Gregory Peck: The Westerns

In honor of the natal day of the great Gregory Peck (1916-2003), a little survey of some of his western films from across the decades.

Duel in the Sun (1946)

An astounding, glorious mess of a film, directed by King Vidor and cooked up by David O. Selznick to follow up on the success of Gone with the Wind and to be a starring vehicle for his amour Jennifer Jones. Many of the successful elements of GOTW are reintroduced: gorgeous color photography and art direction, an all-star cast, an epic historical tale with twists and turns; a hot-blooded female as heroine; hot sex; a choice between a saintly man and a scoundrel to whom she is attracted; violence (to keep the men interested); and, perhaps most overtly, Butterfly McQueen as a scatterbrained maid.

It all starts in a rough border town, where Herbert Marshall, a gentlemanly creole, is hung for killing his squaw, who’d been fooling around with a random stranger. As his last act, he sends their daughter Pearl (Jones, in brown show polish) to live with his second cousin and the sweetheart of his youth (Lillian Gish) at “Spanish Bit”, the biggest ranch in Texas. Gish’s character is a real lady of the Victorian era and Pearl vows to be like her. Unfortunately, the man of the house, the wheel-chair bound Senator, (Lionel Barrymore) treats her like dirt. (We later learn that the damage to his legs was done by Pearl’s father after the Senator attacked him in a jealous rage over Gish. But it’s more than that. The Senator is just a monster.)

The couple has two sons, Joseph Cotten, whom takes after Gish, studied law, and has a commitment to ethics and civilization; and Peck, who never went to school, and is a wild hellion indulged by the father. Cotten and Pearl love each other but Cotten, being proper, is too slow to make his move. Peck moves right in, however. It starts out as a rape, but the hot blooded, wayward Pearl gets to likin’ it. Now Cotten drops out, not interested in damaged goods. He also sides with the law against the Senator’s violent attempts to prevent the railroad from coming through. The Senator disowns him and Cotten leaves. Peck and Jones go at it like a pair of jackrabbits, but Peck refuses to marry her. This makes her hoppin’ mad. She prepares to marry the straw boss on the ranch, but Peck kills him. Now he is a fugitive. He comes back and romances Pearl and says he’s going to Mexico, but he STILL won’t take her with him. The mother dies, Cotten comes back. Though he is affianced to a proper woman, they plan to take Pearl along as his sister. Peck calls Cotten out and shoots him in cold blood. Cotten lives, however. Meanwhile, Peck sends word that he would like to meet Pearl to say goodbye before escapes goes to Mexico. Her smile seems to promise that she wants to go make love to him again.

But it is the opposite. We finally get our promised DUEL IN THE SUN, one of the most preposterous and weird scenes ever devised by Hollywood. for sheer pluck it reminds me of that scenario the wild brother in Sam Shepard’s True West cooks up. When Jones spies Peck in the desert, she shoots him. He then retaliates by shooting her. They both cry remorsefully at the each others deaths. But they are also both still alive. Peck cries out that he loves her, he wants to hold her. She literally crawls a quarter mile over gravel to be with him. They kiss and die. Pull out to extreme long shot of matte painting of the desert and the SUN. (In which we had our DUEL).

Yellow Sky (1948)

