Repost Review: Gun Fury (1953)

Gun Fury isĀ  a 1953 Western with Rock Hudson, Phil Carey, Donna Reed, and Leo Gordon in it. If you don’t know who any of those people are, then shame on you for even reading a scifi blog. Scifi is at its heart descended from the frontier genre and pulp westerns are the granddaddy of all adventure/mil/exploration/colonization/fightin’ injuns aliens scifi stories. SO THERE.

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Seriously? That’s a terrible tagline.

Pros: Directed by Raoul Walsh, so, good pacing, good filming (I just really love the look of Technicolor. It’s awesome.), a competent plot, and excellent performances. Phil Carey as (spoiler!) the bad guy carries (ahaha) the show: handsome, assured, dignified, and calmly malevolent. Leo Gordon (Riot in Cell Block 11, Black Patch, Night of the Grizzly), gets a fairly heroic role and does extremely well in it, which must have been a change. Rock Hudson merely has to look square-jawed and handsome, but this probably came easily to him. Ditto for Donna Reed, but she had kind of a lackluster role anyway (see below).

The one thing that I think sets good movies apart from bad is economy: economy of dialogue, of characterization, of philosophy. This movie has it. It takes one throwaway line to set up an entire character (the Indian Guy) who doesn’t show up for another twenty minutes. But when he gets there, we know who he is, why he’s there, and what he’ll do without having it explained. It takes one action (politely offering water to the captive lady and politely leaving her in peace when turned down) to set up that that outlaw is a decent guy who will do right by her–and when he helps her make a break for it, we are not surprised, and when he (spoiler!) gets trampled to death for his pains, we are saddened.

Economy of philosophy is observed, as well. First of all, there has to be a moral philosophy; second, it has to be coherent; third, it should be based in intelligent and reasoned actions by consistent characters. The moral commentary underpinning the story is set up quickly, competently, and early, when Ben and Slader discuss their business plans; it is expanded on through the actions of various characters–of Ben trying and failing to recruit help; of Slader’s lawlessness versus Jess’ soldierly honor–and, finally, it is summed up with a single line and that’s it, we get back to the shooting and galloping. Come to think of it, showing, not telling, is another thing good movies do.

On the downthumb: a Damsel in Distress being the central motivator means that the Damsel stays firmly in Distress the whole time. I prefer heroines with a little more grit and hopefully more motivation. Another problem: the climax hinges on a really, really improbable prisoner exchange that just doesn’t make sense given the circumstances.

So, plot: we open on a stagecoach with the usual complement: a young woman (Donna Reed as Jennifer) travelling to join her fiance; a nervous businessman; a confident ex-Southern Genn’leman in a suit, with a gun, (Phil Carey as Slader); and a guy who is automatically suspicious because he’s hiding under his hat trying to sleep. Our suspicions are promptly confirmed, because when he removes his hat, he is Leo Gordon as Jess, in cahoots with Slader’s Southern Gentleman, but, strangely enough, a decent fellow. We are soon also introduced to the Fiance, Ben (Rock Hudson), whose war-wearied philosophy of minding his own business and no-one else’s, clashes with Slader’s The South Shall Rise (But Mostly I’m In It For Me) ethos. Jess, meanwhile, tries to warn Jennifer and Fiance Ben from continuing on the stage….to no avail.

So there is a robbery, a wrecked stage, and Fiance Ben is left for dead, while Fiancee Jennifer is taken by the outlaws. Only Jess has an appropriately pragmatic–and gentlemanly–attitude about this, for all the good it does him: he gets tied to a post and left behind for the vultures. Meanwhile, Ben wakes up and wanders over to make himself useful. Jess is still alive, and a bargain is struck….

But Ben’s appeal for help–to bystanding sheepherders and to the nearby Sheriff — are met with blank denials by men who have no personal stakes in the game and no business but their own to mind. (Spot the irony. If you look hard enough, it’s there, and not at all outlined and underscored heavily by the movie). Nevertheless, the odds even out a little, as Ben and Jess are joined by a vengeful Indian, and then by Slader’s even more vengeful Mexican ex-girlfriend. Mind you, she’s way more of a hinderance than a help to the heroes, but she does try.

So the plot progresses to the point where Slader is down to three men and willing to deal rather than fight: he’ll take Jess in return for Jennifer, and while Ben is riding back to discuss this with Jess, I’m over here hoping Leo Gordon’s going to survive to the end of the movie….and then Slader grins and checks his pistol and we know he ain’t.

This rank treachery, after a good-faith exchange on Jess and Ben’s part, is what finally drives Ben to deliver the moral straight out: a good man who minds his own business and doesn’t start trouble is still at the mercy of a bad man who causes trouble–and will not stop. Ignoring an evil or avoiding it does not make it go away….it must be stopped, by whatever means is necessary.

Rated: Four incompetent damsels out of five. This movie does not rise to greatness, but it’s still pretty good.

Thoughts:
– There are a lot of very tall people in this movie! Leo Gordon was 6’2, Rock Hudson was 6’5, and Phil Carey was 6’4. Sure, normally the camera would smooth this all out and fake them being “heroically statured,” but they all tower over Donna Reed (5’3) so much that I was actually motivated to look up their statistics.
– Neville Brand! Lee van Cleef! They don’t do very much, but they’re there in the background going “Sure, Boss,” and in Lee’s case, grinning a lot and menacing the damsels.
– Giving orders clearly is a large part of making sure they’re obeyed. “Waitaminute, I wanna make sure I get you. You want me to shoot the horse, shoot her, or what?”
– Horses score: A! It’s made very clear that one horse can’t carry two big men very far, very fast, or for very long; and the heroes make at least one stop purely to rest the horses.
– “You’ll like this one, Mom. Even the Indian guy gets to avenge his sister. It’s very progressive.”