Gunny

I was blown away by THE GUNFIGHTER. I missed it in Bologna a few years back, but enjoyed Henry King’s STATE FAIR and OVER THE HILL, also shown. Of the other Gregory Peck vehicles, I found TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH fairly impressive and THE BRAVADOS was going OK until Peck decided to ruin it by smiling at the end. Can’t think of another film so categorically betrayed by a single facial expression. I think Peck’s niceness worked against him, his eggy moments onscreen tend to be motivated by unwonted injections of pleasantry. There’s that disgraceful moment in GUNS OF NAVARONE where Peck and Quinn share a joke about a woman, despite hating each other over a woman…

Well, THE GUNFIGHTER is amazingly uncompromising. There’s two bits of Hollywood bullshit — the first is Peck shooting a gun out of a man’s hand (nobody can do that — something I learned as a kid from some TV movie with Stuart Whitman or somebody — he was a cop and he said “We can’t shoot the gun out of his hand, you know,” and I was like, wow. Obviously Tarantino never saw that one since he did an interview about Black Lives Matter where he seriously pondered why cops didn’t do that). The second is a dead character riding off into the sunset, one of those faux happy endings like the superimposed Flynn at the end of THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON. It’s just decoration, not really a cop-out.

Otherwise the film is pure noir. Nobody is all good but many are all bad. (I use “good” the way old Hollywood thought of it — so the women aren’t pure, but they’re morally positive.) It has a HIGH NOON hook two years before that film was made — the clock is ticking and the action is almost real time after the first couple of scenes. Peck, the fastest gun west of the Gregory Pecos, is in town to see his estranged wife. He waits in the saloon. But his fame as gunfighter makes him a target for every young punk with a pistol, there’s a vengeful father aiming at him with a rifle from across the street and three vengeful brothers riding after him. He really needs to get out of Dodge but circs keep delaying him. I hope fingernails are good for you because we’re chewing them to the quick.

Speaking of quick — Peck demonstrates his skill early on, and seals his fate, executing a young Richard Jaeckel who provokes a duel. King’s presentation of this is stunning — we see Peck at the bar, glass in hand. Jaeckel draws on him, and is shot — we never see Peck draw or fire, we just cut back to him after, gun in his free hand. He’s so fast the camera can’t see it, is the implication.

Of course this gag gets exaggerated into a great bit in BLAZING SADDLES, and Gene Wilder’s backstory in that film seems drawn from this one too.

Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller delivers a number of stunning wide shots using single-source light from windows bouncing off wooden floors or ceilings.

Peck is really good in this. Cinema’s paragon of stiffness is credible as an outlaw since the film doesn’t go into great detail about his wild past. Impossible to imagine him being like Jaeckel, ever, or like Skip Homeier, memorably repulsive as the film’s other psycho-squirt. In MAN OF THE WEST there’s some powerfully nasty talk about Gary Gooper’s criminal activities, and the result is cognitive dissonance — you can’t square Coop’s persona with the stuff he’s supposed to have done. Discretion helps GUNFIGHTER get over this hurdle.

Andre De Toth co-wrote the film — I own two books on De Toth but am unable to learn why he didn’t direct also. King steps in and does an excellent job — now I have to see JESSE JAMES. Feels like he did one great film with Peck and Ty Power apiece, then kept using them, with diminishing returns.

Millard Mitchell is outstanding as the town marshall, a former crony of Peck’s. Who’s the kid? He’s good. IMDb has a huge list of cast members, down to the smallest extra, but nothing on him.

THE GUNFIGHTER stars Atticus Finch; R.F. Simpson; Cobweb; Kitty O’Day; Sheriff Dad Longworth; Melakon / Sevrin; Big Ed Williams (uncredited); Fairy Godmother; Grandma Walton; Sheriff Kip McKinney; Eggs; Cojo; Skipper Jonas Grumby; The Dear One; Pee Wee; Kane’s father; Dr. Walter Coley; and Capt. Patrick Hendry.

