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The Gunfighter (June 23, 1950)

The Gunfighter
The Gunfighter (1950)
Directed by Henry King
20th Century-Fox

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.

Gregory Peck

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.

Peck and Westcott

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:

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Twelve O’Clock High (Dec. 21, 1949)

Twelve OClock High
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Directed by Henry King
20th Century-Fox

In my review of Battleground (1949) last month, I referred to it as “a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience.”

When I said that, I completely overlooked three studio pictures about air combat in World War II that were released before Battleground — Raoul Walsh’s Fighter Squadron (1948), Sam Wood’s Command Decision (1948), and Delmer Daves’s Task Force (1949).

It just goes to show that you shouldn’t make bold pronouncements about films by using words like “first” and “only” unless you’ve seen every movie ever made, and seeing every movie ever made is impossible.

So I’ll take the hit on that inaccuracy.

Anyway, Twelve O’Clock High was the third in a string of high-profile studio pictures about World War II released toward the end of 1949, all of which received several Oscar nominations. (Battleground and Sands of Iwo Jima were the first two.)

B-17s in flight

Like Sands of Iwo Jima, Twelve O’Clock High features actual combat footage shot during the war, but unlike Sands of Iwo Jima, the footage is used sparingly, only appearing toward the end of the film. For the most part, Twelve O’Clock High is a character-driven drama about men pushed to the limit as they fly one deadly mission after another.

Twelve O’Clock High was directed by Henry King. The screenplay was adapted by Beirne Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett from their novel of the same name, which was based on their own experiences in World War II. Most of the characters in the book and film are based on real people or are composites of several people.

The film begins in 1949, when Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger), who spent most of the war as a Major in the U.S. Army Air Forces, has his memory stimulated by a Toby Jug he finds in a London shop. It’s identical to the one that used to sit in the officer’s club of his old airfield at Archbury. He bicycles out to the site of the airfield, which is now just a field of gently waving grass, and he falls into a reverie.

Dean Jagger

Twelve O’Clock High details the extreme stress suffered by the members of the 918th Bomb Group, who flew daring daylight precision bombing runs and suffered heavy losses to anti-aircraft fire and to the Luftwaffe. When their commanding officer, Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), begins to crack under the strain, he is replaced by Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck).

Savage is so hard and unforgiving that for most of the film he doesn’t seem quite human. The men loved Colonel Davenport, but the closeness probably affected his leadership. On the other hand, they hate Brigadier General Savage so much that every man in the 918th applies for a transfer. Savage grants their requests, but ties them up with red tape long enough to whip the men into shape, and eventually their feelings change when their bombing runs become more successful and they suffer fewer casualties.

Early in Twelve O’Clock High there is a spectacular sequence in which a B-17 crash-lands. It was pulled off by stunt pilot Paul Mantz, who took off and crash-landed without any assistance. Most of the film, however, is a portrait of combat stress. Even the most stoic characters in the film eventually crack under the pressure. When the actual combat footage is used toward the end of the film, the audience already has a sense of what the pilots and crewmen are experiencing, and how dangerous their missions are.

Gregory Peck

Twelve O’Clock High is a really good World War II movie, and by all reports an extremely accurate one. I didn’t emotionally connect with it the same way I connected with Battleground, but that’s just a personal preference. If you have any interest in the air war in Europe, particularly how B-17 bombers were used, then Twelve O’Clock High is a must-see film.

It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Gregory Peck. It won two Oscars: Best Supporting Actor for Dean Jagger and Best Sound Recording.

Captain From Castile (Dec. 25, 1947)

Henry King’s Captain From Castile premiered on Christmas day in New York and Los Angeles, and went into wide release in January 1948.

It’s a lavish, Technicolor epic marred by a handful of flaws. The biggest flaw is that it doesn’t have an ending, and just sort of stops halfway through. The journey to the non-ending is uneven but generally entertaining and occasionally spectacular, which makes its abruptness all the more frustrating.

Captain From Castile is based on Samuel Shellabarger’s novel of the same name, which was published in early 1945. It was originally serialized, and was incredibly popular even before its publication in book form. Darryl F. Zanuck paid $100,000 for the rights, which was a lot of cabbage in the ’40s.

The film version only covers the first half of Shellabarger’s novel. Zanuck originally planned to exhibit Captain From Castile as a roadshow presentation with an intermission, so I’m not sure if the unsatisfying end was due to budget concerns or a flawed script. Three and a half months of shooting in Mexico wasn’t cheap, and the bottom kind of dropped out of movie-going in 1947 (after 1946, which was the biggest movie-going year of all time). Captain From Castile made its money back and then some, but it wasn’t a runaway success due to its incredibly high budget.

The film begins in Spain in the spring of 1518, and follows the progression of a young Castilian named Pedro de Vargas (played by Tyrone Power) from callow youth to victim of the Inquisition to seasoned soldier under the command of Hernando Cortés in Mexico. (Cortés is played to the laughing, mustache-twirling, swaggering hilt by Cesar Romero.)

Despite the presence of swashbuckling superstar Tyrone Power, Captain From Castile isn’t really a swashbuckling adventure film. It’s a historical epic in which narrative tension is nonexistent for long stretches. All sequences involving the Cortés expedition were filmed in Mexico, and often on the location associated with the actual event. Captain From Castile always looks fantastic, but its story isn’t always up to the high standards of the visuals.

I really love Tyrone Power, though, and with all due respect to Errol Flynn, I think Power is the greatest swashbuckling star of all time. I also think he’s a much better actor than he’s given credit for, and he turns in a strong performance in Captain From Castile.

But moments of real power in the film are few and far between.

There’s one sequence, however, that I think stands as one of the best of Power’s career. After Pedro de Vargas is imprisoned by the Inquisition and his roguish friend Juan Garcia (Lee J. Cobb) has secreted weapons in his cell, his mortal enemy Diego de Silva (John Sutton) — the man responsible for Pedro’s sister’s death by torture — enters to taunt Pedro. This leads to a fast, brutal sword fight in close quarters that’s one of the best and most exciting I’ve ever seen.

Pedro’s romance with the servant girl Catana (played by the very inexperienced actress Jean Peters) is romantic and sexy — especially the scene in which Pedro dances with her in front of Cortés’s entire camp. The musical score by Alfred Newman is fantastic, and was one of the first film scores to be released as a soundtrack album.

The film looks amazing. The Technicolor cinematography is great, and the Mexican locations were so cooperative that the Paricutin volcano even agreed to erupt during filming to stand in for the eruption of Popocatepetl in the 16th century.

But there’s ultimately something a little slack and unsatisfying about Captain From Castile, and it’s not just the anticlimactic ending. I’d recommend Captain From Castile to all fans of bloated historical epics, but if you’ve never seen a Tyrone Power film, it’s not the best place to start.