Good-Guy Gunslingers

The good-guy gunslinger is a strange American hero. This man, notorious for the speed on the draw, is cursed with other fast-draw artists constantly trying his metal. That the west was filled with young men all hot to go up against a guy known for putting all comers in the sod seems a myth America wanted to believe of itself. For the gunslinger roamed through dime novels and journalism in the nineteenth century.

The good-guy gunslinger works, when he works, as a hired gun, a mercenary, though he sometimes masquerades as a cowboy. He chooses his employer carefully. He will only work for a good guy. His job puts him on the right side of a range war, the side of fence-building civilization and the little man. It also puts him toe to toe with the bad gunslinger, who has hired on to the other side. The gunslinger fights for the little guy, often rejecting more money from the big range baron. He is a man of heroic principle. He fights for civilization, the settlers, but must leave it and them. So he does not fight for himself. His nature will not allow him to enjoy the pleasures of domestic life, though he yearns to do so. For his past pursues him. Although there is often a girl and a mutual love, this is a doomed relationship. The gunslinger rides off into the sunset, fleeing his own magnetic power that draws other gunslingers to kill him. He must leave because he attracts violence, and his departure allows peaceful civilization to tame the town.

Though he is a hired gun, the gunslinger’s real occupation is quick-draw duels. The good-guy gunslinger is not only faster than all comers, he lets them draw first. Thus he is always fighting in self-defense. He is great at stare downs. He kills many men, most of whom he has just met, all in self-defense. These other men draw first, thus failing to honor the gunslinger creed. Had one of them killed the gunslinger it would have been murder. The gunslinger, innocent of all crime, is the victim of repeated attacks by complete strangers who come out of the woodwork. These whippersnappers seek a piece of the gunslinger’s notoriety. They want to become famous gunslingers themselves by killing him. They calmly set about egging him, a complete stranger, into a fight so as to murder him. But as soon as they draw first they lose that chance to be him, for murderers don’t get the right kind of fame.

The shoot-outs are always in the center of town, as befits a show. The gunslinger is a rock star. There are always plenty of witnesses. The gunslinger is legally in the clear. He is also morally in the clear because he never asks for the fight. He tries to avoid it, but It always comes to him. Nevertheless, the townspeople blame the fight on his mere presence. They chase him out of town claiming not to want that kind of thing around. In reality, the shoot-out on main street is the highlight of public life. The day of these events, every detail of how it all unfolded, will be recounted forever. These events will become part of the gunslinger’s legend, and the town’s. It is likely to be the most exciting thing that ever happens in that tumbleweed town. And it may put it on the map and make it a tourist attraction. It almost seems as if the purpose of the town is to be a stage set for this event and then to blossom into boring civilization on the commercial value of that fame. The gunfight nourishes the town’s commercial success after it has ceased to be a place where anything happens. The gunslinger is the prototypical visiting celebrity except that he is driven from the town. The town’s treatment of the gunslinger reveals civilization as mean and small minded. And when he leaves it, it is boring.

The gunslinger must keep moving on or die. He disappears after each gunfight. A sadness enfolds him. He fights for civilization but cannot enjoy its pleasures. He is of the wild west but he destroys it by siding with the settlers who are closing in the range. His success brings him one step closer to extinction. He and the old west are forced to move on, but for how long. We are left with mixed feelings about the encroachment of civilization. We take comfort (or once did) that the little people, who are actually like ourselves, win out. One of these reliable guys will get the girl. But our hearts linger with the larger than life gunslinger.

That he is extinct allows us to embrace him in imagination more intimately. No one can call our bluff when we don’t become heroes ourselves. The gunslinger was a dying breed from the moment of his birth. Being of a dying breed is part of his charm. We give ourselves permission to indulge our romantic fantasies and ride along and away from dreary civilization. We can dream of being him because his day is done and the dream can be nothing but a dream. By lingering at the brink of extinction, the gunslinger lets us have it both ways. It is a thrill to linger on the edge of a cliff, a thrill that stays safely in imagination.

In the simmering fifties there was a burst of good-guy gunslinger movies that, probably for the last time, avoided the storm of irony that hit the fan with the spaghetti westerns and Vietnam. The good-guy gunslinger’s purist cinematic realization from this time is in the movie, The Gunfighter (1950) starring Gregory Peck or else perhaps in Shane (1953) with Alan Ladd. But it would not be hard to argue for other movies and TV shows. Have Gun Will Travel with Richard Boone and Wanted:Dead or Alive with Steve Mcqueen were two popular good-guy gunslinger TV shows of the period.

