On Monday, January 21, at the Portage Theater, the Northwest Chicago Film Society presents yet another essential 35-millimeter screening of a rare classic: Chicago native Phil Karlson’s undervalued 1958 western Gunman’s Walk. A familial drama about the freewheeling, combative Ed Hackett (Tab Hunter) and his tumultuous relationships with his enabling father, Lee (Van Heflin), and his conciliatory brother, Davy (James Darren), the film is a lyrical tragedy with Shakespearean ambitions. It ranks among the best westerns of the late 1950s, a transformative era in which directors began to tamper with the genre’s established symbols and archetypes—where Native Americans had been represented as savage, untrustworthy others, for instance, they came to function as stand-ins for the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Hot-headed and racist, Ed is prone to belligerence and violence, fueled by a false sense of superiority instilled in him by his father—”Look here,” he tells the town sheriff, who’s warned him against drinking in public, “I’m free, white, male, over 21, and dry as a Texas duster.” When Ed deliberately knocks a half-white, half-Native cowboy off a cliff in hot pursuit of an albino mare—a Melvillian symbol rich with meaning—the crime forces Lee to hold himself accountable for his son’s upbringing. Meanwhile Davy struggles to find his place in a family that rejects his tenets of pacifism and racial tolerance. Marginalized but no less resolute, Davy represents the film’s moral center as well as the shifting zeitgeist; he’s something of a surrogate for Karlson, who sought to change the ways minorities were depicted in cinema.
Gunman’s Walk is as thematically compelling as any of the great westerns of the era, thanks in part to Karlson’s collaboration with the screenwriter Frank Nugent, who wrote or cowrote for John Ford such celebrated revisionist westerns as Wagon Master, Fort Apache, and The Searchers. The similarities Gunman’s Walk has to these and other films written by Nugent are prominent. Fort Apache and The Searchers are the most obvious companion pieces. Both films take a broad-minded approach to Native Americans and feature characters whose judgment is clouded by their belief in manifest destiny—also key themes in Gunman’s Walk.
Nugent and Karlson began their working relationship with another underappreciated film, They Rode West (1954), which is racially progressive and promotes nonviolence as a means to resolve conflict. It tells the story of a heroic doctor, played by Robert Francis, who’s been assigned to a cavalry post known for its barbaric treatment of Native Americans. Intent on helping the Indians rather than hurting them—he proposes to treat their malaria with medicine intended for the white cavalrymen—Francis eventually aligns himself with the local tribe, finding that the chief has raised a white girl who was abandoned by her parents. Karlson and Nugent pointedly undermine the stereotype of Native American barbarism, depicting Francis’s adopted community as civilized while condemning the Anglos as savage and inhumane.
This progressive vision of racial harmony would go further with Karlson’s scathing political noir The Phenix City Story (1955), which depicts, among other things, a white community’s oppression of an African-American minority; like They Rode West, it also advocates nonviolence. The Phenix City Story tells of a series of events that took place in Phenix City, Alabama, a small town riddled with organized crime, police corruption, and racism. After failed attempts by its citizens to thwart vigilantism with more vigilantism, the town rallies around a gallant lawyer who runs for state attorney general and vows to bring the criminals to justice. Nugent wasn’t involved with the film’s script—Daniel Mainwaring, who helped write the likeminded Joseph Losey film The Lawless (1950), coauthored alongside Crane Wilbur—but his presence is felt in Karlson’s expertly expressed moral outrage.
Finally, after They Rode West and The Phenix City Story, Karlson’s war drama Hell to Eternity (1960) explores the internment of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It’s the last installment of an increasingly leftist trilogy of films, each one taking strides in indicting social and racial inequality as U.S.-style democracy’s primary shortcoming.
Gunman’s Walk occupies a unique place in Karlson’s oeuvre. It was the next significant film he made following The Phenix City Story—he spent the three years in between mostly directing television, as well as the minor mob drama The Brothers Rico (1957)—and it predates Hell to Eternity. Though it’s strong enough to stand on its own, Gunman’s Walk‘s merits are bolstered further when you consider the director’s work as a whole. Despite the deep conviction he showed in probing social issues hitherto unexplored in mainstream cinema, Karlson is generally regarded, unfairly, as a B-movie director—something that would change if revelatory films like Gunman’s Walk were more widely available.