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The Gunfighter

The Gunfighter(1950)

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The Gunfighter (1950)

The Gunfighter (1950) drew solid reviews and fair box office when it was released in 1950, but over the decades its reputation has grown exponentially, and it is now considered one of the all-time classic westerns from the studio era -- admired for its melancholy realism, gritty suspense and period authenticity -- and seen as a key forerunner to the dark, psychological westerns of the later 1950s. This was a major, 'A' production from Twentieth Century-Fox, with director Henry King and star Gregory Peck teaming for the second time after Twelve O'Clock High (1949), which had just been nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor. (The two men would go on to work together four further times.)

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.

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, antiheroic 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).

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.

By Jeremy Arnold

Gary Fishgall, Gregory Peck
William Froug, The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter
Charles Higham, Hollywood Cameramen
Nora Johnson, Flashback: Nora Johnson on Nunnally Johnson
Tom Stempel, An Oral History of Nunnally Johnson
Tom Stempel, Screenwriter: The Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson

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