Tag Archives: Aging Gunfighter

The Gun Hawk

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 11, 2015

The Gun Hawk—Rory Calhoun, Rod Cameron, Rod Lauren, Ruta Lee, Robert Wilke, John Litel, Morgan Woodward (1963; Dir: Edward Ludwig)


This is a late western in the careers of Rory Calhoun and Rod Cameron, and the last movie for director Edward Ludwig (who made such John Wayne non-westerns as Big Jim McLain, Wake of the Red Witch and The Fighting Seabees).

The title refers to the mysterious figure who runs the haven of Sanctuary on the Mexican border, enforcing his rules with his gun.   Blaine Madden (Rory Calhoun), not bad with a gun himself, rides into Baxter, the town where he grew up, in time to meet and help young footloose gunman Reb Roan (Rod Lauren).  Sheriff Ben Corey (Rod Cameron, with lots of gray paint in his hair) liked Madden when he was growing up and once offered him a job as his deputy.  He didn’t take it, but his jealous childhood friend Mitch (Morgan Woodward) did, and he still resents Madden.  Madden tells Corey he’s not staying in town but is headed to Sanctuary.


Sheriff Ben Corey (Rod Cameron), Deputy Mitch (Morgan Woodward) and Blaine Madden (Rory Calhoun) all see trouble coming but differ in their responses.

In the local saloon, after Madden helps Roan in a fight with the Sully brothers, those brothers start picking on the town drunk (long-time character actor John Litel, who had often played ministers and even Gen. Phil Sheridan).  Finally, they shoot him, not realizing that he’s Madden’s father.  Madden leaves town, saying he’s not going in pursuit of them, but he finds them before Corey does.  Corey rides up, sees Madden standing over the two dead Sullys and tries to arrest him.  Madden rides away, gambling that Corey will not shoot him in the back, but he does, winging him.

Aimless young drifter Reb Roan finds Madden having collapsed from his wound and does what he can to doctor it.  It’s in Madden’s right arm (his gun arm), and it obviously impairs Madden’s ability to use his gun.  As the two of them ride into Sanctuary, Madden is greeted as “El Gavilan,” Spanish for “the hawk”—he is the mysterious figure who presides over Sanctuary.  His first action is to run out Johnny Flanders (veteran screen heavy Robert Wilke), who has violated Sanctuary’s rules about not using guns.  He accomplishes this not with guns but (not very convincingly for some one with a badly wounded right arm) with his fists.


Roan (Rod Lauren) and Madden (Rory Calhoun) ride into Sanctuary.

[Spoilers follow.]  Ben Corey rides into Sanctuary and takes Madden into custody, but the residents of the hamlet prevent him from riding out with El Gavilan.  Mitch tries unsuccessfully to raise a posse in a neighboring town and wants to just shoot Madden down.  Corey takes back his badge.  Meanwhile, in Sanctuary Madden’s romantic interest Marleen (Ruta Lee) spends the night with him, and in the morning he forces Roan into a gun fight.  Roan is wounded but Madden (who was dying from his wound) is dead—a death the way he wanted it.  Marleen then explains to Roan that, having violated the rules of Sanctuary, he must now leave.

The ending is not terribly satisfying, and the rationale for Reb having to leave not all that convincing now that Madden is dead.  There are at least two alternate endings that would have worked better:  (1) Instead of Madden dying, he and Roan stage the final gunfight, but it is just that—staged, for Corey to witness from his perch above the town.  When he sees Madden’s apparent death, he gives up the chase, and Madden and the inhabitants of Sanctuary live happily ever after in their remote location.  Or better, (2) if Madden has to die, it plays out as in the movie, but with his last words the dying Madden passes to Roan the mantle of El Gavilan, and Roan becomes the protector of Sanctuary in the place of his mentor.  And it’s never really explained why the fatherly Corey actually did shoot Madden in the back, although theoretically just wounding him.  The result in the film is probably more true to the state of 19th-century medicine on the trail than if Madden had survived.


A last night for Madden (Rory Calhoun) and Marleen (Ruta Lee).

