Plot: Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) is the fastest gun who ever lived, which makes him a target for every young man who wants to prove himself. On his way to Cayenne, Ringo stops in a bar. A “young squirt” taunts him, and Ringo makes every possible effort to placate him, finally asking the young man’s friends to make him stop, but finally he pulls his gun on Ringo, who kills him. Even though everyone saw that it was in self- defense, the witnesses tell him to move on. The dead man had three brothers, and “they won’t care who drew first.”
The three brothers come after Ringo, but he is waiting for them, and he takes their guns and sends their horses back to town, telling them to go back on foot. But he knows that they will probably follow him instead, and that once he gets to Cayenne, he will only have a brief time to do what he has in mind.
He gets to Cayenne, and is surprised and pleased to find his old friend Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell) as the sheriff. Mark tells him he will have to leave; even though Ringo does not want any trouble, and has not committed any crimes, trouble will come looking for him, as there are too many young men who will risk everything to be able to claim the credit for killing Ringo. Ringo wants to see his wife Peggy and their child. Mark knows where they are but won’t say. He does agree to ask Peggy if she will see Ringo, and tells Ringo to stay put, under the care of the sympathetic bartender (Karl Malden).
Ringo stays quietly in the corner. But every one of the boys in town plays hookey to peer in at him through the saloon window. And the local “squirt,” hot-headed Hunt Bromley (Skip Homier), comes after him. Ringo scares him off with a bluff. But Jerry is across the street with a rifle pointed out the window, sure that Ringo must be the one who killed his son. And the three brothers have found horses and guns and are approaching fast.
Peggy at first refuses to see him. She finally agrees, and when he says he wants to settle down in a place where no one knows him, she says if he can do that for a year, she will join him. He spends some time with his son, and prepares to leave, happy at the thought of his new life. But Hunt is waiting for him, and shoots him in the back.
As Ringo dies, he says that he drew first. He doesn’t want Hunt hanged. He wants him to suffer as he has suffered, knowing that wherever he goes, there will be someone who wants to be known as the man who shot the man who shot Ringo.
Discussion: This is really a Western version of the story of King Midas. Ringo’s wish came true, but at a terrible price. There was a time when he could think of nothing finer, nothing manlier, than being known as the fastest gun in the West. We see a glimmer of that again, when he asks what Jimmy (who does not know that Ringo is his father) thinks of him. When he hears that Jimmy admires Wyatt Earp, he can’t help telling the boy that he is far tougher than Earp. Yet now Ringo is tired. He knows that every moment he will have to watch for someone trying to kill him (as happens throughout this movie), and that someday someone will be a little less tired (or, as happens, a little less honorable) than he is.
It provides a good opportunity for a discussion of notions of manhood and courage, along the lines of the moving speech by Charles Bronson in “The Magnificent Seven.” Ringo would trade all of his fame for the chance to live with his family, as shown most poignantly when he shares a drink with a young rancher. Ringo is more successful with his intelligence than his speed — he is able to avoid shoot-outs with the brothers, with Jerry, and in the first encounter with Hunt. He arranges to have money paid to Peggy without giving away their connection, and thinks of a plausible reason to tell Jimmy why he wanted to see him so that he doesn’t have to tell him the truth. His innate decency and sense of justice are shown in his dealings with Jerry, his dreams for a life with Peggy, and especially in the scene in which he talks to the ladies of the town, when they do not know who he is. His pleasure in being able to have a moment’s interaction with people who are not either terrified, angry, or trying to shoot him is very moving.
This is also a good movie about the consequences of our choices. There are so many movies about redemption and triumph that it is automatically branded an “adult western” when a gunfighter doesn’t shoot the bad guy and ride off into the sunset. Unlike Alan in “The Petrified Forest,” who dies to help someone else, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid , whose death at the end of the movie only brightens their legend, Ringo chooses to tarnish his legend as he dies, to curse Hunt to the same fate that he suffered, and possibly also to give little boys and young squirts less reason to try to be like him.
Questions for Kids:
· Why does every town have a “young squirt” who wants to prove he is faster than Ringo?
· Why doesn’t Mark carry a gun?
· Why does Ringo insist that he drew on Hunt?
· Why was Mark able to get away and start over, when Ringo and Buck were not?
· Why does Peggy call herself Mrs. Ringo at the end?
Connections: One of the three brothers who come after Ringo was played by Alan Hale, Jr., who went on to play the Captain in the television show “Gilligan’s Island,” and was the son of Alan Hale, Little John in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”
Compare Ringo’s final decision to the one made by Jimmy Cagney in “Angels with Dirty Faces.” A tough criminal on death row, he is asked by his lifelong friend, a priest, to go to his death a coward, so that the boys who look up to him will not want to follow his example.