Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

It proved difficult to find a copy of A Gun Fightin’ Gentleman, and what I got my hands on could only be considered “watchable” in a circumstance of rabid completionism, i.e. this retrospective. But I delayed writing about it (and, out of guilt, delayed the entire blog) even further because even through the hazy, fragmented, poorly subtitled copy of the film I managed to get my hands on, the thing just doesn’t look like John Ford.

In fact, it so little resembles Ford’s work that I tried to unearth evidence that he didn’t direct it; given the hurried and “loose” practices of Hollywood studios at the time, it didn’t seem totally out of the question. Alas, I could find no papers nor anecdotes to contradict Ford’s involvement and so I must begrudgingly accept this as one of his works and respond to it as such. I mean, his name’s right there on the goddamn poster.

In this permutation of Harry Carey’s Cheyenne Harry character, he is the owner of a large cattle ranch that has been seized through dishonest means by John Merritt, a wealthy land-grabber with a meat-packing business. After a fruitless campaign of letters to Meritt, Harry visits the meat baron for dinner. But Merritt is an asshole, and has only brought Harry to laugh at his poor manners — which, owing to his gentlemanly code of hospitality, never materialize.

And perhaps it’s this scene more than anything else that makes the thing so uncharacteristic of John Ford, even in his days as Jack Ford. Impersonal direction is one thing; saddled with dozens of short assignments a year, Ford surely had his share of quota-fillers amongst more personal films like The Last Outlaw.

But he was a man with great sympathy for the clash between old ways of life and modern economics. The battle between traditional communities and the darker shadows of capitalism and racism resonates throughout most all of Ford’s later works, overtly in some (e.g. The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley), and as an undercurrent in many others. So it’s hard to swallow such a reduction of the conflict to a facile contrast, a petty “We’re not so different, you and I” narrative. 

In the broader Ford catalogue, civilizations old and new are different, incommensurably so. And though some of the director's tropes are present in this scene — namely the decency of the man of the country and the hypocrisy of the social elite — they are hardly uncommon to the trappings of early western films.

Perhaps some greater nuance emerges in the film’s lost reels, but the plot that begins to unfold is an unpromising one: Carey makes an agreement with one of Merritt’s men, a British aristocrat named Earl of Jollywell (uurggghh) to kidnap Merritt’s daughter so that Earl may rescue her and win her heart. The surviving print ends as Carey sits down for dinner with Ms. Mary Merritt, promising a bland conclusion of civil resolution through matrimony.

In its surviving (and, I suspect, original) form, it’s a dull, dull curio, and an incomplete one at that. I was warned in advance that it was the worst and least interesting surviving Ford, and I hope to god it is.


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