The Reluctant Gunslinger

Oh pity the reluctant gunslinger, for he must fight another fight.

I call it gunslinger syndrome, the man who was a gunslinger and then saw the light and gave it up. Now he just wants to live like a normal person. But he is not a normal person; he is fast on the draw. So when the citizens need help, he is forced against his will to return to the thing he does best, and shoot down the oppressor for the sake of the citizens.

Except that while all of it can be true – from the point of view of us, the viewing audience – we want to see the fight. If there is no fight, we will feel robbed of our spectacle. There can be many other resolutions, but we want ‘our’ resolution. We want to see our man do his thing. We are the spectators and the gunfight is the Roman arena.

Our appetite for that finale is so strong that we want to see it again and again. Screenwriters have to invent whole scenarios that will make it credible and needed for that final gunfight to happen.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be guns. Japanese sword fights, boxing, martial arts, they can all work. But for a crescendo, a gunfight is hard to beat. There is space around the protagonists so that we can see the denouement and the reluctant gunslinger with perfect clarity.

James Coburn in Waterhole No. 3 violated the rule of the gunfight. Early on in the film he is called out to fight some nameless gunslinger. Coburn goes out to face the man standing way down Main Street. He is required by the law of gunfights to walk down the street to within revolver distance, and face off against his opponent.

Instead, he walks around behind his horse; pulls his rifle out of its scabbard, and uses the horse’s back as a support to shoot the other man down. What a dastardly deed! I forget what exact comment Coburn made, but it was to the effect that only a fool would stand within a few yards of another in the hope of being first on the draw.

The film Shane is the paradigm of the tale of the retired gunslinger blighted by his past. The rancher’s young son wants to be him; the rancher looks at his own life and wants the magic of being the gunslinger; and the rancher’s wife looks at Shane and wants him.

The gunslinger that Shane must face is dressed in black. He is needlessly cruel, and he is complacent in his triumph. How happy we will be when he is gunned down. How unhappy we would be if the gunfight were never to take place.

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