The Gunfighter, a 1950 Western film starring Gregory Peck, details the journey of a misunderstood gunslinger, Jimmy Ringo. Ringo, who seeks to escape the reputation others have ascribed him, endures the disdain and contempt of the people in the community which exiled him years earlier due to his “hotheaded” ways. As he seeks reconciliation with his family and past life, he is constantly badgered by those who deem him a murderer and a generally dangerous presence in society.
The importance of consensus pervades the film, aligning closely with the values media advertised in the 1950’s. Even in this film composed with racy outsiders and crime, Hollywood presents the value in societies striving toward the same goals and uniting against the oncoming formidable force of communism and outside influence.
Jimmy Ringo, after shooting a man down in self-defense, flees to Cayenne, seeking refuge in a community with something more to offer. He is immediately recognized by the barkeeper Mac, who alerts the Sheriff, Strett, that this man is a threat to the community. Strett, a friend of Ringo, surprises the townspeople by protecting this outsider.Strett and Molly, both old friends from the time when Ringo lived in Cayenne with his wife Peggy, support Ringo’s desire to reunite with his wife, who has since erased him from her memory. Peggy and Ringo meet and Peggy agrees to give Ringo a year to prove his ability to remain out of trouble. If he succeeds she will move away with him. The brothers have not ceased their quest for revenge but authorities intercepted before they could hurt Ringo.
Bromley, a sagacious young gunslinger, does come upon Ringo and seizes the opportunity to shoot him in cold blood. As Ringo lies dying, he tells Strett he wants the town to believe he drew his gun first, to provide Bromley with a second chance and the duress involved in grappling with being a wanted man for killing another one.
Cold War Connections and Themes
Striving to maintain the status quo at an individual level shined through in familial structures, persisting through the 1950’s. Ringo wants to rekindle love with his past wife and establish a relationship with his son. He was not seeking ultimate disenchantment from structure but acceptance within it.
Community control, with entire groups dictating the way individuals were supposed to fit into daily life, offered the ability for social cohesion, but also exclusion of non-conformists. Still, these people conformed against the conformity prevalent in communism. This excerpt from the movie speaks to the importance in appeasing communities and keeping peace within them, not to the pursuit of justice for all, but justice for the leading few.
Marshal Mark Strett: Somebody after you?
Jimmy Ringo: Three somebodies.
Marshal Mark Strett: The law?
Jimmy Ringo: Naw, this is personal.
Marshal Mark Strett: I don’t want ’em to catch up with you here.
Jimmy Ringo: I don’t want ’em to catch up with me anywhere.
-The Gunslinger, 1950
The people living in Cayenne wanted to keep Ringo out of their town. Instead of assimilating him into their community, they prefer keeping him out. He is perceived as a worthless cause for the people there, being too dangerous and feisty.
Going beyond the isolated social interactions from the time period, the viewer can glean from the film an emphasis on anti-communist sentiment. The characters in the movie took responsibility into their own hands and expected little from authority figures, defending what they believed. The three brothers continuously sought to take revenge on Jimmy Ringo. They did not release him to authorities but recognized the possibility for governing bodies to fail, foreshadowing the oncoming distrust of Americans of authorities in a time when experts were held in high respect. Also, Ringo did not turn Bromley over to the law when he was shot by him; he expected the context of life to teach Bromley the weight of consequences and the struggle in pursuit of reconciliation.
Hollywood, in early Western films such as this one, sets the stage for delineating an American identity strongly rooted in domestic consensus. This strong base would soon be perturbed by the tumultuous attitudes of Cold War America, asking Americans to defend the democratic values in the face of international crises.
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