Experienced hands Calhoun and Cameron are fine in this low-budget effort, although Calhoun spends too much time just looking pained, either from his wound or the situation around him.  Lauren and Ruta Lee are not impressive.  This is not among Calhoun’s very best efforts; those would probably be Dawn at Socorro (1954) and Apache Territory (1958), both with better writing. But it does pull us in with interesting characters, good world-weary acting from Calhoun and with its twist on familiar situations up to a point, until things fall apart at the end.  Rory Calhoun fans will want to watch it anyway.  In color, at 92 minutes.

For another tale of a haven for outlaws in the Southwest, see the more famous Rancho Notorious (1952) by director Fritz Lang, with the establishment presided over by Marlene Dietrich.  There is a string of westerns about gunmen with physical impairments, the best-known of which is El Dorado (1966), in which John Wayne is the afflicted gunslinger.

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The Gunfighter

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 10, 2013

The Gunfighter—Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell, Karl Malden, Skip Homeier, Richard Jaeckel (1950; Dir:  Henry King)


Right after the opening credits:  “In the Southwest of the 1880’s the difference between death and glory was often but a fraction of a second. This was the speed that made champions of Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok. But the fastest man with a gun who ever lived, by many contemporary accounts, was a long, lean Texan named Ringo.”  Despite this invoking of historical figures, Jimmy Ringo is a fictional character, with the name apparently adapted from John Ringo, the Arizona gunman.  It has been popular as a name for cinematic gunfighters and outlaws, used in Stagecoach, innumerable Spaghetti westerns and many others.  Although this Ringo is said to be very fast with a gun, with expert film editing we never actually see him draw during the movie.

Heading for Cayenne, New Mexico, Jimmy Ringo’s reputation as a gunfighter catches up with him yet again in a Santa Fe saloon.  A kid named Eddie (Richard Jaeckel in one of his shortest roles) won’t leave him alone until he forces Ringo (Gregory Peck) to draw, and Ringo kills him easily but not happily.  Eddie has three brothers who take out after Ringo.   He waylays them and sets them afoot on the trail.


Ringo (Gregory Peck) spends much of the movie in saloons, this time facing off against Richard Jaeckel.

In Cayenne, Ringo sets up in the Palace, where he encounters the local marshal, Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell).  Strett once rode with Ringo, knows Ringo’s past and the fact that Ringo’s estranged wife Peggy (Helen Westcott) is in Cayenne.  Living under another name, she’s the local schoolteacher and wants nothing to do with Ringo and his notoriety.  All the boys in town skip school to catch a glimpse of the infamous gunfighter, including Ringo’s own son Jimmy, now nine years old.

Ringo encounters the usual problems in Cayenne.  Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), a young local who fancies himself fast with a gun, prods Ringo.  An older man thinks Ringo was responsible for the death of his son and is determined to ambush him from an upstairs hotel room.  Eddie’s three brothers make it to Cayenne.  And the local female forces of righteousness want Marshal Strett to lock him up or hang him.

Ringo copes with these one by one, hoping that his wife Peggy will just talk with him before he leaves town.  Molly, an aging saloon girl and old friend of both Jimmy and Peggy, finally talks Peggy into seeing him.  Ringo describes how he plans to leave his gunfighting life and says he’ll be back in a year for her.  He talks with his son without revealing their relationship.  And Strett gets antsier for him to leave town before something happens.

gunfighter&son Ringo and son.

Finally Ringo leaves out the back of the Palace, where the camera shows Eddie’s brothers lurking in wait for him.  Strett’s deputy backs them off just when it looks like their ambush will succeed.  Jimmy gets on his horse and is about to leave town, when Hunt Bromley shoots him in the back.  As he lies dying, Jimmy tells Strett that he drew first on Bromley, and Bromley thinks Ringo’s trying to keep him from being arrested.  Ringo’s actually dooming Bromley to a short life of the kind he’s had, with a reputation that draws challengers like flies.  Peggy reveals her connection with Ringo at the funeral.

Gregory Peck wears a mustache in this film, unusual for him.  The studio hated the mustache and, after the film didn’t do well at the box office, figured that it was the mustache’s fault.  Peck was a natural at conveying decency and rectitude (he and Joel McCrea come to mind first in that regard), and this is one of his best westerns notwithstanding the mustache.  Maybe it was the unattractive hat.  In any event, these qualities lend him credibility in persuading us that Ringo at the advanced age of 35 does want to change his life.  Ringo could have killed the old man waiting for him with a Winchester but doesn’t.  Asking about the man’s son, it becomes clear that Ringo had nothing to do with the kid’s death and has been blamed for all kinds of things he didn’t do.  In one of the best scenes, Ringo is alone in the marshal’s office when the decent women come looking for the marshal.  They don’t know who Ringo is, and he kind of explains himself to them without telling them of his identity.  The ending is strong and really makes the movie.  The entire film depends on Peck carrying it, and he does that well.

gunfighterTwo Ringo and Strett.

