The Fastest Gun Alive

The day finally came

In the second scene of The Fastest Gun Alive, a child with a wooden gun mock-threatens Glenn Ford as the latter rides into town.  My immediate thought: where did this kid come from?  There aren’t any women around here!

I know, I know.  It was 1956.  Cinema was approaching an age akin to what the Golden Age was to piracy, and as such, conventions were abound. The Western film was no exception.  This is your conventional Western: there’s a [nameless man or retired gunslinger], and he’s [visiting a little town for the first time or attempting to live peacefully], when he is [hired to pursue a villain or called back to arms by an outlaw threatening the town], which is eventually okay with his [wife/girlfriend/prostitute friend] because [she “always knew this day would come” or she’s out of the picture].  Usually there’s a little kid, probably obsessed with guns (whether obsessively for or obsessively against them), who roots for/helps the hero.  The only true exceptions to these rules might be the John Wayne Westerns (and not all of them), which were often based on books with slightly varied plot structures (usually involving a motley batch of protagonists) or simply dictated by Wayne, whom, with his barely-rivaled fame and pull, could pretty much do what he wanted in his films – examples include always using the same horse; always carrying that same silly hand-cannon (even in films like True Grit, where the character was written to have a different gun); and telling a director he refused to do the final shootout as it was written because he’d “never shot a man in the back.”

Glenn Ford doesn’t seem quite as detached from reality as Wayne was (in addition to being a control freak, Wayne was a resolute conservative and a monster of a human being, but that’s another story).  Ford also makes you want to go to Hollywood and have lunch with him whenever you see him on screen, which is also another story.  Regardless, Ford appears in this film as George Temple, a retired gunslinger who now lives with his wife, Dora (Jeanne Crain) and runs a little shop.  He has given up alcohol, which means he will undoubtedly lose his cool and get drunk at some point.  Outlaw Vinnie Harold (Broderick Crawford), obsessed with becoming the fastest draw in the West, shoots down the man who apparently holds that designation, and stories begin to travel.  George gets tired of listening to the local yokels endlessly retell the story of Vinnie Harold, and he finally loses his cool and gets drunk (told you), revealing himself as the true fastest gun in the West when he bull’s-eyes two airborne silver dollars.  Harold’s bank-robbing rampage brings him to George’s town (the outlaws need fresh horses to outrun the posse trailing them), and the little kid blurts out that the town houses a man faster than Harold himself, and Harold threatens to burn the town to the ground (yes, with three people) if the townsfolk don’t send George out to face him.

That’s pretty much the size of it.  It’s a classic Western with nothing all-too-remarkable about it, yet there’s something so…I don’t know…fifties Hollywood about it.  It’s an engaging anti-epic with good acting, interesting(ish) characters and a narrative that focuses on personal relationships and consequences rather than constant gunfighting – in fact, only a few shots are fired in the entirety of the film.  This isn’t to say that The Fastest Gun Alive subverts or even attempts to subvert the genre, but director Russell Rouse allows the folk of Cross Creek to occupy the main voices of the film.  By the end, we know who they all are, and a few even make attempts at heroism.  Jeanne Crain is the tender and understanding wife who (wait for it) “always knew this day would come,” but she still doesn’t want George to face Harold, even when he’s called out.  She isn’t given any more to do than the traditional Western female stock character, but at least she doesn’t let George boss her around, nor does she allow him to get away with not opening up to her.  Crain plays Dora as a strong, loving wife whose determination to protect her husband (and their joint business) influences the fate of an entire town – a bit of a tall order considering the script she was handed.  Bravo, Jeanne.

What makes Ford’s character different from the conventional retired gunslinger is that he really is just a normal guy, frightened to death of facing down a dangerous outlaw.  A good portion of the film is spent on George’s psychological conflict, in which he mostly stonewalls but eventually explains to the town, his wife (who already knows) and the audience why he’s hesitant to step out and face Harold.  In a very good pre-climax sequence, George walks into church during the Sunday service (the entire population of the town, with the inexplicable exception of the little kid, is in attendance), and places his gun belt, holster and pistol on the Father’s podium, swearing he will never pick it up again.  The townsfolk, one by one, swear before God that they will never breathe a word about George’s performance with the silver dollars the day before, for the sake of the town’s safety: if everyone hears about George’s skill, they’ll want to come face, him, blah blah blah, we already know Harold is outside.  John Dehner appears as one of Harold’s lackeys, who intermittently interrupts the sermon to warn the townsfolk they only have five minutes to send George out.  George, who has been wearing a pure white button-down shirt throughout the film, now wears a dark jacket over it, but sheds the jacket to reveal the white shirt again when he finally comes clean with his friends and decides to go out to meet Harold.  Does the white shirt indicate more than the old “white = good guy” in Westerns?  Has George become a warrior of God?  He’s never killed a man, he’s got the entire town on his back, and he decides to sacrifice himself for the good of everyone else.  After all, if Harold kills him, the town will be spared.

Rouse then cheats us by not allowing us to see what happens in the shootout itself.  All Harold wants to know is George’s name.  Once he gives it, there’s a draw, we hear gunshots, and we see Dora’s tear-drenched face.  Cut to a funeral procession, during which the posse following Harold finally rolls through town and asks why, if George was the fastest gun alive, is he now dead.  “He wanted it that way,” Harvey (Allyn Joslyn) says.  When the posse leaves, we see two graves marked, one for George and one for Harold.  George, however, is alive and well, once again ready to live his peaceful life with Dora.  The only things buried in his coffin are rocks and his gun.  Dora takes his arm and everyone walks off with satisfied smiles plastered across their black n’ white faces.  The end.

It just seems too easy, doesn’t it?  He never killed a guy before, now he has.  He’s not traumatized.  Dora was in tears before at the mere thought of George drawing against another man, now she’s perfectly happy with him.  Is this fantasy?  Were both men actually killed?  The film gives no indication that this isn’t reality; it’s just an old-fashioned case of the conventional film “resolution is resolution” epidemic – the idea that the slightest coming-to-terms is an all-encompassing cure for a film’s multiple conflicts simply because 90 minutes is up – a downside, perhaps, of my “fifties Hollywood” nostalgia, but this particular issue hasn’t disappeared completely in today’s cinema either.

The warrior of god cheats death, avoids martyrdom, and gets to keep not only his white shirt, but his amazing wife and the favor of an entire town.  Not a bad deal, though it raises question for us, not least of which is “Did he quit drinking again?”

The most noteworthy scene in the film is one in which Russ Tamblyn, one of the only (if not the only) still-living people in this film, performs an extraordinary dance sequence involving shovels, in nearly all one shot and with no wirework.  If we ever see anything like this in a film again, let it be known that I was the first to say “I always knew this day would come.”

P.S. “Gun,” as used in the film’s title, is short for “Gunfighter.”  Making a statement such as “I didn’t know guns were alive!” makes you sound like a moron.

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956); written by Frank D. Gilroy and Russell Rouse; directed by Russell Rouse; starring Glenn Ford, Jeanne Crain and Broderick Crawford.

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