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GUNSLINGER (1956) ***

Gunslinger is probably the first feminist western. It features a female lead that is just as tough and quick on the draw as just about anyone in westerns at the time. Beverly Garland gives one of her best performances as the wife of a small town marshal (William Schallert). He gets shot in the back in the opening scene and instead of grieving; Beverly immediately picks up his rifle and plugs one of the murderers. Later, at the funeral, when the other gunman shows up, Beverly pulls a pistol and guns him down right there in front of the priest! When no one steps up to be the interim marshal, Beverly grabs her dead husband’s star and proceeds to clean up the town.

What’s cool about Gunslinger is that no one really questions her. They accept Garland as a superior, or at the very least, an equal. Even though she’s a woman, they don’t even really make a big deal about it. One guy makes a comment about her wearing pants, but that’s about it. Garland is able to hold her own in the Wild West. She’s not afraid to shoot first and ask questions later.

The always awesome Allison (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) Hayes plays the villainess, a saloon owner who is plotting to take over the town if the railroad comes through. She hires John Ireland to kill Garland if she makes trouble. Naturally, Ireland, intrigued by Garland’s beauty AND her badass talent of gunning people down, falls in love with her, which complicates things.

Garland and Hayes are equals in this. They play off each other rather well and both of them get lots of opportunities to shine. In your typical western, these roles would’ve been played by men and they would’ve been fighting over the affections of a woman. Here, John Ireland is the object of their affection, and since he is just as good of a shot as Garland is, it offers a unique dynamic than your average oater.

Gunslinger is a Roger Corman movie. It’s in color and looks better than most of the films he was doing at the time. There are some admittedly rough patches here, mostly owing to the low budget. (Jeep tracks are visible on the range, the indoor sets wobble during a fight, etc.) However, the central premise is involving and the performances are engrossing enough to make it work.

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