Millard Mitchell was in three good westerns in the early 1950s:  Winchester ’73 and this one in 1950, and The Naked Spur in 1953.  He looks like a regular person (rather than an actor), but he’s good in all of these.  Helen Westcott is adequate but nothing special.  Skip Homeier is good as Hunt Bromley; he could always play a mouthy kid with a gun (see Dawn at Socorro, Ten Wanted Men, The Tall T and Comanche Station, for example).

Henry King was an experienced workmanlike director, and this is one of the better efforts late in his career.  It’s in black and white and feels like it was shot with a limited budget.  Nevertheless, it tells one of the quintessential western stories (the aging gunfighter who can’t escape his past) well.  King directed Peck again in The Bravados (1958), a pretty good revenge-manhunt western.  The original story was by William Bowers and B-movie director Andre de Toth, and the screenplay was by Bowers and William Sellers.

In the late 1990s Richard Jaeckel was dying of cancer and his wife was suffering from Alzheimer’s; they had lost their home in Brentwood, California, and were more than a million dollars in debt.  Gregory Peck was one of those instrumental in getting Jaeckel admitted to the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, where he died in June 1997.

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Ride the High Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 6, 2013

Ride the High Country—Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, James Drury, R.G. Armstrong, John Anderson, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates, John Davis Chandler, Edgar Buchanan (1962; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

This was director Sam Peckinpah’s second movie, one of the two that are counted his very greatest, and one of the first notable passing-of-the-old-west movies.  As aging former lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) rides into a town in California’s Sierra Nevada at the turn of the century, he hears cheers from the citizenry lining the streets.  He sees no one else and figures the cheers must be appreciation for him and his earlier career, and he tips his hat.  Then he is rudely shooed out of the way by a policeman, as a camel and horse race around a corner and toward a finish line.  The cheers were for the racers.

In fact, Judd and his career are largely forgotten.  He’s been getting menial work where he can to survive, but time and the west itself have passed him by.  He finds old friend and fellow former lawman Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) working a shooting booth at a carnival, billed as the Oregon Kid.  Judd has been lured here by the offer of a good-paying job escorting $250,000 in gold down from a remote mining camp to the bank in town.

It turns out that expectations are too high on both sides of the deal.  The father and son who run the bank (Percy Helton and Byron Foulger, very good in bit parts) were unaware of how old Judd now is; and in fact there’s only about $20,000 in gold.  Judd is to get $20 a day, plus another $20 to be split between Westrum and his headstrong and girl-crazy young partner Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).


Contemplating the limited rewards of a life spent in law enforcement.

The dialogue between Judd and Westrum as they ride the high country toward the camp of Coarse Gold has several recurring themes:  lost loves and disappointments of the past, the way that a career in law was too dangerous and didn’t pay enough to get married and have a family, and an easy way with scripture.  They come to a farm, where they seek lodging for the night with Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong), a man even more given to spouting scripture than they are.  His daughter Elsa (the luminous young Mariette Hartley) is anxious to experience more of life than is available on her mountain farm with an oppressive father.  She goes so far as to encourage Heck’s attentions.  It turns out she fancies herself engaged to a miner in Coarse Gold, and she sneaks off to follow Judd’s small band when they leave the next day.  And it also turns out that the gold isn’t all that’s coarse in the mining camp.

Her miner is Billy Hammond (James Drury in his pre-Virginian days), the most presentable of the five despicable Hammond brothers (John Anderson, Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones and John Chandler Davis are the others).  Longtree deposits Elsa with the Hammonds with considerable misgivings, while Judd and Westrum conduct their business in the camp, where the people are as coarse as what they mine.  That night Elsa, Billy and the Hammonds go to Kate’s Place for her to be wed to Billy by the inebriated Judge Tolliver (Edgar Buchanan).  Immediately after the wedding, she discovers that marriage with a Hammond is not at all what she was expecting.  Judd rescues her, and the small band retreats from Coarse Gold amid threats from the Hammonds.

highcountryhartley Mariette Hartley in her first movie.

