A young, reckless cowboy named Eddie (Richard Jaeckel) deliberately provokes an argument with the notorious gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck), who is widely known as the fastest draw in the West, making him the perpetual target of every young gunslinger eager to become famous as “the man who shot Ringo.” When Eddie draws his weapon, Ringo has no choice but to kill him. Eddie’s three brothers pursue Ringo as he leaves town, seeking revenge, but Ringo ambushes and disarms them, then drives off their horses, telling them to walk back to town; instead, they follow him on foot.
In the nearby town of Cayenne, as Ringo settles into a corner of the largely deserted saloon, barkeeper (Karl Malden) alerts Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell). Strett is an old friend of Ringo’s but nevertheless urges Ringo to leave, since his presence has already created a sensation and it is only a matter of time until trouble occurs. Ringo agrees to go as soon as he sees his wife, Peggy (Helen Westcott), whom he has not seen in eight years, and the son he has never met. Street tells him Peggy has changed her surname to conceal their relationship and has no interest in seeing him.
Ringo must deal with Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), another young gunslinger keen to make a name for himself, and Jerry Marlowe (Cliff Clark, uncredited), who mistakenly believes Ringo killed his son. A bar girl, Molly (Jean Parker)—another old friend—eventually persuades Peggy to talk to Ringo. Peggy hears Ringo say he is now older and wiser, and wants to leave his gunfighting past behind. He intends to settle in California, where people do not know him, and he wants Peggy to come with him. She refuses but agrees to reconsider in a year’s time, if he has kept his word and abandoned his past for good. Ringo meets his son at last, although he does not reveal that he is the boy’s father.
Ringo’s business in Cayenne is finished but he has lingered too long. The three vengeful brothers have arrived and lie in wait. Strett and his deputies intercept and apprehend them. Ringo bids farewell to Peggy and his son, but as he departs the saloon, Bromley shoots him in the back, mortally wounding him. As Ringo lies dying, he tells Strett that he wants it known that he drew on Bromley—that Bromley shot him in self-defense. Bromley protests that he doesn’t want Ringo’s help but Ringo explains to his killer that he is doing him no favors. Bromley, he says, will soon know how it feels to have every hotshot two-bit gunfighter out to kill him. He will learn, as Ringo did, that notoriety as a gunfighter is a curse that will follow him wherever he goes, making him an outcast and a target for the rest of his life. Strett orders Bromley out of his town, punctuating his order with a beating, which he warns is “just the beginning” of what Bromley has coming.
In death, Ringo has finally found what he sought for so long: his wife’s forgiveness and reconciliation. At his funeral, as Peggy proudly reveals to the townspeople for the first time that she is Mrs. Ringo, a silhouetted, unrecognizable cowboy rides off into the sunset.
The story of a retired gunfighter, Johnny Ringo, who yearns to live peacefully but finds himself constantly challenged to gun duels by young punks because of his reputation for being the best, The Gunfighter had its genesis in a dinner between screenwriter William Bowers and the retired heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. Dempsey told Bowers that his biggest daily problem was that seemingly everyone he met wanted to start a fight with him. Bowers was intrigued, and thought about applying that concept to a western gunfighter. “By the time I sat down to write [it],” he said, “I knew every line… It took me two weeks just to put it down, but I had thought it out completely.”
The final shooting script was the work of several writers: Bowers and Andre De Toth for the story, and Bowers and William Sellers for the screenplay. Producer Nunnally Johnson, a top-flight screenwriter himself, added a sizable chunk of the script but took no screenwriting credit. (Johnson’s daughter Nora later wrote that he always considered The Gunfighter his favorite script of his entire career.)
Bowers and Sellers’ script was originally entitled The Big Gun, and Bowers took it initially to John Wayne. Bowers had had Wayne foremost in his mind as he worked on the script. As he later recalled: “Duke Wayne was so marvelous [in Red River, 1948] as that big, tough, tired guy, when I did The Gunfighter, I thought here I’ve got a story about the toughest guy in the west, only you never see him do anything tough. And I’m absolutely screwed if I don’t have a guy that you would just naturally believe. So Duke is that guy.” When Wayne read the script, Bowers said, “he flipped over it,” but offered Bowers just $10,000. “And I said, ‘Oh, come on!’ He said, ‘Well, you said you wrote it for me, don’t you have any artistic integrity?’ I said, ‘No.'”
