Through the Iron Gates
Part 1, About ‘Brownsville Girl’ and The Gunfighter
by John Gibbens
This essay first appeared in the US journal Montague Street issue 2. A second part, moving on from an obvious cultural reference in a Dylan lyric to look at other, more fugitive allusions, and focusing particularly on Together Through Life, appears in the current issue of Montague Street.
We watched The Gunfighter on telly a few weeks back. I’d seen it before, but long before, on a black and white TV, so I didn’t know it was in black and white. Afterwards, naturally, I dug out the LP of Knocked Out Loaded, which hadn’t been on the turntable for about five years, and listened to ‘Brownsville Girl’. When that song first came out, I’d recognised the film it was talking about, but I’d never put them side by side before, and the comparison is interesting.
What struck me straight away on this second seeing was how precisely the beginning of the film matches that of the song: “Well, there was this movie I seen one time / About a man riding across the desert and it starred Gregory Peck.” The opening shot does indeed show a horseman making his way across a sand dune, and the words “Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter”. From there, though, the song leaps straight to the end: “He was shot down by a hungry kid tryna make a name for himself.” The film, meanwhile, carries on with its credits, which include, in letters almost as large as Peck’s, as an orchestra canters along in the background: “Music, Arnold Newman”. (This Arnold, by the way, is Randy Newman’s uncle; though given his eminence – he won nine Oscars and had 45 nominations, being nominated every year for 20 years in a row – we should perhaps say that Randy is Arnold’s nephew.)
The funny thing is that, apart from the opening flourish and another over the closing shots, there is no music in the film – something that’s indicative of its understated and economical style. Made in 1950, The Gunfighter has many of the qualities which, a couple of years later, would cause High Noon to be so celebrated as a return of the Western as an adult genre. It’s a serious, grown-up film that forgoes nearly all the spectacular and sensational elements of the form – no horse chases or brawls or grand landscapes and, despite its title, hardly any gunplay. Nor is it actually “about a man riding across the desert”: it’s about a man who spends most of the story confined – self-confined, to be more precise – to a single room, in the town’s saloon. It has the atmosphere of a stage play, and could almost be performed as one. I wonder, did its unusual artfulness make a memorable impression on nine-year-old Robert Zimmerman, back in 1950?
The first thing that might strike one, then, when looking at them together, is the disparity between the bombastic manner of ‘Brownsville Girl’ and the sober style of The Gunfighter. The few violent details that the song retains – “the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath”, “the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp”, “the townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck” – make the film seem all of a piece with the sort of lurid Western image reproduced on the cover of Knocked Out Loaded, and nothing could be further from the truth.
Actually, what first struck me on re-hearing ‘Brownsville Girl’ was how young Dylan sounded. I’ve been listening mainly to recent recordings, what you might call the middle-late Dylan, strumming on his old catarrh. Turning back to some late-middle Dylan of nearly quarter of a century ago, it was surprising how much remained of an earlier voice, from the days of whine and nose. I’d catalogued ‘Brownsville Girl’, in memory, with other chronicles of lost time and mortality like ‘Not Dark Yet’, ‘Highlands’, ‘Ain’t Talkin’’. Though he says of the movie “I don’t know why I was in it or what part I was supposed to play”, my mental casting director always assumed Dylan was the hero, the masterly, ageing and endlessly wandering top gun. But the almost adolescent, almost petulant voice of this fortysomething sounded far more like a “hungry kid” than I’d ever remembered. (He’s called Hunt Bromley in the film, a name nicely crunched up in that adjective “hungry”.)
This effect is even more pronounced in ‘New Danville Girl’, the prototype of ‘Brownsville Girl’ recorded at the Empire Burlesque sessions. (The suspiciously high pitch of Dylan’s voice even suggests some speeding up somewhere along the line in the – presumably cassette – copying that led to this out-take escaping.) Yet in ‘New Danville Girl’ the ambiguity about “what part I was supposed to play” is toned down. Indeed, in what sounds like a still-sketchy line at the end of the second verse, Dylan says of Peck “everything he did in it reminded me of me”. On the other hand, the refrain and the very title of ‘New Danville Girl’ fingers the singer as a “hungry kid”, because ‘Danville Girl’ was one of Woody Guthrie’s songs.
The Gunfighter and Guthrie are actually linked with only a couple of degrees of separation. Nunally Johnson, who is credited as the movie’s producer, is also said to have done the final rewrite of its fine script. He wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Grapes of Wrath, which won John Ford a best director Oscar in 1940; and it was the success of The Grapes of Wrath that helped Woody Guthrie get the only major-label recording contract he ever had, to record his Dust Bowl Ballads for RCA. According to Dylan’s original biographer, Antony Scaduto, it was via Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath that Dylan was led to discover Guthrie's memoir Bound for Glory and subsequently his songs.
