The Gunfighter: the futility and tragedy of trying to escape a violent past


The Gunfighter (1950) is an excellent Western, made even more interesting because at the height of the genre’s popularity it began to question the myths it was propagating and started a theme of the ageing man of violence, who’s not so quick on the draw anymore, tired of brutality, haunted by the men he’s killed and whose reputation is such that he is now not only the object of unwelcome curiosity and obsequiousness but also the target of young toughs who want to prove themselves against the most famous gunslinger in the West and, in doing so, seize his mantle.

Gregory Peck plays Jimmy Ringo, based on the famous outlaw Johnny Ringo, who’s reached the stage of his life where he wants to give up his tempestuous past and settle down. He tracks down the woman he loved before he embarked on outlawdom and wants to persuade her that he’s a changed man and now wants to be a family man.

As he waits, holed up in the town saloon, for her to make her mind up, the local population becomes increasingly agitated by having such a famous visitor in their midst, the town’s children, in awe of his exploits, want to catch a glimpse of the legendary man; the local businessmen see a chance to make money; the women’s temperance leaders notice an opportunity to express their moral outrage; while the town’s young loudmouth talks himself into taking on the notorious fighter.

While all this uproar is taking place, a trio of brothers are closing in on Jimmy wanting revenge for the killing of a family member. It seems that Ringo’s dream of a new life, a peaceful life, with his past behind him, is going to elude him.

Henry King directed the film from a screenplay by William Sellers and William Bowers, based on an idea from Andre de Toth. De Toth, as both screenwriter and director, is responsible for some of the finest Westerns – Man in the Saddle, Carson City, Springfield Rifle, The Stranger Wore a Gun, Day of the Outlaw – while the film is also referenced in the Bob Dylan song, Brownsville Girl:

Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding 'cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself
The townspeople wanted to crush that
Kid down and string him up by the neck
Well, the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp
As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath
Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square
I want him to feel what it's like to every moment face his death

Indeed, Gregory Peck quoted Brownsville Girl in 1997 when presenting Dylan with the The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.

Peck said in his speech: ‘Dylan was singing about a picture that I made called The Gunfighter about the lone man in town with people comin' in to kill him and everybody wants him out of town before the shooting starts. When I met Bob, years later, I told him that meant a lot to me and the best way I could sum him up is to say Bob Dylan has never been about to get out of town before the shootin' starts. Thank you, Mr. Dylan, for rocking the country... and the ages.’

The Bravados: revenge, Homer and Christianity

Revenge is a ubiquitous theme in Westerns. In frontier societies that have not yet acquired all the accoutrements of civilisation, such as the rule of law, the question of what is justice and, more importantly, how is to be achieved is inescapable. Indeed, it is what gives Westerns their Homeric flavour, makes them such an attractive genre for film-makers interested and inspired by the classical world and particularly the philosophy of The Odyssey and The Iliad.
But what of those makers of Westerns of a more Christian persuasion? While revenge is justified in the Old Testament – ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ – by the time we get to the New Testament, revenge is disparaged and Christians are advised not to seek it but to ‘turn the other cheek’.
The Christian edict eschewing revenge is problematic for Westerns, which are notorious for their ridiculing of religion, their assertion that it has no place in this world of violence, hostile landscapes, honour, shame and so on. The man who turns the other cheek in the West is a fool, a weakling, who would soon be dead.
An exception to the anti-religious bias of the Western is The Bravados (1958), which tries to temper the urge for revenge with a Christian perspective.
Gregory Peck plays Jim Douglass, a remorseless man on a mission, which is to see the men who raped and murdered his wife pay with their lives for their atrocity. He spends six months tracking them down and just when it seems his obsessive task has a been accomplished, with the four outlaws set to hang for an unrelated crime, the criminals stage a bloody escape.
Douglass now leads a posse hunting the fugitives, though, as one by one he finds them, it becomes clear that, vicious killers though they are, they may not have been responsible for the violation and killing of his wife. Is Douglass’s revenge still justified? And what has the pursuit of it turned him into? In tracking them down, has he not taken on their brutal characteristics? And what will their deaths actually achieve? They won’t restore the world before his wife’s murder. He will still have to live with the knowledge of her barbaric treatment.
It is these questions that place Westerns somewhere in the middle of the full-blooded Homeric concepts of revenge – where there is no time for questions of the psychological impact on the avenger or the long-term consequences of vengeance – and the Christian view of love your enemy, of empathy and forgiveness.
By all means, pursue revenge, Westerns tell us, but the original evil you have been subjected to will not be overcome, you and your life will not return to how it used to be. Your nightmares will not end.
Back to The Bravados, Henry King – a pioneer of Hollywood cinema – was more renowned for directing historical and romantic films, even if the three Westerns he directed, Jesse James, The Bravados and The Gunfighter are all classics of the genre. The dose of Catholicism he wants to inject into The Bravados is grating and can’t be reconciled with the Homeric affirmation of revenge or the Western’s more nuanced stance on the subject, which he seems to have embraced before his Christianity intervened. Still, when the film doesn’t get bogged down in overt theology, the depiction of the brutal landscape of the Texas-Mexico border is breathtaking and Peck’s performance is outstanding, and this is generally an excellent and interesting piece of work, which even has an ending that brings to mind the equivocal and troubling ending of Taxi Driver, rebuking and mocking society for its love of violence and those who perpetrate it.

