King and Peck, one of the decades-spanning actor-director duos for which the genre is known.

"The Gunfighter" was the second-to-last film of veteran cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, who makes his noir background apparent.

But it’s also a film experience you enjoy hearing. If you covered up the screen and only paid attention to the audio, it might not be obvious that the film is a Western. It’s full of the kind of banter that could just as easily appear in a Bogart film.

I love the sound of the movie in general. It has none of the volume-jumping of modern movies. It’s an incredibly relaxing movie to watch. Soothing.

Westerns can heal what ails you. There's more than a little truth to the recent Babylon Bee meme reading, "Breakthrough treatment discovered for male depression called ‘Watching Tombstone.’"

Admirers and schemers

Jimmy Ringo can’t go anywhere without people gawking at him, stammering, afraid and in awe. Just as reliable are the wannabes eager to gain their own prestige by winning a gunfight against the inimitable Jimmy Ringo.

If I sound repetitive, it's because the film emphasizes these tensions and anxieties relentlessly until we feel as beleaguered as Ringo himself.

Gregory Peck does a fantastic job of capturing the exhaustion of an old West legend who's had enough.

What he wants is normalcy. He earned the fame he sought when he was young and cocky, now it’s a burden he can’t ever set down. Ironically, because the people wanting his fame for themselves won't let him.

At the same time, they fear him. They don’t want him in their safe little towns.

Ringo wanders from town to town just trying to get a glass of whiskey and be left alone. But his presence alone is enough to spook anyone he interacts with. This fame is a handicap. A sizable hindrance.

“I guess I’ve got more people wondering when I’m gonna get killed than any man in the country.”

This might not be as hyperbolic as it seems.

“He don’t look so tough to me,” a deputy tells the marshal, who has known Ringo for years — long enough that Ringo is surprised to see him wearing a badge.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s the way it always starts. He don’t look so tough to somebody.”

“Except with this somebody it’s gonna stop right there, too.”

“Ha,” replies the marshal, “because with a man like that, you can’t come off much better than second.”

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Kevin Ryan

Kevin Ryan

Staff Writer

Kevin Ryan is a staff writer for Blaze News.
@The_Kevin_Ryan →