The Gunfighter is about how the pleasures of ordinary life are denied to the gunslinger. That glittering fame, once so recklessly sought, tarnishes with age and then proves a burden. Ringo, the seasoned gunfighter, is a pure gunfighter whose job is only quick-draw shootouts. He is burdened by his long trail of them and the avengers who follow it. His wife, though she still loves him and will have no one else, will not follow him because their child should not have that life. The movie is the tale of his desperate doomed visit to her. In the end, when the bad gunslinger shoots Ringo without warning, Ringo punishes him by insisting before he dies that he, Ringo, drew first, thus propelling the bad gunslinger into a good gunslinger career. This is given out as a fate worse than death.

The Gunfighter is a cautionary tale, warning the young away from such a career. One wonders at the purpose of a warning against an only slightly impure fantasy. For although the gunslinger, being an incarnation of the heroic ideal, captured the imaginations of many American boys, few went off to try to be one in the fifties or, I suspect, at any time. Actual accounts of the gunfight at the OK Corral, for example, reveal none of this heroic behavior. They didn’t quick-draw their guns from neatly oiled holsters in duels, but stuffed them in jacket pockets. Good-guy gunslingers were, I suspect, rare in the old west too.

In the myth, the gunslinger gambles with his life at each showdown. And he gives death the edge. This is what he inherits and passes on of the heroic ideal. His is an everyman’s hero for he lusts for fame, not honor. His birth is obscure. He is an outsider. His lot is, in fact, dishonor. For though he is legally in the clear he is often treated as a criminal. Fame is a shiny lure that hooks the gunslinger fish. It is lust for fame that propels him into an endless flight from gunfight to gunfight, dragged along on this hook, from which there is no escape.

The Gunfighter‘s credits play over Ringo riding endlessly alone, first over desert and then over slightly more habitable ground. He is coming into town. Of course his fame precedes him. So does one of his friends, a former gunfighter, now the sheriff. When Ringo asks him how he got out, he explains that his fame was not as large as Ringo’s, so he could hide from it. He has become civilization’s custodian and he doesn’t want Ringo around even though Ringo is essentially himself.

In The Gunfighter there is one short scene when a young man comes up to the bar next to Ringo. Another young man has earlier challenged Ringo at a bar but this one is only stopping for the one drink his wife will allow him to have. He drinks with Ringo and describes his “spread” and how he and his wife have worked hard to make it grow. He has no interest in challenging Ringo, and doesn’t even know who Ringo is. Ringo, admiring, is obviously jealous and offers the man another drink, but his wife won’t allow it. What Ringo admires most is that this man did not know who Ringo was. He is what Ringo wants to be: a man who does not know who Ringo is.

The gunslinger would rather not be a gunslinger, and The Gunfighter is the story of his trying to give it up. But circumstances always keep him in his profession in spite of himself. Gunslingers cannot retire unless they are small time, that is failed, gunslingers. The successful gunslinger is always one step ahead of an avenger, a hothead, or the hired bad gunslinger. Since the gunslinger is a prototypical celebrity, they might be the prototypical paparazzi.

The bad gunslinger, of course, revels in the gunslinger mystique. He has no interest in retiring. For him it is a business. Fame does not lie heavy on his shoulders. He monitizes it. He too will often not draw first. Instead he questions the manhood of his inferior victim and humiliates him, forcing him to draw to preserve his dignity. In not drawing first the bad gunslinger reveals his cruelty, his characteristic badness. He sometimes tries to bond with the good gunslinger, two tough guys who know the score, namely, look out for numero uno. The good gunslinger rejects these advances. Of course the bad gunslinger always does draw first in his duel with the good gunslinger. His no-first-draw policy is pure expedience, not principle.

Although the gunslinger does the gunslinger moves in both these movies, the important action in both cases involves a boy. The gunslinger myth is what Greek civilization calls a paideia, what we call so much more prosaically, a role model. It is meant to be educational. Joey Starett (Brandon de Wilde) , the boy in Shane, openly worships Shane. De Wilde was much praised at the time for his well-acted adoration. The movie ends with him longing after the departing Shane. This follows a scene with Marian Starett (Jean Arthur), Joey’s mother and the wife of Joe Starett, Shane’s friend and Joey’s father. Shane and Marian recognize their passion for one another and that nothing can come of it. It threatens civilization. Marian doesn’t want Joey to live with guns or her marriage with the stable Starett to end. But we know, from an earlier scene with them dancing, of their mutual passion. The impossibility of their union is what forces Shane to leave. Shane, who the ladies want, is forbidden because beset by furies. Shane is both a role model and someone who is not to be emulated, a sex object who is unclean. The heroic ideal must not be imitated, but it teaches something valuable.