Yellow Sky: rapine, hubris and redemption

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(Shakespeare: The Tempest

Yellow Sky
(1948) is an utterly brutal Western, which asserts that, when it is not mitigated, human nature – or at least how it is expressed in the context of the American West – is nothing but greed, violence, jealousy, fear and suspicion.

A gang of bank robbers in their desperate effort to outrun a posse are forced to enter the desert – the film is shot in Death Valley – where, on the verge of death, they fight over the last few drops of water, the beating sun and their weakening bodies turning them insane, until they see a town, Yellow Sky, which although isn’t a mirage turns out to be a ghost town, deserted, its shops, hotels and bars abandoned and collapsed.

This one last cruel trick seems to have sealed their fate, which is to die of thirst and exhaustion. Only for a beautiful young woman to appear out of nowhere, whose motivation in directing them to water is not to save them, however, but to drive them out from Yellow Sky as soon as possible. But why the ferocity in her determination to get rid of them? Is it simply the fear of a lone woman being confronted by several smelly, brutish, leering men who’ve appeared out of nowhere? Or is she hiding something? What is such a beautiful woman doing in such a godforsaken place?

The outlaws discover that the woman is in Yellow Sky with her grandfather who they surmise is a gold prospector. Dreams of wealth and sexual gratification now overwhelm the men, even as they fall out as to who is going to rape the woman first and whether they should take all the old man’s gold or split the treasure with him. The men’s morality is put to the test. How evil are they? After an adult life of robbing and murder, taking what they want without remorse, is there any residue of conscience left in them that will prompt them to spare the woman from rape and let the old man keep some of his hard-earned wealth?

William Wellman directed this masterpiece, Gregory Peck is Stretch Dawson, the conflicted leader of the gang, Richard Widmark, his ruthless no. 2 (or alter ego, if you prefer) and Anne Baxter plays Constance May, the object of the outlaws’ desire. The taut script and spartan dialogue full of bitterness and irony was written by Lamar Trotti and based on WR Burnett’s novel, Stretch Dawson. Indeed, Yellow Sky bears all the hallmarks of Burnett’s numerous novels and screenplays, Little Caesar, Scarface, High Sierra, This Gun for Hire, The Asphalt Jungle – avarice, rapacity, hubris, the thin veneer of civilisation:

‘The worst police force in the world is better than no police force… Take the police off the streets for forty-eight hours, and nobody would be safe, neither on the street, nor in his place of business, nor in his home. There wouldn’t be an easy moment for women or children. We’d be back in the jungle…’ (The Asphalt Jungle).

Yellow Sky’s template is Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with Anne Baxter’s character as Miranda and Grandpa as Prospero.

