The Gunfighter is a seminal Western superbly directed with restraint by Henry King. It’s a groundbreaking film, introducing the new theme of the aging gunfighter. It probably didn’t do good box office because it was so downbeat, ahead of its time and studio boss Daryl Zanuck mistakenly took a dislike to the brilliant screenplay by William Bowers and William Sellers and didn’t publicise the film.
It’s based on a story written by the underrated director Andre De Toth and William Bowers. The film noir setting is highlighted by Arthur Miller’s stark photography. But the film’s biggest asset is the powerful work done by Gregory Peck, one of the best in his long illustrious career. In the 1880s, in a Santa Fe bar, the lonely, world-weary and aging outlaw Jimmie Ringo (Gregory Peck) can’t figure a way to get out of the business and go straight, as he’s earned such a rep that he is challenged by gunslingers wherever he heads.
We first see him when a brash youngster in the bar named Eddie (Richard Jaeckel) provokes him into a gunfight and when he doesn’t react, Eddie draws first and Ringo kills him. Then Eddie’s three brothers go after Ringo. In the desert Ringo maneuvers to take the volatile amateur’s guns and makes them walk home by chasing away their horses. Ringo next arrives in the nearby small town, where he abandoned his spouse (Helen Westcott) and his son Jimmie years ago. They are now living incognito, where she works as a schoolteacher.
Ringo talks his old acquaintance, the unarmed reluctant Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), into allowing him to stay in the saloon in the hope that she will agree to see him. But she refuses. Things get hectic when gawking children play hookey to look at the notorious celebrity and surround the saloon while trying to goad him by throwing things at him.
Also there are past grudgebearers, who come armed hoping to take him down. It becomes apparent that there is no future for the gunfighter here. But through the help of a widow (Jean Parker), he locates his anxious wife. She refuses to go with him to California to make a fresh start, but says maybe in a year she will change her mind.
But the gunfighter is gunned down in the back by a twisted would-be suitor of his former wife, Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier). Before dying, the gunfighter passes onto his punky killer the fate he has lived with for so long, by falsely telling the marshal that he drew first on the killer so now Hunt will have a rep as the man who killed the meanest gunslinger and will have to go through life wondering who next will be gunning for him.
If you’re looking for a historically accurate portrayal of the historical frontier outlaw Johnny Ringo, you won’t find it in this film. In this psychological western the gunslinger is romanticised as a redeemed man wanting to get back his life and sorry for all his missteps. The legend has it that the real Ringo was not a nice guy, who killed at random and supposedly exited from the world by suicide. JK