Jimmy Ringo, the protagonist of the 1950 western The Gunfighter, is based on real-life nineteenth-century outlaw John Peters Ringgold, better known as Johnny Ringo. One of Tombstone, Arizona’s most notorious gunslingers, he also served as the model for the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939).
Another inspiration for The Gunfighter was retired boxer Jack Dempsey. One night at the former heavyweight champion’s New York City restaurant, Dempsey told one of the film’s screenwriters, William Bowers, that kids were always trying to pick fights with him in order to prove themselves.
The Gunfighter, originally titled The Big Gun, was written with John Wayne in mind. The star expressed interest in buying the script, but it was eventually purchased by Columbia Pictures—at which point Wayne refused to be involved in the project, on account of his dislike for the studio’s president, Harry Cohn. The screenplay was later sold to Twentieth Century-Fox, and Gregory Peck was cast as the lead.
Henry King, the director of The Gunfighter, was a Hollywood veteran who made nearly 120 films between 1915 and 1962. King signed on with Fox (which later became Twentieth Century-Fox) in 1930 and became the first filmmaker at the studio to obtain a final-cut clause in his contract.
Perhaps partly due to his penchant for travel—he was an avid pilot—King was one of the earliest American filmmakers to shoot on location abroad, filming two pictures in Italy with Lillian Gish, The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924).
King, known for his desire for realism in his pictures, collaborated with Peck on the look of Jimmy Ringo. Together, they searched through books of the period and realized that men of the frontier didn’t wear cowboy costumes and often had mustaches or beards. Determined to present period authenticity, Peck grew a handlebar mustache, sported a bowl haircut, and wore ill-fitting clothes. Twentieth Century-Fox executives—including studio president Spyros Skouras, who after seeing rushes of the film for the first time considered starting the production over again with a cleaner-cut main character—believed Ringo’s appearance negated Peck’s matinee-idol good looks. But King ultimately won out.
King and Peck worked together six times over the course of their careers, on Twelve O’Clock High (1949), David and Bathsheba (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Bravados (1958), and Beloved Infidel (1959), in addition to The Gunfighter.
Another longtime collaborator of King’s was Barbara McLean, the pioneering woman who edited twenty-nine of his films, including The Gunfighter. McLean, who worked for Twentieth Century-Fox from 1935 until her retirement in 1969, was so respected by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck that he would often seek her advice on aspects of production outside the realm of cutting, such as costumes and casting. McLean was nominated for the Academy Award for editing seven times and won in 1944 for King’s Wilson.
The Gunfighter’s cinematographer, Arthur C. Miller, was considered a master of his craft. In 1932, Miller signed a long-term contract with Fox, where he made his reputation working on numerous Shirley Temple films and collaborating frequently with John Ford. Miller won an Oscar for Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941), and again for The Song of Bernadette (1943) and Anna and the King of Siam (1946). The Gunfighter was one of the last films he shot before retiring in 1951.
The lyrics to Bob Dylan’s 1986 “Brownsville Girl,” cowritten by Sam Shepard, describe the story line of The Gunfighter: “Well, there was this movie I seen one time / About a man riding ’cross the desert, and it starred Gregory Peck,” the song begins. Peck himself referenced the song when presenting Dylan with his Kennedy Center Honors award in 1997.
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