Not malaria, not urine, but GOLD! Like My Darling Clementine, Yellow Sky is a really excellent film made with a sort of flagrant disregard for real life. The element that makes me say that is the opening title: “The West, 1867”: an irritatingly vague setting, matched with a needlessly specific time. When one watches the movie, one gleans the reasoning for both. As for the location, a major scene in the film clearly takes place in Death Valley, California. Unfortunately, the region also appears to be inhabited by Apaches, who belong in Arizona. The date is also silly. We later learn that some of the characters are Civil War vets, and they have remained a little wild (robbing banks and so forth) after the war. But since this movie has nothing to do with any real, historical events, that title at the top is just silly. But it’s okay. This movie is ALSO like the scenario Lee spins in True West. It’s simply preposterous and keeps being preposterous but you keep forgiving it for being preposterous because it’s great! A gang of crooks rides into town and quietly robs a bank. The leader is Peck; his rival for leadership is Richard Widmark. Harry Morgan is “Half-Pint”. There’s also a fat guy, a kid, and a guy who seems to have fewer morals or scruples than any of the rest of them. Pursued by a posse, they head out across the salt flats, a deadly proposition, which none of them want to do, but when Peck decides to do it, the rest follow. It is a grueling ordeal which kills one horse, and nearly kills the men. Particularly bad off is the plus-sized man, who’d filled his canteen with whiskey instead of water just before they left town. They finally get across, and collapse in a ghost town. (this is one of the film’s preposterous elements, but it’s magical, well worth stealing). It turns out there are two people in the town, an old prospector (James Barton) and his gorgeous daughter (Anne Baxter–yowza). The meat of the film is the men squabbling over the gold and the woman. At one point, Peck, who is supposed to be the decent one of the bunch, the one with character, comes really close to raping Baxter—but then he implausibly backs off saying it was just to show her how safe she was around him. That’s another preposterous scene: Hollywood getting as racy as it dared—and then making it “okay”. Perhaps they felt Peck, fresh off of Duel in the Sun, needed the same kind of wild sex scene. But he does turn out to be decent. When the gang discover that the prospector has gold, Peck tells him he can keep half of it if he’ll tell the men where it is. In love with the girl, he vows to keep to the bargain, even though it means fighting Widmark and the others. In the end, there is a general melee. Half the gang dies. Peck and a couple of the others return the money they stole from the bank in the opening scene. (Uh, they crossed Death Valley again to do that?) and then Peck and the others leave. What happened to the romance with Baxter, which seemed very much like it was headed toward “settling down”? Anyway, this is one of the most beautifully shot b&w westerns I’ve seen. Every single shot wonderfully composed. It’s worth seeing on that basis alone. The acting and stuff is fine even if the story is silly, but this movie is really about the photography. it’s incredible. William Wellman directed.

The Gunfighter (1950)

The Gunfighter deserves to be better remembered as a classic of the genre and as a highpoint of Gregory Peck’s body of work. Peck is a gunfighter named Johnny Ringo who is tired of the life. He has a reputation as the best, which means that wherever he goes some young punk tries to draw on him, so he has to kill him. But all he wants is to retire. So, fleeing from the scene of his last fight, he goes to Cayenne, New Mexico, where his estranged wife, now a schoolteacher, and his nine year old son, whom he has never met, now live. His dream is to start a ranch with them someplace where he is unknown. But it is doomed from the start. He is recognized instantly by Karl Malden the saloonkeeper. Soon word is all over town, and he is like a zoo animal in a pen, with all the townspeople (especially the town’s boys, who play hooky from school) arrayed outside the saloon to see what will happen. The sheriff is an old friend of his, who is compassionate about his dream, and tries to arrange his desired visit, but is also firm about the fact that he has to leave. While he hangs fire, waiting to see his wife and kid, he is harassed, first by a father with a shotgun who believes he has killed his son, then by a bunch of old biddies who demand “something be done”, and then by the requisite young town punk, whom Peck manages to bluff out of the bar. Finally he gets to meet his wife and kid and talk over the plans. Seems almost like we are drawing to a happy ending but we know it cannot be. First the three brothers of the kid he killed in the last town show up (we have been following their progress throughout the movie). Unexpectedly it is not they but the town punk who kills Peck, shooting him in the back just as he is leaving town. His last words are a curse on the boy—that he live (instead of being hung for murder) so that he can have the same awful life he had, constantly being drawn on by punks. The last shot, the young dude riding out of town alone, echoes the initial shot of Peck doing the same. The movie has beautiful art direction and is beautifully shot. The story is tight and smart, and the acting great.

The Big Country (1958)

William Wyler directs this 2 hour and 46 minute epic featuring Peck, Chuck Connors, Charlton Heston,and  Burl Ives. Peck is a sea captain who goes west to meet his fiancé (Carroll Baker), whom he’d met in Baltimore. He is instantly terrorized by a gang of four wild brothers, led by Connors, who lasso him, and attempt to humiliate him, but he doesn’t take the bait. We sense, although no one else in the film does, that this springs not from cowardice but from principle. Later he seems to chicken out on riding a wild horse, courtesy Charlton Heston as the ranch foreman of Heston’s fiance’s father a.k.a. the Major (Charles Bickford). They all think he is a wimp, and there is great tension if not logic in this. Are these people dimwitted that they don’t realize the courage and toughness required to be a 19th century sea captain? Later we see Peck (with no one watching) persist in riding that wild horse until he is quite tame. The Major, Heston and 20 other guys go and beat the shit out of the three brothers they can catch, but Peck refuses to participate. Later the engagement party is broken up by Ives (the father of the four hellions), who promises a war. Next, Peck strikes out (armed with a compass) across country for several days and winds up at the ranch of the schoolmarm (Jean Simmons). He buys it from her. He has a grand plan of brokering peace by making water rights available to all, but conflict breaks out anyway. Peck comes out on top and married Simmons instead of Baker. It’s fairly tedious.