So Bowers took it next to Nunnally Johnson, who got Fox to purchase it for $70,000 and then expanded the script from 94 to 132 pages, adding scenes such as the buildup to the early confrontation between Johnny Ringo and a young gun in a saloon. (The original script had simply started with that showdown.) Wayne was irritated with Bowers for the rest of his life for having “sold that goddamn story out from under me,” and he let him know it whenever their paths crossed. Bowers would reply, “Well, you didn’t offer me any money.” And Wayne would respond, “Well, you said you wrote it for me! And then you go over there and let that skinny schmuck do it!” — meaning Peck. According to Bowers, Wayne thought the resulting picture was “a piece of crap” and would have been infinitely better with Wayne in it. Bowers certainly believed that “Duke would have been superb in The Gunfighter,” but of course Peck turns in a brilliant performance of his own as the tortured Johnny Ringo.
According to his own legend, back in 1948, as documented in his auto-biography, How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime (1990), the future schlock-meister and mini-movie-mogul-to-be Corman got a job at Fox and worked his way up from page to spec-script reader. And when word came down the line that the studio was looking for a suitable vehicle for Gregory Peck, “something offbeat but classy”, Corman recalled the script, found it, made a ton of notes, and passed it back up the line. And when it was chosen, his supervisor got a bonus that failed to trickle down to him, which so disillusioned Corman he quit to study abroad, setting the stage for his triumphant return as an independent filmmaker and the undisputed king of exploitation movies.
But Corman wasn’t the only one to punch up the script, with producer Nunnally Johnson and William Sellers also taking a revising run at it. Frequent Peck collaborator Henry King [12 O’Clock High (1949), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)] was tasked with directing and does an excellent job, as does pioneering editor, Barbara McClean, cutting it all together.
Peck later recalled that the actual shoot went very smoothly, just like Bowers’ original writing process: “We just worked on it for about ten or eleven weeks,” Peck said, “and it all came out on the screen about the way it was on paper — airtight.”
The key quality being sought was authenticity. Cinematographer Arthur Miller told interviewer Charles Higham that the picture “was shot without any process at all. All that stuff with the guy waiting to shoot the man as he came out of a saloon from a high window…none of it was faked. The western hats and clothes were exactly right. I stripped The Gunfighter of all glamour.”
Nunnally Johnson later laughed over a memory of Henry King asserting his authority over the period authenticity of bar towels. They walked onto the saloon set one day, and King started snatching the bar towels off their racks, announcing that bar towels hadn’t actually come in until 1871. “Well,” recalled Johnson, “he happened to be saying this in front of the only man who knew he was lying, which was me. It just happened that the night before I’d been looking through an album of old pictures, like a collection of Brady photographs, and had seen a picture of General Grant in a saloon and there were bar towels there. But naturally I didn’t say anything. There was nothing [to be gained by it]. It seemed to me a small point and Henry had gained a small victory. It made him happy. I didn’t care whether there were [bar towels]. If we’d been doing a picture of the Crusades, he’d come up with the same outright, flat statements and nobody would dispute a director as authoritative as Henry.”
But by far the most famous story connected to The Gunfighter and its push for period authenticity involves Gregory Peck’s mustache. The mustache — as well as Peck’s bowl haircut and grungy wardrobe — were Henry King’s idea for the cause of realism. Studio chief Darryl Zanuck was in Europe during production and so didn’t see the mustache until he viewed a cut of the film some time later. But two weeks into filming, Twentieth Century-Fox president Spyros Skouras saw his first batch of rushes, and he hated the mustache so much that he seriously considered having the production start over with a clean-shaven Johnny Ringo. Peck and King approached the film’s production manager to find out how much those two weeks had cost. $150,000, they were told. “Can’t you up that a little?” King asked. “For one-fifty he just might do it.” So the production manager told Skouras it had cost $300,000, and Skouras was deterred.
