The 1950s was the decade during which the western genre finally grew up. The Saturday-afternoon kiddie westerns didn’t go away, but the ’50s was when Hollywood started regularly turning out serious, adult dramas that happened to take place in the Old West.
Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) is regularly cited as the first “adult western.” In my recent review of that movie, I talked about why I disagree with that assessment. There were plenty of westerns aimed at adults before Winchester ’73, most notably the films of John Ford, Raoul Walsh, and André De Toth.
Winchester ’73 is a good movie, and is a notable example of the “adult western.” But since it wasn’t really the first (I mean, John Ford made Stagecoach in 1939, for crying out loud), if we’re going to anoint a single film as the one that ushered in a new era of realism and adult drama for the western at the dawn of the ’50s, I would like to propose Henry King’s The Gunfighter.
The Gunfighter stars Gregory Peck as an aging gunslinger named Jimmy Ringo. He has lived to the ripe old age of 35 by being a fast draw, but he’s tired.
In the opening scene of the film, we see that he avoids trouble as much as he can, but trouble finds him everywhere he goes, and he takes no pleasure in shooting young hotheads who want to test their skills against the fastest gun in the West. Ringo is a lonely man who drifts from town to town, never staying in one place for long. All he wants is to escape his reputation and settle down somewhere.
Like another great “adult” western that would come out a couple of years later — High Noon — much of The Gunfighter takes place more or less in real time. With three men on his trail who mean to kill him, Ringo rides into the little town of Cayenne, New Mexico, where his old friend Mark Strett is now a U.S. Marshal. (Strett is played by Millard Mitchell, who also had a major supporting role in Winchester ’73.)
The hands on the clock tick forward as Ringo waits in a saloon run by another of his old acquaintances, Mac (Karl Malden). Word quickly spreads through town, and a crowd gathers outside the saloon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary Jimmy Ringo.
At the same time we count down the hours with the tired and worn-out Ringo, we see the making of his replacement, a reedy punk with a wisp of a mustache named Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier).
Ringo desperately wants to see his old love Peggy (Helen Westcott), and the young son they had together. Over the course of the film, we learn that Marshal Mark Strett was also a lawless gunslinger for a time, just like Ringo, but he settled down and found respectability before it was too late. Ringo desperately hopes it is not too late for him, either.
This was the second film in a row that director Henry King made with star Gregory Peck. The first was Twelve O’Clock High (1949), and the two would go on to make a bunch more films together throughout the ’50s.
Like Twelve O’Clock High, The Gunfighter is a character study of an impossibly tough and highly skilled man who is slowly humanized over the course of the film.
The Gunfighter contains most of the important tropes of the western, like the myth of the fast draw and the tension between community and lawlessness. The town of Cayenne is populated with fully realized characters and feels like a real community. It’s also grungier and more lived-in than the freshly painted communities in Winchester ’73, with gnarled trees and rivulets of water running down Main Street. And unlike the fresh-faced actors who populated Hollywood westerns, Peck’s bushy, drooping mustache is actually period-appropriate. (Incidentally, Darryl F. Zanuck hated Peck’s mustache in The Gunfighter, and blamed it for the the film’s mediocre performance at the box office.)
The Gunfighter is a classically structured tragedy set in the Old West. It’s a great film about public perception versus quiet, private reality, as well as the collision of our individual desires with inescapable fate.
I looked for a trailer on YouTube, and couldn’t find a trailer from 1950, but I found this fan edit, which is done in a modern style. I think it’s pretty well-done and effective: