The Gunfighter
d. Henry King (1950)
The Criterion Collection

Every time I watch a Western I recall how much I love a good Western, and there are a lot of them. My favorites, of course, are the ones that pick apart the myths of the old west. A few years ago, The Criterion Collection released Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns, starring Barbara Stanwyck, and I loved it. Earlier this year they released another great in George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again, with Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. They’ve also been responsible for introducing me to Delmer Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma, Monte Helman’s The Shooting, and Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, among others. This week, they’re releasing another great one: Henry King’s The Gunfighter, starring Gregory Peck as the greatest gunfighter of them all, Jimmy Ringo.

Jimmy Ringo has lived with the weight of being the best for many years. It was a position he worked to achieve, there’s no doubt about it. This is not the story of a man pushed to fight — at least, not initially. No, Ringo earned his reputation. Becoming the best gunfighter requires other sacrifices, though. Some Ringo accepted as part of the bargain; he left behind the woman he loved years before. Others were more unexpected. Though Ringo himself may have been a hotheaded young man who challenged all in order to prove he was the best, it’s not likely he expected to run into this version of himself everywhere he went.

The film begins with one such confrontation. Ringo has slipped into a town late at night and is simply looking for a drink. When a cocky, young kid tries to pick a fight, Ringo sighs, tired of being the legend he’s worked so hard to become.

Indeed, he hopes to give it all up . . . somehow.

To that end, he travels to the small town Cayenne, somewhere in the American Southwest. An old friend has become the town Marshall. But, more importantly, another old friend — his wife, Peggy, in fact — is the town school teacher. Pledging that his outlaw days are in the past, Ringo hopes to persuade her that they can finally live the life they once dreamt they’d live together.

She’s wiser than Ringo, though. She may wish for the same thing, but she knows the life they hoped to live is barely a dream anymore. The film does not shy away from the brutality that suddenly rears its head.

However, for a film called The Gunfighter there are actually a surprisingly few gunfights. This is much more about the toll that is taken when one becomes a living legend. Ringo cannot escape it. While he waits for his wife to decide whether she will even see him, the school children — well, the boys, anyway — have all skipped class in order to roam the streets, hoping to see the myth. The women in town are concerned for the safety of everyone. The Marshall is worried that the recent past Ringo is trying to escape might catch up with him in Cayenne. And Ringo has to contend with yet another cocky kid hoping to pay his respects to the master by cutting him down and taking his place.

Of course, these days Gregory Peck himself has become a legend of the screen, a man born to play characters weighed down by morals, seeking redemption. Again, this might lead us to excuse Ringo, to assume his life outside the law was a misunderstanding he will set right. As I mentioned above, this is not the case. Ringo is very much a part of the cycle of violence he’s now trying to escape, and the film makes sure that we know he’s asking for something pretty spectacular.

The Criterion release comes with a number of nice supplements. While the film is brought up, the focus is more on Henry King and the film’s editor Barbara McLean. Filmmaker Gina Telaroni offers a 22:53-minute interview all about Henry King. Since I knew next to nothing about King, this was helpful, as was the 35:49-minutes of old interviews with King himself. For Barbara McLean — who also deserves this attention — we get a 22:45-minute visual essay by J.E. Smyth and 33:11-minutes of old interviews with McClean herself. The film is the focus of the accompanying essay, “The Gunfighter: You Can’t Go Home Again,” by K. Austin Collins. It was a delight to go through the whole release.

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