Gunslingers. They're the fastest guns in the west, the quickest draws this side of the Mississippi, steady as a rock, can shoot the wings off a fly. And the best part about them is this: they can be anyone. These folks are reeling drunks, old fatasses, hopeless romantics, drifting loners, broken-down losers, haunted by Some Terrible Secret, dying of Some Terrible Disease, with nothing left to prove, or with everything left to prove. They're slow-pokes, stutterers, half-breeds, and women. They're the eternally overlooked and the eternally underestimated, no one's first pick for any team. And they're always, always your ace in the hole - the person whose clean draw or crack shot is going to change your showdown from certain death to unlikely victory.
It's no wonder our culture is so fascinated by gunslingers. They're all of this, and one thing more: they're us. We, with all our faults and pecadillos, have within us the same shining potential to do one pure thing in a lifetime of anonymous mediocrity. One perfect shot. Well, that's the idea, anyway.
We're delighted to host Kim Lakin-Smith, author of the new dustpunk thriller Cyber Circus (we love it) and the dark fantasy rock opera Tourniquet (we love it too), and a contributor to our own anthology, Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse. Kim is also one of the guests at the Kitschies' Steampunk Evening on 8 December - your chance to talk gunfighters with her in the safety of Blackwell's on Charing Cross Road.
Why don't you set yourselves down and bend our ears with tales of your favorite gunslingers in the comments?
Eli (Denzel Washington) - The Book of Eli
If any one trait defines the gunslinger, it is the ability to stay calm in the face of adversity. Clint Eastwood and John Wayne carved a niche in cinematic western history by playing the kind of Stetson-shaded cool cats men want to be and women want to be with. Denzel Washington’s Eli is a dab hand with his Heckler & Koch HK45 pistol and Remington 870 ‘Witness Protection’ shotgun. He also radiates a biblical force-field which sees bullets graze off him. Of course when a gunslinger has Him on side, it is easier to tackle thieves, rapists and bibliophilic despots with a degree of ambivalence. But this doesn’t detract from the fact that Eli is a gun-savvy hipster in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and thereby guaranteed to float my boat.
Jane Canary (Robin Weigert) – Deadwood
It’s easy to pinpoint Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock or Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen as the key gunslingers in the TV series, Deadwood. Just as brilliantly characterised though is Robin Weigert’s Jane Canary. A former scout for General Custer, Jane is hard drinking, hard swearing, bisexual and superficially defeminised. What makes Jane such a sympathetic character is her simple yet astute way of seeing things alongside a surprising fearfulness when confronted with real violence. It helps that Weigert is an astounding actor and that her ‘Calamity’ Jane delivers some of the show’s most acidic one liners, including, “Custer was a cunt. The end.”
Captain James West (Will Smith) – Wild Wild West
If Jared can include Britney Spears’ ‘Oops, I Did It Again’ in a Friday Five list and claim no shame, I can follow suit. First things first, Wild Wild West is a terrible film. But I belong to a niche group who let the film off its abominable failures on account of its get-stupid steampunkery and Will Smith’s dandy gunslinger. James West is a motormouth along the lines of Emilio Estevez’s Billy the Kid in Young Guns, and a ladies man too. Criticism of a black actor being cast in the role has led to much debate and historical inaccuracies, but to me it is as simple as taking the Fresh Prince (box office gold at the time) and letting him quip and charm his way through a good old fashioned western romp. Unforgiven it is not, but Smith is a charismatic lead – and he battles a giant mechanical spider goddamn it!
Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) – Justified
“Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens.” Those words alone are enough to send me all aquiver. The TV series Justified is not strictly a western, but I doubt many would dispute Raylan Givens’ gunslinger credentials. Tall, wirily muscular (he takes his shirt off a lot), beloved of the Stetson and with a bona fide strut, Givens is a man who fires on instinct and takes lovers in much the same way. Born and raised in Kentucky, Raylan is as entrenched with local crime families as he is estranged. An expert marksman and a quick draw, he guns down assailants with aplomb and offering no more emotion in the aftermath than a wry smile.
Did I mention he takes his shirt off a lot?
Rango (Johnny Depp) – Rango
It was with no prior knowledge of the plot and a heavy heart at seeing yet another animated kid’s film that I took my daughter to see Rango. Imagine my lip smacking joy then to find it was a quite brilliant pastiche of western iconography, complete with a Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant – yep, him again) and a reticent gunslinger, albeit in the form of an escaped pet chameleon. Okay, so my daughter was more terrified than entertained by outlaw, Rattlesnake Jake, but she made me sit through Alvin and the Chipmunks so them’s the breaks.
