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Film Review:Gunman's Walk
Phil Karlson, 1958



Gunman's Walk,Phil Karlson, 1958


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Film Review:Gunman's Walk
Phil Karlson, 1958

This is a strong western which might have a stronger reputation had it had a more star studded casting. Not that the acting is poor, on the contrary it is excellent, there is a powerful performance by Van Heflin as the ageing rancher Lee Hackett, who has helped to build the town from its early and wild days. Tab Hunter is his psychologically disturbed son Ed, selfish to the point of self obsession, while his brother, Davy, played by James Darren, is a fair and responsible empathic character. The point is that the lead characters are played by actors used to supporting roles, which means that one expects the movie to be a supporting film.

It isn't,

Lee Hackett (Van Heflin)'s values have been overtaken by events, the West is no longer wild, but the townspeople tolerate his approach out of respect for what he has done for them in helping to lay the foundations for their peaceful life. As Robert Berkhofer observed in The White Man's Indian (1974), in the Western formula the establishment of towns was a prime symbol of white society overcoming lawlessness and savagery. Within the film this symbolism portrayed within the Hackett family itself. The Van Heflin character, Lee, has become an anachronism, Davy (James Darren) represents the way into the future, lawlessness and savagery are a thing of the past. In Ed (Tab Hunter) the spirit of the past lives on, his psyche tortured by the changes which now bridle his tensions and freedom to do just as he likes.

The representation of native Americans is most interesting and enlightening, for while they are not central characters they contribute an essential element to the plot. Evidence given by two native American witnesses, Black Horse and Blue Eagle is belittled by Lee as they are only Indians. Although it is initially accepted their testimony is overridden by that of an opportunistic white horse trader (Ray Teal) who claims to have seen the incident.

When Ed is held in jail suspected of murder Lee finds out that Davy is going out with, a young woman of mixed race or "half breed" as they odiously called it at the time. Lee laments: "I don't know which one shames me more."

Since references to native Americans is generally positive they seem to be part of the future perceived by the film rather than the past as portrayed by Lee, Ed and the lieing opportunistic perjuror. After all, Davy is going out with Clee Chouard ( Kathryn Grant), whose mother, we are told was Sioux and whose father was French, and whose brother Paul has been killed by Ed's ruthlessness and recklessness. While Black Horse and Blue Eagle appear to be rather passive and nondescript figures, it seems that the new order will be more willing to accommodate them as citizens than was the old. While this attitude is still patronizing it seems to represent a softening of overt racism towards native Americans. Unfortunately as Robert Berkhofer has elucidated, this change, in common with other changes of attitude, has taken place to serve the needs of the dominant (white) culture rather than that of the native Americans. In this case it is the need to present itself as being a just and fair society, a rather more relative concept than it might appear to some. (see p 111 and my review of this excellent book)

While on one level this film may be seen as centring on intra family relationships and the tensions they experience, behind this lie some very thought provoking ideas which make this film an unexpected gem which, in the great Western tradition, uses the genre to explore some very weighty issues.

Brilliant and highly recommended




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urlhttp://www.nativeamerican.co.uk
Chris Smallbone February 2009

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