Tag Archives: Henry King


The late 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 . 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, , or .

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 , Nunnally Johnson, , 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.

Still from The Gunfighter (1950)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.


Henry King may be the most quintessentially American of American filmmakers. Compared to the likes of the stylized extrovert John Ford, King is a straightforward director and, therefore, remains one of the underrated American symphonists (putting him in good company with forever underrated fellow American symphonists, such as David Diamond and Paul Creston). Twelve O’ Clock High (1949), The Gunfighter (1950) and The Bravados (1958) are all integral canvases of the American frontier landscape that King made with Gregory Peck, yet the latter two languish in near obscurity.

King often directed Peck, and in Peck King had his best collaborator. Gregory Peck was the real deal. With Peck, one does not have to separate the artist or the persona from the actual person (as we have to do with ). Gregory Peck fit the bill of integrity and nobility on and off-screen and, thus, personifies the best and most honestly masculine qualities in the Western (which, along with jazz, is one of the two great American art forms).

Together, King and Peck vividly imprinted these qualities into each film without flinching from the flaws, warts and frailties which flesh out and give resonance to well-rounded characters. King and Peck had created their previous Western, The Gunfighter, eight years earlier. That is a film which deserves all the accolades it has received. The Bravados has less of a reputation. It is a very different film than The Gunfighter, yet it deserve a wider audience. While The Gunfighter was shot in stark black and white, in color The Bravados benefits greatly from cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s sense of composition and use of ethereal blue filters.

Still from The Bravados (1958)The Bravados, at first, seems to be another standard revenge film, but it is the juxtaposition of faith and violence that gives this film its tense individuality. Here again, we have the authenticity of Peck, the man of a deep Catholic faith that informs his role, imbuing it with a striking intensity. Peck conveys emotions with expert skill, acting with his eyes and an internal hesitancy. He stops short of speaking several times. Peck makes this a remarkable role.

Then, in direct contrast, is Joan Collins. Playing the old flame, Collins was still fairly early in her career, and it shows. Despite her reputation, Collins did eventually sharpen her acting skills considerably, but that improvement is not yet in evidence here. In several scenes, such as her initial reunion with Peck, discovering his past via a local priest, or pleading with him to take revenge, Collins is stiff. Her part is also underwritten and awkward, rendering her mostly decor, a role she does succeed in filling out. Still, Peck’s attraction to her never registers.

Future Stooge Joe DeRita is quite good in his eccentric characterization. His is a small role, but he fleshes it out with personality, making one wish he had taken this Western character actor route instead of being a comic fill-in. Of the four antagonists, only Stephen Boyd and Henry Silva have any real personality. Boyd is a real, slimy threat. Silva is admirably restrained when face-to-face with his hunter.

The shifting landscapes make for interesting expressionist parallels. The rugged, rocky canyon terrain gives way to an ominous forest in which Peck both murders and escapes murder. A waterfall provides temporary sustenance. A small, claustrophobic cabin houses the ugly, terrible truth. The unrealistically large Catholic parish contains the vast possibilities of sanctuary and redemption, but that is only reached after revelation at the home of the good thief, where Peck meets surprising hospitality and familiarity.

The Bravados is a harsh, brooding, tautly paced example of the 1950s western at its most adult. Despite some minor flaws, it is a stand-out in its genre, during a great decade.