26 Responses to “Gunny”

  1. What do you think of peck in doing the sun?

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Such weird casting. Peck’s the last actor one would think of casting as a self-destructive, borderline-psychotic libertine. But David O saw things differently. His greatest strength was his excessiveness. He didn’t know when to stop and consequently went “over the top” from start to finish.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Personally I find most westerns unspeakably silly, They’re either paying copious homage to an imaginary past (“Once Upon a Time in the West”)or bolstering white racism (“The Searchers”)

    And Warhol’s S&M western “Horse” (1965 ) , which was shot entirely at the silver factory is wonderful, as is “Lonesome Cowboys” (1968) one of whose stars recently bought the farm

  4. I’ve still to see Duel in the Sun, absurdly enough. OK, I’ll make sure I do that this year.

    The Searchers has to get some points for exposing the racism, even while it partakes of it. But Blazing Saddles goes several degrees further.

    At heart, The Gunfighter is about celebrity culture, in its way. Peck’s Jimmy Ringo is another Jerry Langford, surrounded by pistol-twirling Pupkins.

    Which reminds me of the bizarre trivia that Jerry Lewis was the fastest draw in Hollywood.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “TheSearchers” doesn’t “expose” racism, it celebrates it — in a very particular way. John Wayne embodies it as a “necessary evil” in that his duty is to find Natalie Wood and kill her because she has been “defiled” by a non white. It would be what’s known as an “Honor Killing” But because she’s Natalie Wood he chokes at the last minute. It’s not finale the story wants but you can’t go around indistriminately killing a star. “Psycho” of course changed all that.

    “The Searchers” was made I response to Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka Kansas which American racists insisted would encourage “miseggenation” (insert “Showboat”

  6. But the movie definitely problematizes Wayne’s character, no? I see the film as an incoherent text in which some scenes act as critique at least in intent, and others are straight-up racist (the rescued women who have been seemingly reduced to idiocy by trauma, a state equated with losing their white identity).

    I see the ending as being more than a commercial necessity, and Wayne’s exclusion from the family at the end has to mean SOMETHING.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    What it means is that racism can be simultaneously embraced and disavowed through a character who practices racism for the sake of a society intent on distancing itself from it. This is classic 1950’s-think. Jim Crow segregation was still very much in practice but the Civil Rights movement was on the rise signaling its end. White Americans today will NEVER admit to having benefited from racism. Guess Who ISN’T Coming To Dinner? Bayard Rustin of course.

    Sidney was at his finest in Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out”

  8. Dipped my toe into the King catalog; still have many key ones to see, but I thought pretty highly of Snows of Kilimanjaro and Prince of Foxes, the latter is almost never talked about, but it’s good.

    Obviously one can say many different things about The Searchers……

  9. no fool like an old fool…..

  10. I’m with David C in seeing THE SEARCHERS as an incoherent text – an attempt to take a couple steps back towards reality from the fantasy of The West. The warring impulses involved in that are what make the film interesting, at least as a sort of psychoanalytic x-ray. I’m with David E, though, in feeling that its status as an apologia has been way overstated. I think the movie sees Wayne as deranged but fundamentally necessary – for the advancement of white “civilization.” The usefulness of his derangement is passing, but I think the elegiac feeling of that last scene flows from the idea that he’s been left behind by a society that can’t fully embrace him – even while it couldn’t have set its foundation without him. I don’t think the question of the legitimacy of the whole project (settlement brought through Native expiration) is ever on the table. A foregone sentimentality is as far as it can go.

  11. Just watched Hondo, in which a few words of regret are spoken for the passing of the Indian way of life. That’s unusual, and it’s about as far as any classical western goes (Having Wayne play part-Indian is weird and unconvincing but a nice gesture).

    The western always sees the extermination of the Indian as inevitable and necessary for “progress” at least until you get to Little Big Man etc. Sad in a sense, but in no way avoidable. And us Europeans being what they were and are, the inevitable part was probably right.

    Prince of Foxes I mainly remember as being very, very handsome (Shamroy!) I need to try Snows again. It seemed to be at least trying to use Hemingway’s dialogue (King knew Hemingway in Paris) which is bold, anyway.

  12. “The western sees the extermination of the Indian as inevitable and necessary for ‘progress’ at least until you get to Little Big Man etc.” I beg to differ. Have you seen Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway?