Ringo, in The Gunfighter is supposed to be a negative role model. The movie is a cautionary tale. But his scene with his son shows him as not merely a good but an essential father, and his pulling another man out of danger when he spots a sniper shows him as a decent man. The women of the town, representing civilization, nevertheless mistreat and want to expel him. They are the ones who unfairly drive him into the wilderness. This, the myth tells us, is inevitable regardless of the justice in it. But in the movie’s climax, the scene with Ringo and the boy, Ringo gives the boy the strength to be a leader among men. It was his fame as Ringo that allowed him to do so. But it also required that he keep his identity as the boy’s father secret. The gunslinger transmits this strength to the boy without the boy’s wanted to become a gunslinger..

What would the gunslinger be without the gunslinging? A beautiful movie, Lonely are the Brave (1962) starring Kirk Douglas, seems to ask this question. Jack Burns (Douglas), the gunslinger without the guns, wants only to do, he says, what he wants to do. But what he wants to do is live free by the heroic ideal out in the wilderness. This movie too starts with a ride across open spaces, punctuated by a fence cutting and road crossing that spooks Jack’s horse. He has come out of the open spaces to rescue his pal, Paul, from jail. Instead of a shootout he gets in a knock down bar fight to break into jail so that he and his friend can break out. The brawl is with a one-armed man so Jack, always honorable, fights with one arm behind his back. When the brawl gets him thrown into jail he discovers the friend has gone over to civilization and won’t break out. He’s getting out in two years and wants a clean record. So Douglas, now a fugitive, breaks out alone. Douglas does at one point use a rifle, but only to shoot down a helicopter in such a humane way that no one is hurt. He escapes. But the gunslinger without guns, who wants to live a free and manly life, is killed when his horse spooks at a noisy busy road. The ironic insignificant incident is civilizatiion’s inevitable destruction of the wild. The gunslinger, the wandering loner with a life code, even without the gunslinging, is doomed as civilization spreads its ugliness. Douglas imparts a noble transcendence to the character by the way he cheerfully accepts his physical destruction little by little in the cause of doing what is right according to his lights.

In Lonely are the Brave the boy, Paul’s son, does not appear on the screen, though Jack asks after him and sees him off screen. Jack tells his friend Paul, in jail, that his son is doing fine. He is clearly reconciled to the boy’s emulating Paul, who has abandoned the free life and embraced civilization, rather than himself. When Jack rides away and civilization pursues, Jack loses his position as a role model in the movie and thus embraces his fate as the end of the heroic line. The boy will not follow him. But for the audience he remains a model of freedom and dignity whose presence reveals the stupidity and ugliness of civilization. Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay and the movie is considered leftist apparently because he wrote it and because civilization appears so bleak, stupid, and comical here. Walter Matthau as a sheriff constantly amazed anew at the stupidity of his deputy, is perfect.

So what does happen to the boy? An earlier movie, Destry Rides Again with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, from 1939, seems to answer this question. Destry (Stewart) is the son of Destry pere a gunfighter who in the end was shot in the back. This mishap caused Destry the younger to conclude that guns don’t work. When Kent (Brian Donlevy) the boss and big bad guy of Bottleneck, cheats Claggett, a rancher, out of his ranch with Frenchy’s (Dietrich’s) help and then kills Sheriff Keogh to cover the crime, the corrupt Mayor Slade appoints the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale, as the new sheriff, thus assuring, he thinks, a regime of corruption. But Wash sends for Destry to be his deputy, thinking him to be like his father. To his chagrin Destry doesn’t wear guns and Kent humiliates him when he challenges him to the usual draw down. Or he seems to. Destry doesn’t look very humiliated, and takes the others mockery with good humor, a no-no in gunslinger land. The roughnecks don’t know what to make of him. He has little stories to go with every situation, and when he tells one it seems to turn the situation in his favor.But it is not long before Destry borrows the guns of a cowpoke who is cutting up and does some pretty fancy shooting of his own. So we now know he is a super gunslinger so good he doesn’t even need to wear guns.

Destry doesn’t believe in guns. He believes in law and order without guns. If you arrest a gunslinger he doesn’t get the notoriety. It takes away the fame factor thus nipping the gunslinger problem in the bud. To the end of upholding law Destry actually helps Kent take the ranch he dishonestly won. For legally it was his, since his chicanery can’t be proved, yet. But when it comes to keeping order it is Destry’s known talent for gunplay that tames the roughnecks, not the law.