Henry King later said that when Zanuck first saw a cut of the film (and the mustache), he sat in silence afterward for some time. “Then he said, ‘I would give $50,000 of my own money if I could get that mustache off that guy… This man has a young following. Young girls like him. That mustache, I’m afraid, is going to kill it.'” Zanuck, and Skouras, were worried that the mustache would affect the movie’s box-office performance, and when the film indeed underperformed, Skouras for years afterward referred to Johnson as the man who put the mustache on Gregory Peck and cost the studio a million dollars.
That is certainly an exaggeration, but it’s possible that the overall sparse, understated, anti-heroic grunginess of The Gunfighter was not what Peck fans wanted to see in 1950. Peck’s previous western, Yellow Sky (1948), had made more money, as had most of his latest films overall. Furthermore, his four recent Oscar nominations had been for more glamorous, clean-cut roles in such films as The Yearling (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Twelve O’Clock High (1949).
Gregory Peck was that skinny schmuck in Wayne’s estimation, but to paying fans mostly in bobby-sox, he was dreamy personified and object of careful studio handling. The alleged shock and boxoffice consequence of a mustache he wore in The Gunfighter was myth built upon casual remarks Darryl Zanuck and other Fox executives made after viewing an already completed picture. If anything, Zanuck recognized a western possibly too good for its target audience. It’s a Remington, he told director Henry King (shown here with Peck and again with actress Helen Westcott), but coming from a practiced hand at playing to masses, this was not necessarily a complement. If anything, the mustache was symptomatic of a greater problem. It is unquestionably a minor classic, (said Zanuck) but I really believe that it violates so many true western traditions that it goes over the heads of the type of people who patronize westerns, and there are not enough of the others to give us the top business we anticipated. Killing off Peck at the finish might have been avoided for the good of all. Patrons said so (by the hundreds) when ushers inquired during the NYC Roxy run, and yes, the mustache did bother women and young girls. He’d been grizzled for much of Fox’s previous Yellow Sky (not half the picture that “The Gunfighter” is, said DFZ), but on that occasion, Peck’s character took more initiative and got the girl besides, despite an outlaw past not unlike Jimmie Ringo’s. Fox tried merchandising The Gunfighter as something extraordinary among westerns. The trailer depicts actress Gene Tierney exiting a private run to read cue carded raves (a bold and startling departure from the conventional), while ads embraced downbeat content and a morose lead character who’d lived by his guns … too long! The Gunfighter was among Hollywood’s first to chart an end for a frontier so far the site of optimistic empire building. It would soon enough morph into a cemetery waiting to claim freebooters who’d outlived their usefulness. The Gunfighter is cited by many as the non-political superior of High Noon, but it’s also an admonishment to those Jimmie Ringos home from the war to put aside arms and embrace their social and civic responsibilities.
You could see Ringo coming at the end of Peck’s last western, Yellow Sky. His bank robbing gang leader is revealed to have been a church-going scion of good family waiting for the right woman to settle him down. Indeed, Anne Baxter’s prairie hellcat (raised by apaches!) escorts his return to selfsame bank for purposes of giving back gains ill gotten during the first reel. By the fade, he’s done all but join the Jaycees and apply for a position at the teller’s window. Men were men on the prewar frontier. Errol Flynn and sidekicks broke trails and heads in things like Dodge City because there was a West to be won and heroes needed to travel light. Jimmie Ringo’s mistake was less the men he’d killed than the wife and child he’d left behind. We’d won the big fight, and now it was time for post-warriors to get busy mowing the grass (lone wolf James Stewart would learn to play community ball as well in 1955’s The Far Country). The town Ringo comes back to was more like the one I grew up in than depictions I’ve seen of western burgs. It’s a woman’s world and men-folk are good and tamed. No wonder Jimmie has to die! A bright-eyed small rancher sharing one drink with the former badman limits his intake for fear of reprisals from the wife back home, a situation apron-clad barkeep Karl Malden applauds. Ringo returns to a happily gelded community so emasculated as to allow fuzz-faced teenaged bully Skip Homeier to cow its male population. Little boys in the street are spanked home by mommies lest they follow Ringo’s sorry example, and even one-time toughest man in the West Millard Mitchell (as Jimmy’s ex-partner in crime) mediates on behalf of the Ladies Auxiliary. Ringo’s bad end is a conclusion foregone by societal edicts reflective more of 1950 than 1880. Good as he is, Peck may have been too much the gray flannel man for this commission. John Wayne would have made a more convincing bad-ass trying to come in from the cold, offering a better sense of just what Ringo had given up and was trying now to regain. Peck starts out and remains so reasonable as to make me wonder just how desperate an hombre he could ever have been. Might his Ringo have been as happy pushing that lawn mower all along?