Indeed, they are bushwhacked by the Hammonds on the trail while Judd is discovering that Westrum plans to make off with the gold himself.  Heck and Judd fight off the Hammonds, killing two of them (Sylvus, played by L.Q. Jones, and Jimmy, played by John Chandler Davis).  As they approach the Knudsen farm, they find that the three remaining Hammonds have made it there before them and killed Joshua.  Heck and Judd both take bullets, and, after a standoff, Judd and Westrum decide to take on the Hammonds “straight on, just like always.”  It’s a powerful ending. 

This movie contains one of the great lines in a western, a line that a surprising number of people know.  As the aging Steve Judd and Gil Westrum talk about what they’ve learned and where to go from here in their lives, Steve says, “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  He doesn’t explain more than that, but it resonates.  It’s what gets him to the end of movie, and we know that he does indeed enter his house justified—whatever that means.  (See Luke 18:14 in the New Testament, where the line comes at the end of a parable on the difference between conventional righteousness and the real thing.  The line was apparently added by director Peckinpah from something he’d heard his father say.)

This was not a pretentious or large-budget film when it was made.  Peckinpah was known mostly for directing television westerns (Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman and his own brief series, The Westerner).  But he makes the elements come together here superbly to form one of the great westerns.  First is the casting:  Joel McCrea at 57 and Randolph Scott at 64 were near or even past retirement, but one can’t imagine any one else in their roles.  Scott has much more dialogue than we’re used to hearing from him, and he handles it with considerable dry humor.  The supporting characters are well-written and well differentiated.  The screenplay was written by N.B. Stone Jr., known mostly for television writing but also for the excellent Man With a Gun.  Its Old Testament flavor and dry humor play very well with the two principal characters.  Stone even has the drunk Judge Tolliver stand in a whorehouse and give a rather touching speech on marriage. 


“Straight on, just like always.”

Elsa:  “My father says there’s only right and wrong–good and evil.  Nothing in between.  It isn’t that simple, is it?

Steve Judd:  “No, it isn’t.  It should be, but it isn’t.”

Lucien Ballard was the cinematographer, and his work was remarkable, as usual.  Note the use of the actual Sierras in the Inyo National Forest, and the way that bits of the story are told by means other than dialogue or the faces of the actors, as when Westrum makes a move for the gold and Judd catches him at it.  That part of the story is told with the camera just showing legs and feet, and it works very well.  And in the final shot, the dying Judd is shown from a very low angle against the looming mountains, almost as if he were one of them.  He slowly rolls over and out of the frame, and the camera doesn’t follow him.  It’s like watching a mountain crumble.


Steve Judd enters his house justified.

This was Randolph Scott’s last film and Mariette Hartley’s first; it was also Joel McCrea’s last film of any consequence.  In some ways, this is a throwback to the kinds of roles Scott played in the early 1940s, when his character was often trying to decide whether to be a good guy or an unusually ethical bad guy (Western Union, Virginia City).  Gil Westrum and his choices are central to the movie.  The one cast member who is less than optimal is Ron Starr as Heck Longtree.  He’s irritating for the first half of the movie, but he is convincing enough in making his character’s changes as the movie progresses.  It’s just that he’s working here with giants (Scott and McCrea) in the principal roles and with extraordinary character actors.  Hartley outclasses him, too.

The high country of the title, in the end, is not just the magnificent mountain scenery in which this film takes place.  It’s also the moral ground on which the unyielding Steve Judd makes his stand.  And perhaps it’s the place he’ll meet Gil Westrum in a while.  Westrum’s last line, spoken to Judd, is “I’ll see you later,” which seems to bear much more meaning than it usually would.  Hartley said that after the last scene with McCrea, she turned to Scott to find him with tears streaming down his face.  For many, this and not The Wild Bunch is Peckinpah’s masterpiece.


