The 1950s are commonly known as the “Golden Age” for Westerns. A new level of seriousness was afforded the genre by both filmmakers and audiences. French film critics, in particular, celebrated many of the Westerns made in that decade, with one such critic referring to 1950 as “the 1789 of the genre’s history” – i.e. a revolutionary year. That particular year saw the release of Broken Arrow by director Delmer Daves, which was precedent-setting in its portrayal by Hollywood of the fuller humanity of Indigenous peoples, and of Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950), a new type of darker, psychological Western. High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) continued the development of a more complicated protagonist.
An analysis of The Gunfighter gives some insight into the directions that Westerns began to explore during the 1950s. The film tells the story of aging gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (played by Gregory Peck), who is tired of his reputation as the fastest gunslinger yet knows that he is in fact trapped by his fame – it is inevitable that someone will try to kill him so as to gain a reputation themselves. One such youth will force Ringo into gunning him down – here is that scene:
Moving on to a neighbouring town to avoid the vengeful brothers of the young man, Ringo attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife and son. Yet this effort to change his ways will be Ringo’s undoing – while still in town he is gunned down from behind. As Ringo dies, he tells his youthful killer that he will now carry the mantle of celebrated gunfighter, which will bring others to kill him in turn.
The complex issues of celebrity and regret are the narrative threads of The Gunfighter. His reputation as killer brings death toward him and prevents reconciliation with his family. A key scene has Ringo share a drink with a young rancher – he represents a domestic life no longer available to Ringo. The notoriety of Ringo leads others to suspect him for killings he may not have committed and he is effectively trapped by his celebrity.
This idea of a killing a celebrated outlaw in order gain fame is also a theme of the more recent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), directed by Andrew Dominik. Here is a scene in which Jesse James (Brad Pitt) gains a sense of the devotion that new gang member – and eventual assassin – Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) has toward him:
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)