The late Gregory Peck was a rarity of rarities among Hollywood actors in that he lived a life of authentic integrity, fulfilling a role of moral iconography that seems to be extinct now. The previous generation of critics were too preoccupied in assessing his occasionally dull virtuosity to notice that Peck was as vital a symbol, albeit a flawed one, as was John Wayne. Peck’s rugged nobility was best conveyed when shaped and nurtured by the right director. In the wrong hands, Peck could be woefully miscast, such as his Captain Ahab in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) or worse, as Josef Mengele (complete with cringe-inducing accent) in The Boys From Brazil (1978). Peck, a moderate liberal of devout faith, could rarely generate the type of rudimentary excitement and screen charisma of conservative counterparts such as Wayne, Charlton Heston, or Gary Cooper.
It is well known that Peck, fortunately, turned down the part of Will Kane in High Noon (1952). Although, in hindsight, Peck counted it as a grave mistake, he graciously and correctly admitted Cooper had been the better choice. The reason Peck turned down the role was that he had recently finished what he felt was a similar film, with Henry King: The Gunfighter (1950). Peck, of course is best remembered for his Atticus Finch in Robert Mulligan’s naive Hollywood version of To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), but some of Peck’s best work can be found in his inconsistent six-film collaboration with King. King often cast Peck against type. The results were usually better than normal: vivid performances in Twelve O’ Clock High (1949), the largely unsuccessful adaptation of Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), and The Bravados (1958). At the opposite end of the spectrum were embarrassingly inept misfires as the biblical King David in David and Bathsheba (1951) and as F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Beloved Infidel (1959), which makes the pair’s successful collaborations all the more valuable.
The Gunfighter was best of the King/Peck collaborations, despite not having received the attention it deserved, which was due in large part to producer Daryl Zanuck’s lack of effort in promoting it. Zanuck was reportedly disgruntled with the screenplay (which was worked on by Andre De Toth, Nunnally Johnson, Roger Corman, William Bowers, and William Sellers), feeling (correctly) that the script did not follow standard western formula. Zanuck first offered the part of Johnny Ringo to John Wayne, who declined, having the same grievances as Zanuck. As with High Noon, Wayne later did an about face and regretted that rejection. An older, gravely ill Wayne would play a slight variation of Ringo in his valedictory film The Shootist (1976). However, in 1950, Wayne’s persona was still too invincible, lacking the essential weariness the part required. The Gunfighter stands as one of Peck’s best roles and as one of the first psychological anti-westerns. Peck nails the nuances of an aged shootist whose past brashness has caught up with him. Fortunately, we are not privy to views of Peck as the younger Ringo. Such an exposure would have inevitably rendered both the performance and film uneven. Rather, we are given a Ringo who has barely enough time from being on the run to reflect on a life of bad choices. He is hoping against hope that he can evade the consequences of those choices and reunite with his estranged wife and son. Even while trying to set things right, Ringo is still pervious to making poor decisions, which continually puts his life at risk. The most telling difference between Ringo and Wayne’s later portrayal of J.B. Books is regret: Books is hated by many, but dies confidently with no regrets. Ringo has nothing but regret.
Several young thugs are pursuing Ringo, seeking revenge for the killing of their brother, despite the fact that it was in self-defense. A local father seeks justice for his son, whom he mistakenly believes to have been one of Ringo’s victims. The young Skip Homeier is the next generation of white trash (a type Homeier played well), seeking to gain a name for himself by killing the famous older gunfighter.
Ringo plants himself in a town that finds his celebrity a much needed break from their monotonous existence while, paradoxically, seeking his death for having disrupted their routine. Peck portrays Ringo with the right tone of desperation. He is virtually standing on his toes, fighting against time and his own reputation. Smartly, the screenplay does not succumb to any fatal misplaced sympathy for Ringo.
What makes Peck effective in the role is his against-type awkwardness. Several antagonists correctly observe: “Ringo doesn’t look so tough.” Indeed, the actor often looks hunched over, as if he has had a few nights on a misshapen bed, resulting in a bad back.
A foreboding clock occupies the claustrophobic space, yet it draws far less attention to itself than did the numerous timepieces in the noticeably tighter High Noon (1952). In hindsight, Ringo might also be compared to Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven (1992), yet there are, again, revealing differences. For all his self-proclamations of penance, Eastwood’s Munny never convinces us of his regret, because he is still as prone to one-note sadistic violence as his reputation suggests. In contrast, Peck’s Ringo throws away the firearms of would be assassins, jails another potential assassin, and grants dying clemency to his eventual killer.
It is the central performance and intelligent screenplay that assures The Gunfighter of its reputation as an underrated cult classic. However, that does not mean it is without its share of flaws, mainly in the assignment direction of King and the substandard performances of Helen Westcott and B.G. Norman as Ringo’s estranged family. With such a dull wife and annoying son, one can’t resist wondering why the Gunfighter would risk his well-being to reconcile with them. Karl Malden as the awestruck, slimy barkeeper Mac fares considerably better.