Dylan didn’t kill Guthrie, of course (his mother’s father’s genes did that). But for all the reverence in which he held him, he did “make a name for himself” as a new Woody – and at a time when the older man was in no position to defend himself. And now, in the mid-Eighties, after years of New Dylans, it had finally happened to him.
In the pop-cultural frame, whatever you may think of their relative merits, Bruce Springsteen had taken Dylan’s place at the time of ‘Brownsville Girl’ – and in terms of sheer units he’d left him in the dust. Dylan then was regarded as, at best, a curio and, at worst, an embarrassment. The Boss had the drop on him every time: he’d got the punk moment with the raw and direct Darkness on the Edge of Town; he’d got the post-punk power-pop thing with The River; and, biggest of all, with Born in the USA, he’d found a use for the Eighties’ pumped-up rhythms and glossy, retooled nostalgia. He had the engagement, the depth-with-broad-appeal, the sole-voice-centre-stage, that had once been Dylan’s.
Was he bothered? And should we be bothered whether he was or not? There’s a tendency, in the increasingly academic field of Dylan commentary, to regard his pop context as something rather beneath him. But in this period of his work the puzzle of stardom is prominent. His spiritual trilogy, Street-Legal, Slow Train Coming and Saved, is followed, surprisingly, by a pop trilogy: Shot of Love, Infidels, Empire Burlesque. Or maybe not so surprisingly. Having, as it were, solved one side of an equation – what was the message he should convey? – he turned to the other: how and to whom could he convey it? To put it another way: why had the God who had mysteriously saved him also mysteriously created him to be Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan? What to do when the Good News causes much of the flock to flee?
The outtakes from Shot of Love show him working towards what might have been a fascinating set of classical pop songs, a whole album of ‘Hearts of Mine’. Next he looked to a band that had just shot rock up with a serious dose of poetry: Infidels was actually advertised in the music press as “The Gospel According to The Clash”. As for Empire Burlesque, well – “I’ll go along with this charade until I can think my way out”. With ‘Brownsville Girl’, Dylan finally, if fleetingly, reached a wonderful rapprochement with the Eighties: its preposterously portentous production, sounding more dated than anything else he’s recorded, smilingly stands the test of time.
Talking of time, consider too that the imagery taken from The Gunfighter would not, in that era, seem so purely symbolic, just about rival songslingers aiming to be the biggest draw. It was not that long since Mark Chapman had made a name for himself.
As we learned many years later, from Howard Sounes’s biography, ‘Brownsville Girl’ was timely in a more personal sense as well. What I’d forgotten about The Gunfighter, and what the song failed to remind me, was that it is, at heart, a love story. The hero, Jimmy Ringo, has not wandered to this particular town at random: he has come to win back Peggy, the mother of his eight-year-old son, whom he hasn’t seen since the boy was a baby.
In June 1986, just before Knocked Out Loaded was released, Dylan married Carolyn Dennis. Their daughter Desiree had been born in January. His secret wife (and his secret mother-in-law, Madelyn Quebec) are among those women who respond incredulously “Oh yeah???” when Dylan sings in ‘Brownsville Girl’: “I don’t have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I’m gone.”
In his mid-forties, Dylan was embarking on a second marriage – “a triumph of hope over experience”, said Dr Johnson, which is a fair description of the spirit of ‘Brownsville Girl’ – and starting a second family. And the key to The Gunfighter, it turns out, is not violence or fame or even romance, but family – lost and sought again.
In terms of timely resonance, this theme would have had a much nearer poignancy in 1950 than the one Dylan picks out in the 1980s, of fame and fate. The audience then, the world as a whole, had plenty of men of about Jimmy Ringo’s age (it’s given as 35) who had just come home to children they scarcely knew, having lived lives of unspeakable violence.
It’s timely, too, that the film foreshadows, in Hunt Bromley, the kind of troubled teenager/juvenile delinquent character who would come to be prominent in 1950s cinema. While the rest of the cast wear historically plausible costumes of rough, dark Western gear, he alone affects a dash of the Hollywood Cowboy – fancy bandana, twin pistols in a double holster, and an oily proto-quiff under his sharp Stetson. In the “hungry kid”, there’s a foretaste of rock’n’roll.