The Bravados (1958) 

Fairly okay movie, set near the Mexican border. Peck is following four escaped outlaws (including Lee Van Cleef and Stephen Boyd) whom he believes has raped and murdered his wife. Joan Collins is the new love interest, who also happens to be an old flame. When the four guys break jail (with the aid of Curly Joe deRita as a hangman), Peck joins the posse in pursuit. One by one he picks them off in cold blood, until the last remaining one convinces him of the horrible truth: the four men were not guilty after all, it was his next door neighbor who had done it. Peck prays for forgiveness, and endures the applause of the townspeople before riding off with Collins. Directed by Henry King, who had also directed The Gunfighter. 

How the West Was Won (1962) 

Peck is only in one stretch of this multi-director, all-star epic, the chapter called “The Plains”, directed by Henry Hathaway. The story spans generations. About a third of the way through Debbie Reynolds, who came west with her parents is a dance hall singer in St. Louis. She learns that she has inherited a gold mine in San Francisco. Gambler Gregory Peck gets interested in her. Reynolds joins a wagon train, partnering with Thelma Ritter, who is seeking a husband. Robert Preston is the wagonmaster. Peck shows up and offers to help the ladies. He is rebuffed but proves his worth during an Arapahoe attack. Both Peck and Preston propose but are rebuffed. Reynolds and Peck arrive at her claim and are told by Jay C. Flippen that it is played out. She goes back to singing on a riverboat. Then Preston and Peck return to proposed again and she accepts Peck. They head for San Francisco. When we reconnect with Reynolds a few chapters later, Peck is out of the picture.

The Stalking Moon (1968) 

Kind of a snoozer, similar in some ways to those very low budget Monte Hellman type movies of the ’60s. This is during what I think of as Peck’s awkward phase. One of Hollywood’s best looking actors , he and the studios were reluctant to let go of him as a leading man and there is a period when his films were kind of lost and unspectacular. To everyone’s surprise he got that career rebirth in the ’70s, when he was unambiguously old and thus had a new screen persona). At any rate in this one he plays a retiring army scout who rescues a white woman (Eva Marie Saint) who’s been held captive by the Apaches for ten years. He agrees to transport her and a small Native boy. What he doesn’t understand is that she has been the squaw of a warrior chief (Nathaniel Narcisco) and the boy is his son. Now they are pursued by murderous Indians. Another scout, played by Robert Forster, helps them. The bulk of the film is about the tediousness of waiting. Eventually of course the Apache chief catches up with them and the two men do battle in around a cabin in the dark, with Peck eventually emerging battered and bloodied but victorious.

McKenna’s Gold (1969) 

