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W can certainly say that actor Glenn Ford enjoyed a lengthy, lucrative career. One of Hollywood's most bankable stars of the 1950s, he continued to work in the 1960s and early '70s based largely on his good relationships throughout the industry. By 1968 he may have been technically too old to continue in action roles, but carried them off nonetheless. When Hollywood continued to feature older actors in general fare, Ford was never an embarrassment.
1968's Day of the Evil Gun is a surprisingly good western, an exciting, credible and reasonably gritty tale that has often been likened to The Searchers. Glenn Ford's previous oater The Last Challenge is one of the worst films of its year. It was directed by MGM veteran workhorse Richard Thorpe. Curiously enough, Thorpe's son Jerry both produced and directed Evil Gun.
What the movie lacks in style, it makes up with a very good script. In the late 1870s, ex-gunfighter Lorn Warfield (Ford) returns to the family he left -- his neighbors say 'abandoned' -- three years previous. He discovers that Apaches kidnapped his wife Angie (Barbara Babcock) and two small girls just a few weeks before. Not only that, but rancher Owen Forbes (Arthur Kennedy) claims that Angie had given Lorn up for dead and had accepted his offer of matrimony. Lorn starts out immediately to bring his family back, with Owen following. They fight along the way but never become a partnership. They must deal with a hermit who pretends to be crazy (Dean Jagger), Apaches in the employ of a Mexican trader of captives (Nico Mindardos), a platoon of renegade Yankee troops (John Anderson, Harry Dean Stanton) and a doctor tending to a town stricken by cholera (Royal Dano). Neither man can say what will happen when, or if, they recover Angie and the girls.
Day of the Evil Gun maintains a good grip on our interest, and not just for its "will they rescue the captives?" plot device. Glenn Ford's character is rather interesting ... he never tells us why he disappeared for three years, and doesn't mind that townspeople think he was off committing crimes or murdering people as a hired gunman. The movie begins with Lorn refusing a gunfight with a punk, a scene handled fairly well (and nicely mirrored at the conclusion). Reviewers often comment that the two protagonists "change places", in that Ford's supposed Bad Egg becomes more peaceful while Arthur Kennedy's rancher has by the end become a ruthless killer. Lorn Warfield seems thoroughly averse to unnecessary killing at the very beginning; I'm not sure that he actually shoots anybody in the course of the entire movie.
We've all seen episodic western chases or search movies that limp from one predictable scene to the next. Writers Charles Marquis Warren (a veteran of hard-bitten westerns) and Eric Bercovici earn our praise for injecting a surprise into most every scene. Ford questions a survivor of an Apache kidnapping (Pilar Pellicer) and must confront a lawman (Paul Fix) interested in his recent 'activities'; both incidents are handled in a fresh manner. The script gives us various frontier types acting with suspicion and small-town manners, yet the writing is fair -- nobody is set up to as a critique of straight society, as in a Peckinpah picture.
The action, squabbles, skirmishes and fistfights are unusually low-key and credible. The film has a naturalistic take on the kind of reversals and ironies seen in Sergio Leone pictures. Savage Indians show great skill in disarming the two American riders, cutting their reins and lassoing their rifles even at a full gallop. John Anderson's Union officer seems a really nice guy until he suddenly puts our searchers under 'protective arrest'. We don't know what exactly those troops are up to, except that some of them sound a lot like Confederates. This part of the show reminds us a bit of the books of Cormac McCarthy, but with the excess cruelty and gore trimmed away. The movie doesn't shy away from tortured human remains, but doesn't rub our noses in it either. It's all fairly nicely judged.
That said, Jerry Thorpe's direction can be tame, and the Panavision frame is only intermittently used to advantage. I recognized locations and even extras from The Wild Bunch and Major Dundee and, sure enough, the movie was filmed in and around the same Durango, Mexico locations preferred by Sam Peckinpah. In his biography of his famous father Glenn Ford, A Life, Peter Ford tells us that sets built on location were washed away by storms, and that the shooting schedule dragged on because of weather delays. This accounts for the unusually green semi-arid locations that were so bone-dry in the Peckinpah pictures. Peter also tells us that his father and Arthur Kennedy were very aware of their advancing age -- Kennedy kept saying, "We're doomed!" They may not be spring chickens, but their fights are quite good. Kennedy's collapse in to a mud puddle has the "acting enthusiasm" of a much younger man.
One of the few odd points is that actress Barbara Babcock is seen only for a couple of seconds, and then never again. Just as in the film's beginning, we must accept that we won't know exactly how things are turning out. The movie relies completely on Glenn Ford's ability to "sell" his character's point of view -- and the ending works.
According to the IMDB, actor R.G. Armstrong was in a deleted scene, and Lee J. Cobb is in the picture too. I either missed him or he was cut out as well. Peter Ford tells us that Lon Chaney Jr. flew down to play a role but was incapable of doing so because of his drinking problem.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Day of the Evil Gun looks quite good on this enhanced widescreen Remastered Edition. After the poorly designed and rather ugly titles are done with the movie plays out in bright and clear colors, always looking pleasing to the eye. The audio is very strong. I once tried to watch this pan-scanned on TV and chopped up with commercials, and gave up. The new disc looks great.
The "action" poster art has unrecognizable (and younger) figures standing in for Ford and Kennedy. It also embellishes the film's brief and modest visual blip of Barbara Babcock into a hot-cha insert cheesecake-bondage image. That's Hollywood!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Day of the Evil Gun rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.