Rango is a reticent hero. He is also a fraud who must experience the obligatory epiphany in order to redeem himself in the eyes of the innocent. Depp’s voiceover colours the film with deliciously bleak humour and subtle satire which may have been lost on its younger, target audience. But to me, Rango is a gunslinger for the SpongeBob Squarepants generation – sweet, knowing, and decidedly psychotropic.
The Waco Kid. Gene Wilder's insane, drunken gunslinger from Blazing Saddles (1974). Wilder's soft-spoken approach is perfect for the role - he's got a bleeding liver, PTSD and the fastest hands in the West. There's very little actual slinging of guns in Mel Brook's last funny film, but The Waco Kid's speed is on display with chessboards and one improbable scene involving a dozen villainous henchmen with very sore hands.
Doc Holliday. Specifically, Val Kilmer's rendition thereof. Another understated performance (side note: remember when Johnny Depp used to do those? At least not as an animated lizard?), this time from the early 1990s heart-throb. After Tombstone (1993), I remember wandering about for weeks reminding everyone that I was their huckleberry. He coughs, he shoots, he drinks, he shags, he gambles, he shoots again - throw in some quips and, wham. Gunman for the ages.
Sands. Ok, here's Johnny Depp. Sands is the utterly deranged CIA agent on the prowl in Robert Rodriguez's final movie in the El Mariachi sequence, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003). (Hey, remember when Rodriguez did understated? Me neither.) Antonio Banderas is stomping around, oozing testosterone, but the real scene-stealer is Depp. One of his gunfights are one-sided (a lot of dead cooks are involved), but the movie's explosive ending involves Depp - blind - shooting his way across Mexico. He's spectacular.
Harmonica. Ignore the silly name, Charles Bronson's gunslinger in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is by far the coolest of the lot - just watch the opening sequence to see the man in action. The music (Ennio Morricone!), the tension and, of course, the blazing gunfire. Bronson took the role after Client Eastwood (director Sergio Leone's main man) turned it down. (Weirdly, his other defining role, the lead in Death Wish came about after Once Upon a Time in the West co-star Henry Fonda turned down that role...) (Double weirdly, Bronson was Morricone's first choice for Fistful of Dollars, which he turned down and it went to Eastwood!) (Remember when there were only three actors in Hollywood?!)
Jim Bob Luke. I'm a big fan of Joe R. Lansdale's Hap Collins and Leonard Pine mysteries, especially when their mysterious PI friend, Jim Bob Luke shows up. Although not a traditional gunslinging figure, Jim Bob fits straight into Lansdale's "East Texas Noir" style - solving mysteries, but doing so in a big hat. With a handgun. Justified has nothing on Jim Bob. Plus, what other gunslinger has lines like, "You boys got a way of gettin' your dicks between the ground and a horse hoof" (Captains Outrageous).
Roland Deschain, from The Gunslinger. For one reason, and one reason only: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I'm happy to argue that it's one of the greatest opening lines in English literature, evoking in twelve simple words the eternal, archetypical western myth: a villain, (they always wear black) and a man in pursuit across an empty landscape. That he's a gunslinger tells us the man in black isn't being pursued by a lawman - this is something else, something personal. It's the western stripped down to its bones and laid clean for our inspection: a man, a pursuer with a gun, and a desert.
Annie Oakley. The Little Sure Shot of the West (ugh) not only once shot the ashes off the cigarette held by Kaiser Wilhelm II, she also spent her life, fame and fortune teaching women how to shoot because she believed women needed to be able to defend themselves, and engaging in extensive philanthropy for various women’s charities.
Doc Holliday. I'm with Jared on this one - Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. He's loyal, educated, articulate, intelligent, drunk as a skunk and dying of TB. He's also the best shot around, and fills out a waistcoat really, really well. “Yer so drunk yer probably seeing double,” some heavy scoffs at him. “Ah got two guns here, one for both of yew,” he slurs back - before shooting the shit out of the unforunate doubter before him. Ain’t that a daisy?
Princess Leia. Yeah, yeah, Han shot first. But there’s someone else who’s a consistently better shot throughout the entire trilogy – Princes Leia. Though not a gunslinger in the “loves affair with her gun” way, she does meet the dictionary definition of a gunslinger: “carries a gun and shoots well.” ‘Cause she shoots really well.
Rooster Cogburn. The oldest, fattest, drunkest, sorriest villain-turned-lawman ever to light up a screen. Y’know why? This is why. FILL YOUR HANDS, YOU SONOFABITCH.
And what about you? Who are your favorite gunslingers? Tell us in the comments OR WE'LL SEE YOU HANG AT FORT SMITH.
(As the YouTubes are our new toy, here's a playlist of clips from all the movies above - beware, contains wicky-wicky wildness)