On one level, Gunman’s Walk is just another rich-rancher-with-wastrel-son Western. Lee Hackett (Van Heflin, very solid in his follow-up Western to 3:10 to Yuma) is a respected and dominant patriarchal horse-ranch owner who, however, can’t get over the old days when he carved out his empire with the gun in the face of hostile Indians and equally hostile Nature. He has two sons, an aggressive, ultra-competitive elder one, Ed (Tab Hunter, from Track of the Cat and The Burning Hills, an impressive, intense performance) and the younger, Davy, a sensitive flower more like his mother (James Darren, in his only Western film, also very good). Both sons are rebellious. There is no sign of a mother (dead and gone, presumably) or other mother-figure and it’s a very male environment. Lee insists that the boys wear guns into town, and Ed is happy to (he’s a hot shot) but Davy is reluctant, saying that he feels foolish: no one wears a gun any more except the sheriff.
In other languages the title suggests what shootin' will bring
Wild Ed inevitably gets into trouble – and jail - and Lee comes up against the decent sheriff who likes Lee but insists on law ‘n’ order (Robert F Simon, ubiquitous TV Western actor, more than competent here).
So far, so conventional.
Sensitive Davy (Darren) and Nazi Ed (Hunter)
But there are two strands to this excellently-written story that distinguish the movie and make it a cut above the average late-50s oater:
1 First, it is notably anti-racist. The screenplay was by Frank S Nugent, who worked with John Ford on the first two of his cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) as well as 3 Godfathers and Wagon Master, and two years before Gunman’s Walk had written The Searchers. The Searchers had, of course, a powerful anti-racist theme. In Gunman’s Walk, Lee and Ed despise the “stinking” Sioux and when Davy falls for a half-Sioux girl (Kathryn Grant, the future Mrs. Bing Crosby, in a very subtle performance), the sister of the man whose death Ed has caused, Lee says that with one son in jail and the other frequenting a “squaw” he doesn’t know which one shames him more. The “half-breed” brother and sister are so sympathetically portrayed, and the hatred for Indians of Lee and Ed (the latter has a distinct Nazi look and manner) is so blatant that we are made to see the stupid viciousness of racial discrimination.
2 Second, and most unusually, it is a Western that makes the case for gun control. Guns are shown as part of the old world, not only pointless and anachronistic but also actively dangerous. It is the fact of a disturbed young man (in drink) having a gun at his side and practiced in using it that causes death and mayhem. One of the townsmen says, "If you put a gun in a boy's hand, he will sooner or later use it." The death of the sympathetic Irish prize-fighter deputy (Mickey Shaughnessy, Jumbo McCall from The Sheepman, in another enjoyable performance) is the turning point. His death is unacceptable by both the old and new codes, for he is shot down while unarmed. The more civilized and sensitive son, Davy, loses badly in the shooting contest early in the film and does not even see the point of marksmanship, whereas the Nazi elder boy is lightning-fast and accurate as a point of honor – and to beat his dad. I don’t think this movie will be shown too often at NRA get-togethers.
"If you put a gun in a boy's hand, he will sooner or later use it."
Both these strands of the plot are resolved in the slightly saccharine and sudden ending when Lee sees the error of his ways on both counts, takes off his gunbelt and embraces his son’s half-Sioux bride-to-be.
I love the look of the watching Indian.
"These whites," he is thinking, shaking his head.
There is some very good support acting, notably from Ray Teal, who has an unusually prominent part, happily. He is the slimy horse-trader who lies in defense of Ed at the trial (much thanks he gets) in order to ingratiate himself with the Hackett family and secure free horses. It’s very well done. Teal was a capable actor, able to do the heavy but also more interesting roles such as this one, or a corrupt sheriff. We also have good old Will Wright (Whispering Smith, Vengeance Valley, Johnny Guitar) as the judge. It’s the sort of part normally reserved for Edgar Buchanan but Wright carries it off excellently.
Visually, it’s well done, with fine color photography by Charles Lawton Jr. (who had worked with Heflin on 3:10) of the Arizona locations, giving a sweep and majesty to the terrain and setting. The shots of horses are very good too, and may have influenced the later, excellent Broken Trail.
Director Phil Karlson, famous for hard-boiled 50s noirs, only did nine Westerns in a career that went from 1932 to 1975, and they were all B-Westerns really, but he did a first-class job here. He got pace and tension into it, as well as thoughtful plot and character development, all in a visually attractive and yet actionful Western.
He should have changed the start, though, as we have an annoying whistled tune over the titles which is taken up by the brothers as they ride. You think, oh no, another cheesy 50s Western. But once past that you are soon into a gripping drama.
Heflin’s central role is very well handled. He looks like Karl Malden and plays a sort of Lee J Cobb part but unlike both of them, he can act without chewing the scenery.
Heflin: powerful as ever
It was based on a story by Ric Hardman who wrote The Rare Breed but we can’t hold that dreadful turkey against him all his life so we’ll try to remember this quality Western instead.