Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gun Fury (Columbia, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Fortunately the film Charles and I watched together later in the evening turned out to be surprisingly good. It was part of the batch of early-1950’s action movies I’d recorded off TCM as part of what turned out to be a “Star of the Month” salute to Donna Reed — a 1953 Western called Gun Fury that turned out to be an “A”-list film. Though a Columbia production, it starred Rock Hudson (they must have borrowed him from his home studio, Universal) as Ben Warren, a Civil War veteran (he carefully avoids saying which side he was on) who plans to meet fiancée Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed) in Arizona and take her to California, where he has a 1,200-acre ranch where he intends to settle and live with her. Only their stagecoach is hijacked by former Confederate guerrillas Frank Slayton (Phil Carey) and Jess Burgess (Leo Gordon), who not only steal the gold the stagecoach is carrying but kidnap Jennifer and take her with them — Frank is obviously out to make her his sex slave (told with the veiled technique needed under the Production Code but still unmistakable), as he’s done previously with two Indian women he’s also kidnapped.

One of the Indian women is dead by the time the film starts but the other, Estella Morales (Roberta Haynes), is still part of Frank’s “stable” and seems genuinely in love with him — enough so that she goes into a jealous hissy-fit when he grabs Jennifer. Frank and Jess have a falling-out and Frank ties Jess to a fence, intending that within a day he’ll die of exposure and the vultures hanging out in the trees and the air above him will eat him. Only Ben, whom the baddies shot and left for dead when they hijacked the stage, comes to, rescues Jess, and the two of them join forces to find Frank and confront him and capture his gang before they can escape to Mexico. They get the aid of Johash (Pat Hogan), brother of the dead Indian woman Frank previously kidnapped, and the unlikely trio trace Frank and company to the border and manage, despite being outnumbered, to take them down in the final showdown. Gun Fury isn’t exactly the freshest Western plot, but Columbia put A-list talent on this one behind the cameras as well as in front of them: the director was Raoul Walsh, the screenwriters were Irving Wallace and Fugitive creator Roy Huggins, the cinematographer was Lester White and they gave Mischa Bakaleinikoff the go-ahead to create an original score for this (co-composed with Arthur Morton) instead of just looking for scraps from the existing Columbia music library. They also authorized this film to be shot in 3-D — something TCM didn’t announce when they showed it but which became quite obvious when Donna Reed started throwing things at the camera to express her disapproval at being kidnapped, and later during the final confrontation when Phil Carey threw a boulder at Rock Hudson and we got to see this from Hudson’s point of view.

Gun Fury was a tough movie, a well done film within the genre that took advantage of not only being set in Arizona but being shot there as well — another indication that Columbia regarded this as an important film rather than just another “B” Western. Gun Fury is one of those movies that isn’t actually great but manages to be reliable entertainment (though it doesn’t help that Fritz Lang made an even better movie on the same basic theme, Rancho Notorious, at RKO the previous year) — and though I haven’t seen any indication that it was actually released in 3-D (a lot of important movies that were shot in 3-D, including Dial “M” for Murder and Kiss Me, Kate, were only released “flat” because within a year or two after the big 3-D boom in the early 1950’s, so many bad 3-D movies had been released that the process itself became box-office poison — an example today’s moguls, infatuated by the grosses of Avatar and tempted to do retroactive 3-D “conversions” on bad movies to beef up their bottom lines, would do well to heed and learn from!), I’d love a chance to see it that way!