One of the most amazing films I’ve ever seen. I was so impressed I had to write friends and tell them to see it. It is less “good” than distinctive. It is very trippy. It opens with hands down the most incredible shots I’ve seen of Arizona topography, exceeding even Ford. Endless helicopter shots swirling above and around—we’ve never looked at it from this vantage before. A weird theme song “Turkey Buzzard” performed by Jose Feliciano. Peck as the titular hero, looking decades younger than he will in The Omen, a mere seven years later. The plot concerns a fabled gold deposit known only to the Apaches, and possessing some sort of mystical significance. Known also as the “Lost Adams”, in honor of a white man who had seen it and was subsequently blinded for his troubles. Riding through the desert, McKenna is shot at by an old Native. He fatally wounds the old man, who happens to be carrying a map to the deposit. Peck, who has sworn off hunting for gold, burns the map, but he has memorized its contents. Not long thereafter he is taken hostage by a charming Mexican outlaw played by Omar Sharif, doing perhaps the best acting I’ve seen him do – not as subdued and somnolent as he almost invariably is. Sharif’s gang includes Keenan Wynn as a fellow Mexican who laughs more than he speaks, and a bunch of Apaches, including Julie Newmar as a fiery but insane squaw and Ted Cassidy (better known as Lurch from The Addams Family). Soon this group is waylaid by a all-star group of greedy town leaders also after the gold. Eli Wallach as a gambler and the leader of the crew, Burgess Meredith as a storekeep, Raymond Massey as a preacher, Lee J. Cobb as a newspaper editor, Edward G. Robinson as the actual blind Adams (of the Lost Adams), and a couple of English adventurers. Peck warns them that there is no gold, and they will likely be killed but they don’t listen. In short order they are ambushed, and they are indeed all killed, leaving only a tiny party of Peck, Newmar, Sharif, Cassidy and a female hostage, the daughter of the town judge. There is a brief stop-off at watering hole, where Newmar attacks Peck and the white girl in a bizarre underwater sequence – she has thing for Peck. Finally they get to an appointed spot where the way to the fabled treasure will be revealed by a shadow at dawn (one of many tropes later lifted for Raiders of the Lost Ark). The crew goes through a labyrinth of caves, then comes out on a precarious series of ledges which they ride on down to the valley. Newmar is killed after trying to push the other girl off the cliff. They make it to the gold deposit, which is larger than a city block. El Dorado! Sharif is forced to kill Cassidy. Peck and the girl climb to a cliff dwelling. Sharif follows. Sharif and Peck fight. Then an earthquake—total destruction! Sharif dies. Peck and the girl make it out and Peck has even managed to get some gold in his saddlebag—a fortune’s worth.

Shoot Out (1971)

A somewhat bold-faced attempt to replicate the success of True Grit, using the same team: Henry Hathaway (director), Hal B. Wallis (producer), and Marguerite Roberts (screenwriter). As in that film, we follow a lone hero (Peck) and his little girl sidekick. Although Shoot Out‘s sidekick is much younger than True Grit‘s Kim Darby — it’s Dawn Lyn, the girl who played Dodie on My Three Sons. Thus the dynamic is a bit more like that in Paper Moon. The conflict concerns a struggle betwen Peck and his former partner (James Gregory) over stolen, hidden gold. Also in the film are Jeff Corey and Arthur HunnicuttIt was not a critical or audience hit.

Billy Two Hats (1974) 

Peck and Desi Arnaz Jr (yes, Desi Arnaz Jr) play a couple of bank robbers, pursued by a sheriff played by Jack Warden. Peck’s character is Scottish, Arnaz is supposed to be Native American (named “Billy Two Hats”). Once the lam, they only have one horse between them, and Peck’s leg is broken so he is carried along in a travois. Later Peck and a farmer will make a journey to get fresh horses, leaving Arnaz to romance the farmer’s wife. Much fighting ensues and Peck dies in the end.

Old Gringo (1989) 

Not a western, more a war film and love story, set in Mexico during Pancho Villa’s Revolution in 1913. Not as good as I was expecting it to be given all that Hollywood hoopla and success when it came out, mostly resulting I suppose from the fact that it was Peck’s last film. Peck is alright in spots, but is frankly miscast as Ambrose Bierce, who wasn’t just “bitter” but a satirist, which means, presumably funny. Peck has always been good in two kinds of roles: “decent and good All American types”…and “against type, hellions and villains”. But he is not nearly complex enough to play a mixture of those things—a cynic with ideals. So it’s not the role for him. Jane Fonda is also not a very good actress and Jimmy Smits has all these television associations, inclining me not to take him too seriously. And despite gorgeous locations and sets, the film is shot in a very unimaginative, plodding way. Seems almost like a tv movie at times. Anyway, Peck as Bierce goes to Mexico to die; Smits is a general in the revolutionary army who lets his personal demons keep him from fighting (is stuck in a mansion lording it over the rich family who spurned him) and Fonda, who had come down to be a governess is trapped, and falls for both men. I found it talky, slow, and pretentious in a middle-brow way. Also there are weird gaps in the story telling. Can’t tell if it’s by design or just negligent storytelling.

Sorry to end on that note. If it’s a downer, just go back to the top and start again!