In The Gunfighter, Gregory Peck plays Ringo, a gunfighter with a really cool period-appropriate mustache. 20th Century Fox blamed Peck’s facial hair for the box office failure of this 1950 Western, but over a half-century later it’s hailed as one of the first deconstructions of our frontier mythologies — now with a swanky Criterion Collection to boot whereas Fox has been sold to Disney. Who’s failing now?
Jokes aside: The Gunfighter is great, an 85-minute dirge in which the infamous “fastest gun in the west” Ringo sits at a bar talking shit to stupid townies while trying to approach his figure out estranged wife, Peggy (Helen Westcott), a local schoolteacher and single mother to a child who doesn’t remember him. Peck is delightful as Ringo, a truly tortured soul burdened by the realization that traveling around the American Southwest on a horse shooting people does not a comfortable lifestyle make. What can he possibly do to make amends and return to the life he deemed insufficient so long ago?
Nobody wants Ringo less than Ringo, but that doesn’t mean anyone else really wants him. He’s hunted by a trio of angry men out to avenge their slain brother, slain by Ringo in a petty saloon argument. Local townsfolk are anxious to cast him out before the shooting starts despite his instance that he’s not here to cause trouble. Neither group compares to the difficulty posed by kids out to make names for themselves by trying to kill Ringo, to capture claim to his fastest-gun title. Ringo’s exhausted, but nobody believes him — least of all the ones jealous of his name.
For its time, The Gunfighter feels much more introspective, even contemplative of what the weight of becoming a legend can mean to a mortal man. Whether it reflects the real “Ringo” is beside the point; simply depicting a figure so well known in popular culture this way was somewhat ground-breaking. It straddles the line between Westerns at their height and the deconstructionist works we hail as the best in the genre, like Sergio Leone’s work a decade later. There’s just so much sadness in Peck’s performance, captured elegantly by director Henry King and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller.
It’s just so sad.
The new Criterion set includes a new 4K digital restoration as well as an interview about King and the making of the film with film historian Gina Telaroli, audio clips of interviews with King and co. from 1970 and 1971, and new essays. It’s a nice package and a great introduction to a stirring slice of Western genre history.