Bearded, dirty and dressed in black comes a lone rider into frame. It’s Country Music’s legendary Man In Black, Johnny Cash.
Cash stars here as a weary gunfighter known throughout the west. He’s down on his luck and when he rides into a frontier town he meets another aging gunslinger that is longing for the glory days. Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas.
Initially the town expects fireworks but the two gunmen have no reason to face each other in the street. Kirk is raising a family and just scraping by performing gun tricks in Dana Elcar’s saloon where Cash is to meet his love interest, Karen Black. Cash on the other hand has just lost his horse to a snake bite and isn’t cut out for any type of work pushing a broom. When Cash makes an off handed remark about selling tickets to a gunfight the plot is set into motion.
Douglas needles him into a winner take all event (the loser won’t need any money) in a bullring where tickets are sold to see one man live and the other die despite their actually liking each other. It plays out like a modern day sporting event where the two hang out at the bar as if they were holding a press conference. Even newspapers have descended upon the town to write of the event. The local promoter is played by Raf Vallone who just may have a rooting interest in the outcome.
Each actor will have his moments of self doubt and explaining to his love interest that no one was ever better with a gun and there is nothing to worry about. Thus bolstering their own confidence. An amazingly young Keith Carradine even turns up as a hotshot gunslinger who wants in on the action and faces off with one of our veterans in the street in the hopes of cashing in on the box office. No go.
As the film comes to a head the two gladiators enter the bull ring and face each other down. When the dust settles and one is left standing after a swift and sudden explosion of gunfire there are no joyous cries and heaving the winner on any shoulders. It’s all rather sobering. It becomes obvious that even the winner has no future and is sure to only come face to face with someone a little quicker on the draw.
As two aging gunmen in the later days of the west what strikes me is how each man finds meaning to his life once again after committing to the showdown. Both men have struggled to maintain their dignity as once respected gunfighters. Both at one time or another have been reduced to the sideshow spectacles appearing with the likes of a “midget and a tattooed freak” as Cash points out.
There’s also an interesting epilogue where the winner pauses to imagine what the other would do had he won. The result is the same. No future and nowhere to go.
This film played far better than I had recalled and while no classic fits into the aging gunmen genre nicely. The days of gunmen are fast closing much like the western was at the time of this film’s production. Douglas was of course a regular in western cinema but Cash fits in against the terrain nicely as well. He at no time embarrasses himself as he moves from music into his first major film feature.
Special mention has to go to Jane Alexander as Kirk’s wife. She’ solid here as a long suffering frontier woman whose husband has rarely been home to help raise their son and when he agrees to face off against Cash she slowly comes apart to the point of attempting to ambush Cash late at night.
For western fans there is a nice bit of trivia in here when Cash and Douglas are discussing their past glories. Cash says to Douglas, “They say you killed Ringo.” Now any self respecting western fan should know that when Kirk played Doc Holiday and attended the gunfight at the O.K. Corral he shot down John Ireland’s Johnny Ringo.
It should come as no surprise that Cash is credited with writing and singing a western flavored song over the opening credits of this Lamont Johnson directed western. It was actually produced by the Jicarilla Apache Tribe of American Indians. Turning up in the background is long time western actor Robert J. Wilke and appearing as Kirk’s son in the film is his real life son, Eric Douglas.
A worthwhile look to see a slightly different view on the dying years of the gunslinger and two towering figures of the entertainment industry.
I’ve never seen this film, Mike. I think that’s partly because it seemed somewhat offbeat – I’ll look out for it now all the same.
Worth a look for the two leads and Alexander. I hadn’t noticed the aging gunmen story prior because when I saw this last I was much younger and was focused on the build up to the gun play. Glad I took another look.