Ride the High Country was shot in just 26 days; Peckinpah was not yet as self-indulgent as he would quickly become.  As with Shane, the studio had no great confidence in this mid-budget western and did not promote it heavily.  Screenwriter William Goldman said he spoke to an MGM executive at the time who said the film had tested strongly, but they felt the film “didn’t cost enough to be that good.”  According to MGM records, the film made a loss of $160,000.  Notwithstanding the lack of promotion, the film was named by Newsweek and Film Quarterly as the best film of 1962; it won first prize at the Venice Film Festival; and it received the grand prize at the Brussels Film Festival (beating Fellini’s 8 ½).  Europeans loved it before American film audiences recognized what a classic this is.

A word of warning:  This has been shown on Encore’s Westerns channel, but the print they’re showing is a bad one that gives no no sense of how magnificent the cinematography of Lucien Ballard is or of the clear beauty of the panoramic vistas in the mountains.  Nor do they show it in widescreen, which is how it was shot and how it looks best.  It’s amazing how much these problems reduce the enjoyment of watching a great movie.  Look for a good DVD or Netflix instead.  This is one classic that is crying out for a Criterion Collection blu-ray treatment.

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The Shootist

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 20, 2013

The Shootist—John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Hugh O’Brian, Bill McKinney (1976; Dir:  Don Siegel)


The Richard Amsel poster for The Shootist is typical for the 1970s and 1980s.

An elegiac end-of-an-era western, as the titular shootist, gunfighter John Bernard Books (John Wayne), literally and figuratively comes to the end of his road with considerable dignity.  This is also a coming of age story for Gillom Rogers, well played by the young Ron Howard.  And it was the last movie in the remarkable career of John Wayne, then 68 and dying of terminal stomach cancer. 

The movie opens with an effective montage of shots from earlier Wayne movies, from Red River to Hondo to Rio Bravo to El Dorado, as Books supposedly ages, with a voiceover by Ron Howard.  The Books credo sounds persuasive, coming from a character with the physical and historical heft of John Wayne:  “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on.  I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”  In 1901 Books is heading to Carson City, Nevada, where all the action in the movie takes place.  The Old West is passing, and so is Books himself. 


J.B. Books (John Wayne) arrives in Carson City at the turn of the century.

Books is in fact dying of cancer and is looking to live out whatever time is left to him with as much dignity as he can muster.  How he goes about this makes up the remainder of the movie.  It moves more slowly than most John Wayne westerns, but we’re happy enough to see him on the screen that it doesn’t drag and it never becomes unduly sentimental.  Howard is good as a fatherless, sometimes mouthy, teenager looking for role models.

The movie has some excellent actors in cameos and character roles:  James Stewart as a doctor, Lauren Bacall as the widowed operator of a boarding house and mother of the young Howard, Harry Morgan as an obnoxious marshal, and the funereal John Carradine appropriately cast as an undertaker.  You sense that there could have been a relationship between Books and the Bacall character if only Books had more time left to him, although if she’d known who he was she wouldn’t have let him stay at her boarding house in the first place. 


Books (John Wayne) teaches Gillom (Ron Howard) to shoot, but also and more importantly, about becoming a man.

And then there are the villains, played by Hugh O’Brien, Richard Boone and Bill McKinney.  One gets the feeling that none of them had enough dramatic weight to balance the Books character, so there were three.  They still don’t balance with Books.  Richard Boone is always good to watch, but this isn’t his best role, and he seems more curmudgeonly than downright bad.  He deserved a better-written character with more lines and personality, and perhaps a touch of his traditional villainous courtliness.  This was one of the last movies for both Boone and Stewart as well as for Wayne.  A generation of actors was passing.

Shootist Shootout

In his final shootout, Books (John Wayne) takes on three separate bad guys at once.

As in The Cowboys, the John Wayne character doesn’t come out of this alive.  But he wasn’t going to, given the setup of the movie, and it’s a pleasure to watch the grace with which he accomplishes it.  It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, but it’s said that the producer approached Paul Newman and George C. Scott first.  At the time there was no certainty that it would be Wayne’s last picture, but it was a strong way to go out. 

Don Siegel directed a couple of westerns, but he was known more for his work with Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz.  The music is by Elmer Bernstein, a long-time master of the traditional movie score, including many westerns.  This was based on a decent novel of the same title by Glendon Swarthout.

It was the Bicentennial summer, and this was one of two great westerns released.  The other was The Outlaw Josey Wales, and they both remain highly watchable.

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