' Cinema Romantico: The Gunfighter

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Gunfighter

Clint Eastwood's Best Picture winning opus of 1992, "Unforgiven", was lauded for working to de-mytholigize and/or de-romanticize the western, and this is true, but it seems to me that 42 years earlier director Henry King, working from a script by two Williams (Bowers & Sellers), explored these themes just as effectively in "The Gunfighter."

Gregory Peck is Jimmy Ringo, the title character, who, we are told via title card, and then again, repetitively by the characters, was less known than, say, Wyatt Earp but likely faster on the draw. When first we see Ringo he is entering a western watering hole for a quick drink and it only takes but a moment for a cocksure youngster to recognize Ringo as Ringo, proclaim "He don't look so tough" and challenge the most notorious gunslinger in the west. Ringo wants no part of it. He just wants his drink and to be left alone. Peck plays the role with a decided weariness, a weariness with himself and, more importantly, with his reputation. "He looks about the same," says a character who used to ride with Ringo, "but he's older, more tired, less cocky." Peck expresses two tons of regret in everything he does and when he guns down this cocksure youngster the point of the whole ordeal isn't the gunning down but Ringo immediately asking everyone in the saloon "You saw he pulled first?" They did, but it doesn't matter. The cocksure youngster has brothers, as he must, who will come after Ringo and so Ringo rides on.

This shot just kinda says it all.
Ringo's destination: Cayenne, where he will come face to face with his past, provided his past wants to see him. His past comes in the form of Peggy (Helen Westcott), a schoolteacher (aren't they all?), and, oh yeah, his wife and the mother of his son. But she's changed her name. Doesn't want to see him. Trying to move on. Turns out Ringo knows the town's lawman, Sheriff Strett (Millard Mitchell), who once was a part of Ringo's gang but has gone straight. He offers to talk to Peggy for Ringo so long as Ringo keeps himself stowed away in the town saloon and outta trouble.

Ah, but a secret like Johnny Ringo being in town won't stay so for long. Kids ditch school and gather outside the saloon, excitedly wondering if Ringo might shoot anyone down. An older man holes up across the way in front of a window with a shotgun, vowing revenge on Ringo for long ago killing a loved one. Yet another cocksure youngster, Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), doesn't think Ringo seems so tough and aims to find out. Plus, the brothers of the other cocksure youngster Ringo has already dispatched are riding for Cayenne to have themselves a showdown. And poor Sheriff Strett has to navigate all these turbulent waters.

The past may be the past but "The Gunfighter" never lets us or the characters forget it is still there, lingering. Strett has come here to atone for his sins and, we sense, that perhaps he has forgiven himself. Ringo may be his former ally but he refuses to let his presence endanger the townfolk. Or Peggy. Ringo has no interest in atonement or forgiveness. Doesn't deserve it, doesn't want it. It's all over but the dyin', really. He just wants to see his wife and kid and yet he won't force his presence on either of them.

"Unforgiven" gave us the Western archetypes and then skewered them before concluding traditionally - the shootout and then the hero walking away, alone and forlorn. We may think the shootout is coming in "The Gunfighter" but it has other ideas on its mind. The most important bullet fired is a cheat, not in what it means or causes but in how it comes about. Fair? Ha! "The older you grow, the more you learn, son."

The torch gets passed and Ringo looks relieved. Finally.

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