I guess one of the most typical features of the western genre, both implicitly and explicitly, is the way it places the whole concept of masculinity under the microscope. The rugged nature of the environment and living conditions in the old west meant that traditionally male qualities were highly regarded, as such it’s only to be expected that western movies should frequently analyze and comment upon these. Even the humblest programmers tackled this theme, although not always in the subtlest of ways. Phil Karlson’s Gunman’s Walk (1958) approached the issue head-on using the framework of a family drama, and also worked in some interesting and important comments on evolving race relations and changing perceptions of law and civilization on the frontier.
Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) is an old-time rancher of tough frontier stock, one of that hard breed that carved out a niche for themselves in a hostile environment. Like many people who have had their character forged by adversity, Lee can’t quite let go of the past. Times have changed, the world has moved on, and Lee has risen to become a respected man in his community, yet he still retains an affinity for the rough and tumble days of his youth. The two sons, Ed (Tab Hunter) and Davy (James Darren), who he’s brought up alone – he appears to be a widower – have learned to address him by his first name, a clear attempt by this man to hang onto the identity he possessed in earlier times. On the surface, Ed seems closest in character to his freewheeling father, while Davy is gentler and more considerate. The story naturally deals with the contrast between Ed and Davy, but the real thrust of it all is the relationship both brothers have with their hard-as-nails father. Lee is a man of rigid principles, his own principles mind, and very firm ideas about the way a man ought to behave, and thus how he should raise his boys. Lee’s whole philosophy is built around the idea of standing on one’s own feet and accepting favours from no man; early on he berates Ed for accepting the ranch foreman’s offer to rub down his horse. This kind of tough individualism is an almost constant feature of the western, and it’s an admirable enough trait as far as it goes. Yet, taken too far, this tends to result in a degree of alienation and social isolation, particularly as the advance of civilization gradually renders the notion less desirable. If Lee has trouble getting to grips with this, then the problem is multiplied tenfold when it comes to Ed. In his eagerness to emulate the past glories of his illustrious father, Ed has both absorbed these teachings and twisted them around in the process. The result is that courage, determination and independence of spirit have distorted themselves into bravado, violence and cruelty. In his quest to outstrip his father’s achievements Ed is driving himself beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour. We get to see examples of his arrogance, insensitivity and casual racism from he beginning, and it’s not long before this unsavoury combination leads to the killing of a half-breed hireling. From this point on, the movie charts Ed’s inexorable moral descent as his father and brother look on, powerless to haul this increasingly uncontrollable young man back from the edge.
Phil Karlson spent the majority of his directing career overseeing B movies, and made a number of very classy crime and noir films throughout the 50s. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he brought some of that dark moodiness and pessimism to Gunman’s Walk, thematically, if not visually – although there is a sequence in the jail towards the end that has a look straight out of the classic film noir handbook. The emphasis on these fractured family relationships has a relentlessly downbeat tone that sets the movie a little apart from the usual genre pieces. It’s been stated before that the classic westerns of the 50s were guided by the idea of redemption for the protagonists. It could be argued that this is achieved in some small measure by the end, but the traumatic nature of the developments leading up to this point suggest to me that it will be short-lived. The way I see it, the character of Lee is left so emotionally devastated by the end of the movie that he’s essentially finished and washed up as a man. The final image does indicate that progress has been achieved, but only by reaching closure and burying the past and those associated with an outmoded way of life. As such, this is very much a bittersweet triumph; the next generation (Davy and his half-Sioux sweetheart) setting off to face the future and the final nail hammered into the coffin of the closing frontier.
Understandably enough, this movie is dominated by two strong central performances, those of Van Heflin and Tab Hunter. Of the two, Van Heflin had the more complex role and probably did the better work. He had to convey a range of emotions throughout, and also maintain a level of control and discipline consistent with playing a man of such iron resolve as Lee Hackett. As I alluded to earlier, his was not an altogether sympathetic part – the ingrained racism of his character, and his belief that he’d earned the right to be above the laws and conventions of lesser men is a bit hard to swallow. However, by the time we get to the final scene, and are confronted with a man whose spirit has been comprehensively broken, it’s difficult not to feel for him. The fact that the viewer is able to regard Lee in this light, after he’s displayed such negative traits, says much about the skills and abilities of Van Heflin. Angry and confused young men were very much in vogue in Hollywood in the 50s, and Tab Hunter’s role slots neatly into that category. The cause of this rebel is to be as big a man as his father, to surpass him in every way he can. Hunter seemed to be having a good time with the excesses of his character and did well with the sudden mood swings and violent outbursts. In retrospect, some of the era’s representations of misunderstood youth can be toe curlingly self-conscious and quite painful to watch, but Hunter managed to avoid the inherent pitfalls and created a convincing portrait of a guy with a hair-trigger temper struggling to emerge from the massive shadow of his father. As the younger brother, James Darren isn’t bad, although the script doesn’t call on him to take an especially active part and he’s pushed into the background somewhat. Kathryn Grant was the only woman in the movie and she too is mostly sidelined by the conflict between father and son that’s at the heart of the story. She does get one good scene though, at the hearing into her brother’s death. She hits just the right note when she demonstrates her indignation at the travesty of justice by flinging Lee’s blood money on the courtroom floor, and the contempt in her voice is palpable as she speaks contemptuously of the pervading racist attitudes of all those around her. The supporting cast also features a notable turn from perennial western lowlife Ray Teal; his small role as a chiseling horse dealer with a strong line in unctuous treachery is pivotal to the development of the plot.
Unfortunately, the two current DVD editions of Gunman’s Walk are problematic. Sony first released the film in Spain and, although it’s not a bad transfer, the disc is a non-anamorphic letterboxed affair. Shortly afterwards, Sidonis in France put the title out with an improved anamorphic scope transfer. However, and this is a major black mark as far as I’m concerned, the disc forces Spanish subtitles on the English language track. The only way around that issue is to make a backup copy with the subtitles disabled. This is particularly irritating when you bear in mind that the presentation is satisfactory in every other respect. Anyway, the movie is a very strong addition to the long list of quality westerns that came out of the 50s. All of the themes it touches on have been addressed in other productions but this picture handles them in a measured and mature way. Furthermore, Phil Karlson’s tight direction, anchored by two fine performances, ensures that everything blends together seamlessly. It’s an enjoyable and thoughtful western that pays off with a powerful emotional punch. I strongly recommend that genre fans give it a go – I can’t see it disappointing anyone.