The legend goes that Roger Corman was story reader at 20th Century Fox during the late ’40s and early ’50s, and really liked this script called The Gunfighter that had been sitting around for a while. John Wayne loved the script when Columbia had it, but his dislike of the studio boss stopped him—Wayne would go on to make The Shootist as his last film decades later, which is very similar. Gregory Peck was looking for a western at Fox, but not the usual kind being made. He specifically wanted something a little more psychological and, dare we say, Noirish. Corman suggested The Gunfighter to the higher-ups and did some uncredited work on the script. and André De Toth came on board to have another go at the script and direct. Eventually creative differences happened, and Henry King stepped to helm the picture.
The Gunfighter marks an important point in the development of the western. There had been some noir westerns already: The Ox-Bow Incident (both films actually use the same street set), John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon, and Anthony Mann had just started making his westerns—but this one was different. It’s a simple story about an aging gunfighter, Jimmy Ringo, who is at the point where he is ready to hang up his pistols. To that end, he is trying to avoid more violence whenever possible. This scenario would become the blueprint for many of the revisionist westerns of the ’60s and ’70s, especially the films of Sam Peckinpah.
You don’t think that often of Gregory Peck as a western star, but he did a fair few, with this film and The Big Country being his most well-known. He famously turned down High Noon because he though it was too similar to The Gunfighter, and there is some truth to that—it’s kind of the reverse version of High Noon. Here, Ringo has his one big moment of violence at the start, and the rest of the film is him avoiding violence, whilst in High Noon Gary Cooper is reluctant till the very end. Peck said later that turning it down was the biggest mistake of his career, but while there would’ve been a nice symmetry between the lead characters in The Gunfighter and High Noon, it certainly doesn’t diminish either film.
Jimmy Ringo has some basis in reality: he was a nemesis of Doc Holiday and the Earp clan, but the Ringo portrayed here is mainly a creation of the various writers. Interestingly, the film’s hero also eschews the machismo of the typical John Wayne western hero (that might be why the Duke was so interested in the role originally) by being holed up in the local saloon for much of the film’s brisk 84 minutes. The lack of Ringo shooting his way out of trouble is in some ways is the bravest thing you could do when you have the three brothers of the last man he shot dead trekking back to get their revenge.
The Gunfighter is one of the best Westerns of the classic era, but importantly it also showed a way forward for the western, creating space for films like those of Sam Peckinpah or Clint Eastwood. Unforgiven, which is probably the best western Eastwood ever made, directly mirrors The Gunfighter. Gregory Peck never had a cool factor around him, so you won’t be seeing a Peck retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française anytime soon, but that’s why the film strangely works. Because Peck is so normal, you kind of buy into the fact he instead of being out there blowing his antagonists to smithereens, he’s just awaiting his fate whilst trying to tie up his loose ends.
This release is from Signal One Entertainment, and lacks the extras from the Criterion or the newer 4K restoration. However, you do get an excellent introduction from the always reliable Alex Cox and a stills gallery, and the transfer is not bad in the slightest, making it a solid alternative to the Criterion. Also, the cover is one of the original posters, unlike the new artwork that Criterion used.