In the Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film, Tony Howard explains the relationship between The Tempest and Yellow Sky:

‘William Wellman’s Yellow Sky turned The Tempest into a harsh post-war Western where a gang of criminals (bankrobbers replacing aristocrats) stumble on an isolated old man and a girl. The elemental metaphors are reversed. Shakespeare’s sea gives way to thirst: fleeing across a desert, on the brink of death they discover no magic island but a ghost town where a prospector and his granddaughter guard water and gold. Wellman focuses on the girl, who is constantly threatened by rape but protects herself with tough talk and a rifle, and on the Caliban question: can any of these degenerates be redeemed?’

The Guns of Navarone: it’s all about the cast

Of all the UK or US films made using events that took place in Greece during the World War II, films such as The Angry Hills, They Who Dare and Ill Met by Moonlight, set respectively during the fall of Athens, the Battle of the Dodecanese and the occupation of Crete, the most commercially successful and perhaps the best known is The Guns of Navarone (1961).

The film is based on the best-selling eponymous 1957 novel by Scottish writer, Alistair MacClean and even though Navarone is a fictional island the backdrop to the narrative – the Allied (British and Greek) special forces attempt to disrupt German domination of the Aegean – is real enough, even if the film’s attempt to suggest the outcome of the Battle of the Dodecanese was an Allied victory is wide of the mark.

The truth is that the British – against American advice, who felt Britain was getting distracted by another one of Churchill’s Eastern Mediterranean whims – having occupied the Dodecanese after the September 1943 Armistice of Cassibile and the surrender of Italian forces in Greece – were humiliatingly dislodged by a counter-attack from the Germans who remained in command of the islands until the end of the war.

Whereas in Ill Met by Moonlight and They Who Dare, the lead character – both times played by Dirk Bogarde – is miscast, and the same can be said of Robert Mitchum in The Angry Hills, what distinguishes The Guns of Navarone – apart from the well-plotted script by Carl Foreman – is how well cast it is.

Gregory Peck is entirely believable as the single-minded and ruthless Captain Keith Mallory, the leader of the mission, while Anthony Quinn does well as the tough but wily Colonel Andreas Stavrou, while Irene Papas is good as Maria Papadimos, the feisty Greek resistance fighter.

Interestingly, the renowned Greek opera singer Maria Callas was first signed up to play Irene Papas’ role, but she pulled out and her film career stalled, making her sole film appearance eight years later in Pier Paulo Pasolini’s Medea (1969), in which Callas played the Colchian princess, who revenges herself on her duplicitous husband, Jason, by murdering their children.

The Guns of Navarone was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who had a long but indifferent film career both in the UK and in Hollywood. Ice Cold in Alex and the original Cape Fear – an inferior remake was made by Martin Scorsese in 1991 – remain his best known films after The Guns of Navarone.

Anthony Quinn described working with Thompson as follows.

‘[He] read a scene until he had to shoot it and approached each shot on a whim. And yet the cumulative effect was astonishing. Lee Thompson made a marvelous picture but how? Perhaps his inventiveness lay in defying convention, in rejecting the accepted methods of motion picture making and establishing his own. Perhaps it was in his very formlessness that he found the one form he could sustain, and nurture, the one form that could, in turn, sustain and nurture him. Perhaps he was just a lucky Englishman who pulled a good picture out of his ass.’

Born to Kill: lurid but likeable

Born to Kill (1947) is one of the most controversial films ever made. Dismissed, despised, banned, held responsible for corrupting public morals and even used in the defence of a murderer, who held that he was spurred on to commit his crime after watching the film, Robert Wise’s lurid film noir, even with less squeamish contemporary sensibilities, still has the ability to shock with its issues of depraved lust, casual violence, extreme selfishness, alcoholism, greed, uncontainable resentment and hatred.

Lawrence Tierney plays a psychopath who also happens to be irresistible to women, which enables him to ingratiate himself into the love life of wealthy San Francisco socialite Helen Brent (played by Claire Trevor) and her step-sister Georgia Staples (played by Audrey Long) and it is his character – Sam Wilde – who we presume is the person ‘born to kill’ of the film’s title.