In front of the camera Peck is ably supported by cast of rock-solid character actors, including Karl Malden, Ellen Corby and Jean Parker. And once more, Millard Mitchell manages to steal another western right out from under another mega-star — just like he did to Jimmy Stewart the very same year in Winchester ’73. And then there’s Skip Homeier, whose enigmatic presence, to me, always elevates everything he shows up in from this, to Fixed Bayonets (1951), to The Tall T (1957), to The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). He is so good in this as the weasel Bromley. In the original ending, after gunning Ringo down, Bromley is arrested by Strett. But when Daryl Zanuck screened the rough cut, he apparently blew his top, sending King and Johnson scrambling to fix the resolution, having Ringo’s dying wish to let Bromley go, a bit of poetic justice, as now everyone will be gunning for the man who gunned down Ringo — but not before Strett gets his pound of flesh before sending him on his way “to get killed someplace else.”
The Gunfighter was a hit, especially in the context of Fox’s bombs away 1950 season. Its pressbook offered ad mats reading Movies Are Better Than Ever!, an industry co-op measure of desperation brought on by televisions Dad was hauling into those suburban family rooms. Fox was having enough trouble breaking even with once thought to be sure-fire product. Betty Grable musicals were nearly played out and the company’s biggest profit getter was Clifton Webb. The breakdown of Fox postwar/pre-Cinemascope money westerns finds Broken Arrow at the top with gains of $1.4 million. Yellow Sky is at number two with $1.2 million in the black. Rawhide took $704,000 in profits. The Gunfighter earned $1.8 million in domestic rentals against a negative cost of $1.2. There were foreign rentals of $805,000 and eventual profits of $464,000, making The Gunfighter one of the better earners in a year otherwise awash in red ink (over a dozen 1950 Fox releases lost money — The Black Rose, Night and The City, and Under My Skin were each down in excess of a million). Fox had an aggressive reissue program. Bookers in the field were expected to bring home contracts for so-called Encore Triumphs. The company published each man’s sales figure per quarter, and competition was high for bonuses realized from not only first-runs, but oldies and short subjects. The Gunfighter was dating again in 1953 with fresh paper and new prints. There was $288,000 in additional domestic rentals and $83,000 more foreign. Profits this time came to $271,000. This combined with earlier gains put The Gunfighter into a solidly positive column on Fox ledgers.
Critics raved over The Gunfighter, with The New York Times deeming it “grown-up” and offering “rare suspense and a tingling accumulation of good, pungent western atmosphere.” Variety called it a “dynamic, potent drama… Packs a terrific dramatic wallop which seldom has been equaled in any type of picture.”
The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story, but lost to Panic in the Streets (1950). Peck was offered the lead in High Noon — another tortured western character — as a result of this film, but turned it down, fearing being typecast. He later regretted it. Notable in the supporting cast here are Millard Mitchell, excellent as the Marshall, and Jean Parker in the role of Molly. Parker had acted in some sixty films in the 1930s and 1940s before leaving Hollywood for a Broadway career, and this was her return to the screen after nearly five years.
Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo
Helen Westcott as Peggy Walsh
Millard Mitchell as Marshal Mark Strett
Jean Parker as Molly
Karl Malden as Mac
Richard Jaeckel as Eddie
Skip Homeier as Hunt Bromley
Anthony Ross as Deputy Charlie Norris
Verna Felton as Mrs. August Pennyfeather
Ellen Corby as Mrs. Devlin
David Clarke as Second Brother
Alan Hale Jr. as Brother