by Isaiah Speller
Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950) encapsulates one’s deviation from being good and facing fatal consequences. Cowboys in earlier Westerns were portrayed as heroes who followed an honorable code, while this Cold War Western challenges the protagonist and the American audience. From both the movie and the events happening offscreen, it is easy to compare the tense environment of Cayenne to the United States emerging as a superpower following World War II. The viewer is forced to grapple with the question of what would they do if their luck ran out, like Jimmy Ringo’s. He was a man living on borrowed time, and with the future uncertain, he means to come to terms with his previous actions. Staring blindly toward the horizon, no one knows if tradition would stand the test of time, or if they will be left in the past. Notoriety can have its benefits, but just as a person or country can have power, a prime must always have its end.
Jimmy Ringo’s talent was having the fastest draw in the west. Similar to a celebrity or artist, being on the top is both lonely and costly. Earlier Westerns would not make this the focus, rather they showcased the fantasy of a man living out his days free. The Gunfighter challenges the unspoken code that cowboys are supposed to follow because Ringo is ultimately tired of it all. He is not a character that viewers would aspire to emulate. Realistically, his talent for pulling out and shooting faster than anyone else made him a huge threat, and that carried weight. His talent took his freedom away. Cowboy codes such as never firing on a kid was spoken of in the film. Ringo no longer has the will to uphold a code, but to leave the pressures of society for good. It is seen in his expression throughout the movie that he will attempt to eliminate a problem immediately on his own accord. A Western value that was challenged was in the beginning scene in the saloon. Both Eddie and Ringo see each other as a threat, therefore they drank their whiskey using their weaker hand. The strong hand is the gun hand, and it is placed securely on their hip if issues escalate. Interestingly enough, there are barely any shootouts in the movie, because no one is giving the other a fighting chance. That split second the viewer has to catch in between someone taking out a gun and shooting is what Ringo counts as still having integrity. In figure 1, Ringo asks “Did you see that?” just to confirm he does not enjoy the cowboy lifestyle anymore. Another example is when he disarms the three brothers, he gets rid of their horses. In the west, that is equivalent to leaving a man to die. In a way, Ringo is dismantling the current order and erasing himself from ever being a part of it. This is why his dream is to go to California with his wife and child, to live another life that he can’t obtain.
For the most part, it is the saloon that takes the stage in Westerns. It is the playground for cowboys to show off their brawn and masculinity. Saloons are the liveliest of locations in small towns, reflecting local culture. The Gunfighter largely takes place indoors which can have a dark and nauseating take, since outdoor locations dominate earlier Westerns. According to The American Western, “With heroes who were trapped in a particular series of predictable events, held little appeal to a nation which did not want to be told of its lack of control over its destiny, that it was powerless in an era where power and control could mean destruction or survival.” (McVeigh, 87)
This example can be narrowed down to the individual of a Cold War Western, when Ringo knows there is no happy ending for him. Ringo is a lost soul who is roaming in a world no longer made for him, as the grim reaper follows behind. But he is happy that while in the saloon in Cayenne, he is able to meet Peggy and Marshal Mark Strett. The saloon acts as a purgatory for Ringo to finally make peace and move on. Instances such as almost being shot by Jerry Marlowe and lastly fatally shot by Hunt Bromley showed that he could not escape with his life. Heaven for Ringo was the ranch in California and away from the public eye. Hunt Bromley now carries the torch as one of the toughest gunfighters, since he killed Ringo. He will learn though, that this position will eat him up inside and become a worse punishment than simply being locked up in jail. Ringo was a man of very few words, but his last words had an impact on the state of the frontier and how gunfighters should not be glorified. Hunt Bromley will face the same fate as Ringo by another ambitious young gunfighter. The Gunfighter is a dreary film that took people out of the fantasy of wanting to live as a cowboy.
A takeaway from this film is that cowboy culture is flawed. The Cold War brought up topics about American society that many shy away from. The western genre is predominantly Anglo-American men who take control of “lawless” environments. In “At Home on the Range: Cowboy Culture, Indians, and the Assimilation of Enemy Children in the Cold War Borderlands,” Jonna Perrillo writes “Lessons in cowboy culture, while reasserting the value of white leadership and power, taught American children that the nation’s transgressions were history, democracy was vigorous and virile, and that survivors of American genocide lived on, if not through contemporary indigenous people, who went unrepresented in the school curriculum and public culture, in their service as the forebears to Cold War white heroes.” (Perrillo, 948). It is important to mention the people who are watching the westerns, because the audience is wide and diverse, in race, age, and creed, even though they are not often represented in the film as heroes. The western to this day is seen as a fair representation of what America stood for, and it was not kind to minority groups. Though The Gunfighter does not feature any people of color, it is suggested that the name Cayenne is named after land previously owned by indigenous people. The structure in this film differs from earlier westerns because the Marshall does not save the day. Even with Ringo dead, Cayenne is mourning over the loss of their town. Before Ringo’s arrival, the town was safe and orderly. This is why the women of the town demanded the Marshal to step up and protect their values. Outlaws like Ringo can and did attract more trouble than the town could handle, which can represent the end of Westerns as we previously knew it to be. The United States in the 1950s was becoming multicultural, and that meant the end of unrealistic visions of keeping tradition. It was only inevitable that the larger and stronger America became, they would garner more opponents. America at this time is scared, overwhelmed and cracking, which is what this film is bringing to light. There are some parts of life that cannot change, with factors at play putting society on a path that’s hard to detour from. Eventually cowboys will become extinct, as shown in the last shot with one riding out, only spotting its silhouette. Another example is throughout the movie, there are clocks placed menacingly near Ringo (Figure 2), pressuring him to either keep running or face his demons head on. Peggy only gives Ringo hopeful satisfaction that in one year she may reconsider. But this is only to make Ringo feel better, because she knows his time is up and he cannot change. Ringo puts a danger on everyone he encounters, intentional or not, and townspeople want nothing to do with it. It is interesting that only children gather around the saloon wanting to see him, as there are barely any adults glorifying him. Perhaps the children are naive with the thought that they can become like Ringo and live their best life.
Ringo never claimed to be a hero, in fact it was suggested he was a villain, but that was what made The Gunfighter a powerful story. The film focused around redeeming an old outlaw who is learning from his mistakes. He found closure, which no one can take away from him. Characters like Marshall Strett had a rough past but evolved and became a new person before it was too late. America as a whole is learning that keeping issues under the radar will only lead to bigger ramifications. When reality is incorporated into film, the gap closes in making Westerns less fictional. Though Westerns can be romanticized, idealized and other-worldly, the adult psychological western is the most effective in delivering commentary on the social and political order.
McVeigh, Stephen. The American Western. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Perrillo, Jonna. “At Home on the Range: Cowboy Culture, Indians, and the Assimilation of Enemy Children in the Cold War Borderlands.” American Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 4, Dec. 2019, pp. 945–967. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/aq.2019.0069.