"There was this movie I seen one time," Dylan sings, "about a man riding across the desert and it starred Gregory Peck." It is only while riding through that vast, barren desert while the credits roll that Peck’s Johnny Ringo knows peace. The moment he enters town, any town, the aging gunfighter’s reputation as the fastest gun alive is a magnet for every young bully with a pistol.
"He only has two hands like the rest of us," one such youth tells his mates upon observing Ringo drinking alone at the bar. Ignoring the advice of his companions to leave the lean stranger alone, the young man quickly becomes the latest notch on Ringo’s gun. All that Ringo wants is to reunite with his wife and their son, settle down, and quietly live out his days, but in the eyes of the people he meets he is a myth come to life, a legend to praise or condemn. The children squeal with excitement knowing that a legendary gunfighter walks amongst them, the guardians of morality sneer at him with contempt and call upon the marshal to kick him out of town, and there’s always another trigger happy gunman eager to become a legend himself by outdrawing the man whose hands are said to be quicker than even Wyatt Earp’s.
Midway through the film, Ringo comes up against his most obnoxious challenger yet, a "squirt" played by Skip Homeier whose wiseguy manner and ever present sneer bring to mind Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death. The "squirt" trails Ringo like cow-dung on a boot heel, taunting him, challenging him to the ultimate contest, one in which the loser pays with his life.
The Dylan song reveals the ending (and its moral) in the first verse, but if you don’t stay with The Gunfighter through its final reel, you’ll miss one of Gregory Peck’s strongest performances. He’s fast all right, but he’s weary, too--tired of a reputation he never sought or respected. Ringo only killed in self-defense but the efficient way in which he did so gave rise to a legend and now makes him a constant target. For reasons beyond his control, self-defense is Ringo’s way of life. It’s a life in which, as Dylan sings, he "must always face his death."
Directed by Henry King from a screenplay by Bowers, The Gunfighter is a morality play that effectively examines the consequences of fame in the Old West. To be king of the mountain is not an end in itself. You must always climb higher to avoid being knocked down by the ones who want to wear your crown. It’s not surprising that this film spoke to the Duke and Dylan, both of whom knew something about the glories and the pitfalls of being the fastest gun in town.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© 1999, Brian W. Fairbanks