However, the novel by James Gunn on which the film is based is called Deadlier than the Male and this should tell us that the story as originally imagined wasn’t about Sam Wilde but Helen Barnes and Georgia Staples and that Sam Wilde was just a cypher to explore the women’s turbulent inner lives and how this leads to them making catastrophic choices in the social world.

It’s a fault that the Sam Wilde character is supposed to carry the film. He’s not that interesting. Violent lunatics rarely are and, indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how this charmless, unpleasant and quite stupid man can still possess the animal magnetism to worm himself into so many lives, break their will power and warp their sense of right and wrong.

The film has a well-written script and is effectively directed by Robert Wise, who before this worked with Orson Welles as his editor on Citizen Kane and directed the Val Lewton-produced The Body Snatcher, though perhaps he’s best known for directing two musicals, West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).

What really lifts Born to Kill are the characters of the private detective Albert Arnett (played by Walter Slezak), his client, Mrs Kraft (played by Esther Howard) – the neighbour of the young woman murdered by Wilde – and Sam Wilde’s loyal friend, Marty Waterman (played by Elisha Cook Jr.).

Slezak is particularly entertaining to watch. His Bible-quoting private detective is unctuous and avaricious and has nothing in common with the tough-guy members of his trade – Dashiel Hammet’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow, both moral crusaders out to assure right triumphs over wrong, regardless of the financial consequences, the personal dangers and harm that come their way.

Albert Arnett, on the other hand, has no such courage or convictions. He lives on the breadline and when he sees an opportunity to fleece his client he has no remorse, his motivation being to sell the information he has gathered through his investigation to the highest bidder. He has no consideration for justice or the restoration of order. He is not a seeker of truth nor an avenger, but a sleazy blackmailer.

Lawrence Tierney: the toughest man in Hollywood


The toughest, most remorseless, cold-hearted protagonist in film noir has to be Lawrence Tierney.

Apparently, in real life Tierney was just as hard, prone to losing his short temper, benders and bar room brawling that often ended with the Brooklyn-born actor on the wrong side of the law and in the clink.

Since acting and film is about make-believe, it’s difficult to know whether Tierney was being himself when playing all these thugs and heavies or fell victim to believing his on screen image and acting it out in real life. No matter. 

The Hoodlum (1951) is classic Tierney. In it, he plays Vincent Lubeck, who starts off his life of crime as an adolescent, gradually climbing – or going down – the ladder of lawlessness, his crimes becoming increasingly serious and his prison sentences increasingly long. 

Not that the punishment he has to endure turns him onto the straight and narrow. 

Rather, he comes to see himself as a victim of the system and is consumed by hatred of society, determined to revenge himself against it by repudiating its basic rules of hard work, family solidarity, deferred gratification, opting instead for the easy money that theft brings; showing contempt for the honest ways of his brother – the gas station owner who believes in the American Dream – seducing his earnest sibling’s fiancée; and wanting all his desires fulfilled and wanting them fulfilled right now. 

Tierney gives a similar sociopathic portrait of John Dillinger in another collaboration with director Max Nosseck in the eponymous gangster film, which purports to tell the story of the Great Depression bank robber, whose crimes – and the notoriety and popularity they earned him – contributed to the formation of the FBI and helped make the name of J. Edgar Hoover. 

The screenplay for Dillinger (1945) was written by Philip Yordan, whose career spanned everything from classic film noirs – House of Strangers, The Big Combo, Detective Story; to Westerns – The Man from Laramie, Day of the Outlaw, Broken Lance; and epics – 55 Days at Peking, The Fall of the Roman Empire, El Cid

The third film noir Tierney made with Nosseck was Kill or be Killed (1950), which is not only not set in the urban mean streets – it’s actually set in the Brazilian jungle – but it also has Tierney playing a more conventional hero, albeit a very tough, smart and proud one, who is framed for murder and sets out to find the real killers, on the way dealing with piranhas, poisonous snakes and the lethal husband of the woman he's fallen in love with.