  13. The cutting trick of the Peck/Jaeckel duel is reprised in SEVEN MEN FROM NOW to great effect: Boetticher builds to it with the dramatic c convention of repeated cross-cuts between the duellists.

  14. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The western always sees the extermination of the Indian as inevitable and necessary for “progress”

    Hitler felt the same way about the Jews. “Ethan Edwards” isn’t Oscar Schindler.

    Henry Brandon who plays “Scar” — Natalie Wood’s kidnapper — was played by Henry Brando. He also played “Accaious Page” the headmaster of a nudist children’s school in “Auntie Mame” His lover was Mark Herron who played the unrequited would-be lover of Anouk Aimee in Fellini’s “8 1/2” He was in “real life” Judy Garland’s fourth husband. The marriage didn’t interrupt his relationship with Henry Brandon.

    The idea of Natalie wood getting kidnapped by a gay indian is Too Fabulous For Words.

  15. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Judy on Mark Herron The marriage lasted barely a year.

  16. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Among the many “Wills” to Natalie Wood’s “Grace” Perry Lopez is a stand-out.

    “Forget it Jake, it’s Natalie Wood.”

  17. Henry Brandon is the first Batman, or anyway Bat Man, in The Preview Murder Mystery (1936). The idea of a gay Batman is… obvious and overdue.

    I’d forgotten The Devil’s Doorway. Well-meaning, but not as dramatic as several of Mann’s other westerns. Robert Taylor is another unlikely Indian. When Hollywood did try to have sympathetic Indians, it still struggled to imagine them as fully human characters, which is what spoils Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s would-be apologia.

  18. Unless I am mistaken THE GUNFIGHTER is reportedly the screenplay that Fox reader Roger Corman read and recommended and recommended to his supervisor, who then took the credit when it was green-lit. Corman subsequently quit, sold his own script and then began producing himself.

  19. The casting of Scar is often criticised because he’s played by a white man, but – intentionally or not – it establishes the absurdity of the fuss about miscegenation in the film. He’s another product of it. It’s too late to be bothered.

  20. I don’t know that we’re meant to READ Brandon as white. If we are, you could just as well say that his casting is to reassure racist audiences that no ACTUAL miscegenation is being perpetrated by the casting of different races as partners. It can readily be seen as the same kind of casting Griffith did in Birth of a Nation: actual non-whites as extras, a white in blackface as the sexual threat. And Griffith made his villain mixed-race, which did not reassure anyone.

  21. That’s fascinating about Corman’s input! And his experience of “the genius of the system” rings true.

  22. Mark Fuller Says:

    The cinematic mourning of the passing of the native American way of life goes back to the silent era, for example The Vanishing American and Redskin, two Richard Dix vehicles…..the latter even critiques the Indian Schhols system so lately in the news in Canada.
    Talking of Henry King and vanishing ways of life, try to see Tol’able David, from 1921, wherein King invents cinematic Americana…….Richard Barthelmess T
    at his most boyishly charming.

  23. I think we’re meant to read Brandon as white – partly or even mainly – genetically and Comanche culturally. Ford cast Brandon in a similar role in TWO RODE TOGETHER and emphasised his white ancestry there – was it because of the fuss about Brandon’s casting in THE SEARCHERS or because Ford thought audiences had missed the point in the earlier film?

    “History to the defeated may say alas
    But cannot help or pardon.”
    The logic behind “native education” to fit children into the conquering society derived from cultural social Darwinism – the “superior” society would sweep away the old and the people who could not adjust to the new world would go with it.
    it was a weird form of humanitarianism – the alternative was ethan Edwards’ way, or so people thought. The same belief lay behind the schools in RABBIT-PROOF FENCE. Proof that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

  24. Glenn Frankel’s book on The Searchers is very good here. The film is loosely inspired by a true case. The poor girl, ruthlessly uprooted from both her families, did not flourish after her “rescue.”

    In Two Rode Together, Brandon is playing Quanah Parker, a real person with a fascinating history. He was the son of the abducted girl and the chief fictionalised in The Searchers — in other words, Brandon is playing his own son. So him being a “halfbreed” is part of the historical record here, whereas the character he plays in The Searchers had a real-life counterpart who was 100% Comanche.

  25. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Half-Breed”? CUE CHER!

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