Destry, unlike othere gunslingers, does not trail violence in his wake. On the contrary, he is a civilizing force. Destry straightens out Wash’s alcoholism, and far more importantly, makes Frenchy go straight. At the start she is Kent’s mistress and a bar-hall girl. She helps cheat Claggert and is indirectly implicated in Keogh’s murder.. Destry accuses her of the act face to face. She loses her cool and admits knowledge of the Keogh murder. He accuses her of hiding her better self under her makeup. When Kent comes to find out what Destry wanted his brutishness contrasts sharply with Destry’s civility. Love flames between Destry and Frenchy, from both sides. From Frenchy’s side it seems protective, for she fears Destry underestimates Kent. As the movie progresses her loyalty moves from Kent to Destry. When she knows Kent is going to break one of his henchmen out of jail she distracts Destry to keep him from being there and getting killed. Wash gets killed instead and his death ends whatever possible romance there might have been. It also ends Destry’s no-gun period. At the movie’s crisis, he straps on the guns again.

A melee involving the whole town ensues. Frenchy mobilizes the women who come marching down the street with sticks and overwhelm the bad guys,bringing civilization to town. Frenchy sees the defeated Kent trying to kill Destry, throws herself in the way, and dies in his arms as they kiss in the end. This leaves the path open for the good girl who we have hardly seen but now expect to rope Destry.

The movie ends with the boy, Claggert’s son, walking down the main street with Destry. He imitates Destry step for step, word for word. Earlier he has admired Destry for his father’s reputation, became disillusioned when Destry enforced the law and removed his family from its farm, and now takes Destry the law man as his role model.

The penultimate scene is of children in a wagon singing one of Frenchy’s songs and Destry getting that look of lost love in his eyes. I think it is not too big a stretch to see Frenchy as the wildness the gunslinger usually returns to. Destry has found a place in civilization and had to resist the allure of Frenchy’s wildness. At their last meeting she announced to him that she was leaving town. This next to last scene is the gunslingers nostalgia for the wilderness or wildness he has to leave and perhaps kill. But the very last scene is of the good girl dragging Destry to see Boris (Mischa Auer) reassrrting his authority over his wife in a comic domestic scene. It makes a bond between Destry and the good girl and connects them to the domestic life of the town, relegating Frenchy to the past. This, it is implied, is the kind of trouble Destry will deal with from now on.

Destry, the gunslingers son, won’t wear guns because of the gunslingers fate, to die at the hands of a coward. He is not a famous killer, though he is famous because of his father. This allows him to take the gunslinger’s way out, become a law man, and declare that law will substitute for guns. But the peace at the end of the movie comes about only because of an apocalyptic war. The victory belongs to the women who civilize not through the law but with a mass attack of the weak. And it is Frenchy who organizes them to do so. Afterwards Destry becomes superfluous, a lawman in a world so peaceful it doesn’t need him. He spends his time carving napkin rings. The mass of women are the real law and the violence that establishes this condition hides in the day-to-day domestic life.

Destry is a wonderful movie full of visual humor and Marlene Dietrich songs. The screenplay is clever. Early in the movie Frenchy walks through the bar and stops here and there to talk to the patrons. We are looking at her, but several minor characters have been introduced. Much of Destry is played for laughs, which makes the audience take the serious part less seriously. Hollywood has already become adept at sending the message that thinking is boring. So perhaps it all signifies nothing.

The audience believes the gunslinger is a better man than civilization gives him credit for because the gunslinger myth makes them value men differently from how civilization values them. We believe a little wildness is a good thing. The gunslinger sacrifices himself for civilization. Civilization has a problem with him, not he with it. He fights for civilization in spite of its hostility towards him. He acquiesces to his own expulsion. His real problem is running out of wilderness, for he is a civilizing force that cannot live in civilization. He needs to civilize and tame the wilderness although he is a wild creature himself. So he must always use up, move on, and seek more wilderness. He is an attractive loner from nowhere who lives only in his own fame. He comes into town, commits an act of violence or, depending upon your point of view, defends himself, and then leaves. Things are then better, we are told, though we do not see it, for we are moving on with the gunslinger. His fame makes him a role model. As a role model he is a cautionary tale and his effect, when he achieves it, is to inspire the boy to embody the illusion of a lawman without violence. The violence is forgotten in the peace. With the American wilderness gone who knows where he will quick-draw for the sake of civilization next.

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He can be reached at: