The Western isn’t likely to be the first genre one thinks of when reflecting upon Hollywood’s initial 3-D heyday. Aside from a few outliers, most notably and successfully John Farrow’s Hondo, an underrated 1953 John Wayne vehicle, the format typically accented more inflated fare, horror films especially, where the technical contrivance aligned with the respective movie’s own visual flamboyance. Yet when used effectively, as with Hondo or Gun Fury, which came out the same year, was directed by Raoul Walsh, and is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time, the presentation perfectly modified the Western’s own unique features. In the case of Gun Fury, this includes shoot-out choreography, barroom composition, and the heightened depiction of forward motion, from galloping tracking shots to camera angles staring down a row of reigns as horses sprint headlong over the desert terrain. And speaking of terrain, 3-D could also prove beneficial in capturing the Western’s inherent scenic wonderment, adding to the scope of the wild expanse. Not surprisingly, then, given the fad’s fleeting popularity and Walsh’s implementation of its potential, Gun Fury was, and is, primarily sold on the basis of this photographic countenance. However, this outward ploy undermines certain characteristics that distinguish the film as something more than a mere gimmicky curiosity.
To be sure, it’s not the central narrative that does it. Written by Irving Wallace and Roy Huggins, based on the novel Ten Against Caesar, Gun Fury has a fairly standard revenge plot, originating from a stagecoach holdup in which Frank Slayton (Philip Carey) and his temporarily committed cohort Jess Burgess (Leo Gordon, who had appeared in Hondo) not only make off with the loot, but eventually abduct Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed), soon to be wed to promptly resentful Ben Warren (Rock Hudson). Instead, what is most intriguing about Gun Fury is what takes place in and around this retaliatory scenario. After being left for dead, but apparently suffering from an insignificant flesh wound of some sort, Ben tracks down the villains, making precarious amends with Jess, who quarrels with Frank and is likewise abandoned in near-fatal fashion.
This was the third film Walsh made with Hudson, following The Lawless Breed and Sea Devils, both released earlier in 1953 (the Walsh-directed A Lion Is in the Streets also came out that year), and Ben is a generally average mold for the actor’s affable type. He’s good-humored and cordial, playfully teasing a proprietress that she’d better find him a separate room from Jennifer, if she plans to run a decent hotel, and he wistfully longs for a peaceable place by the sea in California. But Ben is also burdened by a severe case of isolationism, of minding his own business to a fault. There are some nascent political undertones in his social seclusion (not at all dissimilar to 1952’s High Noon), and when he is faced with the difficulty of confronting Frank’s band of outlaws, he finds there are some things better left to collaboration, the film’s lesson persuasively learned. Somewhat ironically, after several capable characters rebuff his pleas for help, it is a Native American, Johash (Pat Hogan), justified in a desire to be left alone, who is alternately quick to assist, unsolicited, for he too was at one point wronged by Frank.
Just as Jess is no ordinary bad guy, insofar as he repeatedly displays discontent with Frank’s malicious behavior, specifically the leader’s preoccupation with women, but mostly anything diverting from the gang’s principal purpose, Frank is himself a considerably complex fugitive. That density manifests itself in his motivations, not just the gold, and not just the physical allure of Jennifer, but rather what the young woman represents. Riding in America’s post-Civil War west, Frank is an ex-confederate soldier, an “unreconstructed southerner,” as he puts it, and in Jennifer, also from the south, he sees, or at least imagines, a kindred spirit. He develops an immediate infatuation with this beautiful belle, embodying a culture lost to the battlefields of history. The south, he says, has become “a land of three armies: an army of mourners, an army of cripples, and an army of thieves.” She is an antidote to his cynical disposition and his deep-seeded melancholy.
None of this excuses Frank, of course, and Jennifer is usually on the receiving end of his abuse. And as far as that goes, as a character, Jennifer doesn’t leave much for Reed to work with. Reed, who also had a busy 1953 with five films released, including From Here to Eternity, for which she won a supporting actress Oscar, is tugged and soiled, pushed and shoved, and is little more than a conventionally passive damsel in distress. Not that her main female competition fares much better. Roberta Haynes only appears near the end of the picture, as a spirited Mexican spitfire similarly subject to the brutal whims of Frank and his crew, mainly Blinky, played by a sneering, instantly captivating Lee Marvin in his sixth feature of the year.
Though the pursuit in Gun Fury takes the team down Mexico way, the picture was shot near Sedona, Arizona (Walsh employing some of John Ford’s creative geography), and even if the 3-D didn’t do its part, with multiple objects and even animals surging toward the screen, and a gun-to-the-camera throwback to The Great Train Robbery (1903), the vibrant Technicolor cinematography by Lester White is bold and picturesque in its own right. Recently distributed on a limited-edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, the transfer not only does justice to the stereoscopic effects, but the colors pop, most of them emanating from Reed’s wardrobe, and the gritty, dusty textures are palpable (conversely, the shadowed nighttime photography may be realistic, but it is often so dark that the action is barely visible).
A major downside to the Twilight Time disc, though, is its lackluster supplemental material, consisting only of an original theatrical trailer and an isolated music track. Liner notes by Julie Kirgo compensate somewhat, but she provides little insight about Gun Fury itself and instead, albeit with good reason, sings the general praises of unsung director Raoul Walsh. Particularly worthy of mention with regards to this film is her note about Walsh having just one eye, making his 3-D accomplishments all the more remarkable (just like André De Toth, who directed the pioneering 3-D Vincent Price chiller House of Wax, released, believe it or not, also in 1953). Aside from the aforementioned instances of blatant depth manipulation, Walsh keenly seizes the more pragmatic uses of the illusory optics, in the form of interior staging, with tables and bottles and barrels serving as prominent parts of a scene’s foreground design, and in a wonderfully mounted gunfight, shooting through doors, windows, and fences. It’s all part of Walsh’s abiding talent, evident in film after film. As Kirgo writes, “He is the history of Hollywood cinema—he contains worlds. And he never disappoints.” That’s certainly the case with Gun Fury, a brisk, technically proficient, and sufficiently entertaining Western from the genre’s last great decade.