Three times govern The Gunfighter. The first is introduced in an opening caption: “In the Southwest of the 1880s, the difference between death and glory was often but a fraction of a second.” This, the legendary speed of Jimmy Ringo, has a counterpart in the split seconds through which the “I” of ‘Brownsville Girl’ keeps falling from one life to another. We never see this time – on the only occasion when Ringo draws, the camera is off him – and the implication is that it’s too quick for the eye. Yet this time is the cause of all we see.
The second is clock-time. Like that of High Noon, the plot is driven by a ticking clock. In the first act, Jimmy Ringo has shot down a young contender in self-defence, and now the dead youth’s three brothers are on his trail. Ringo has waylaid them in open country, disarmed and dismounted them, but he figures they’ll still be coming after him on foot. He calculates that he has till eleven o’clock before they reach town.
This time approximately matches real time, the duration of the film, which comes very close to obeying the classical unities, of time, place and action. But it is in two senses “a false clock”. First, because we see that Ringo’s three avenging furies, having acquired new horses and guns, are coming on faster than he thinks. And second because the approaching showdown, although it’s the engine of tension in the plot, does not in the end provide the denouement. The three brothers arrive and lay an ambush, but it’s foiled. Instead, in a strangely hurried moment, Ringo is shot in the back, as he is about to ride away, by Hunt Bromley. One might feel this device is a bit of a cheat, then; or one might find it an effective dramatisation of the way violence won’t obey dramatic conventions.
The third time is life time, shading into the yet larger scale of history. Jimmy Ringo is feeling his age, which is, with a curious specificity, 35. One recognises a spectrum from greenhorns to old-timers, but generally cowboys are like ladies – one doesn’t expect to be told their age.
Thirty-five, incidentally, will be familiar to fans of St John “the Revelator”. It’s made according to his recipe, “a time, and times, and half a time” (Revelation, 12.14); in this case, a decade, and two decades, and half a decade. That formula measures the span that the devil, “the great red dragon”, is let loose on earth in the end times, whose “tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth” (Rev., 12.4). One wouldn’t expect The Gunfighter to have anything to do with that, but ‘Brownsville Girl’, surprisingly, does. “He wore a gun and he was shot in the back. / Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down.” It’s probably not a good idea to let Dylan get behind the wheel, because it seems wherever you start out, you’re going to end up in Apocalypse.
Thirty-five crops up a couple of other times. The Gunfighter was that age when Dylan and Sam Shepard wrote ‘Brownsville Girl’ in 1985. And Henry King, its director, had been directing for 35 years when he made it. It was his 101st motion picture. (In a coincidence nearly too neat to be one, King did Second World War service as a commander in the Civil Air Patrol, Wikipedia tells us, in Brownsville, Texas.)
To return to Jimmy Ringo: he feels his age, he wants to settle down with Peggy and his boy, or rather, he wants to run away with them and settle down. There’s something of a well-known Western subject here – the closing-in and the growing-up of the Wild West. But there’s a more particular and pointed sense of the characters’ age as well, and a sense of them moving with a burden of hidden memories, which is a theme that clearly runs into ‘Brownsville Girl’.
The story of The Gunfighter plays on a couple of paradoxes. One is that, while we feel the ticking threat, unlike in High Noon or 3.10 to Yuma, it doesn’t seem to be the hero’s life at risk. The danger is that he will have to kill somebody, and so blow his bid for domesticity. It’s this that keeps Ringo stuck in one room.
The other is that, having built a world of menace, of bloodthirst and revenge around him, a great deal of the film’s emotional content is comradeship and loyalty and old friendship. The bartender remembers Ringo fondly from the good old days. The town marshal turns out to be a former fellow gang-member. And then here comes Molly:
work late, so I sleep late.”
There’s a nice director’s touch just after Peck calls her “kid”. Molly turns her back to the camera, but the view switches and we see her full face for the first time. She’s a good-looking woman, but it’s been a while since she was a kid. Ringo’s “you mean – ?” hints at the kind of milieu in which he may have first met Peggy, now the town’s schoolmistress but still close friends with Molly.
The other old friendship, with Marshal Mark Strett, is very telling. He explains that he got out of the outlaw life after he saw a little girl shot in crossfire. It’s just a touch, but it’s enough to put us in mind that our hero, Ringo, whose every action in the film is humane and honourable, who only kills in self-defence, cannot have got his reputation for nothing. Here we catch a glimpse of a CV that reads: multiple murderer, armed robber, professional killer.
A similar trick is played in the song ‘John Wesley Harding’, where our apparently noble gunman hero has, on closer examination, a darker heart than his illustrious outward show first suggests. It’s interesting, too, that the haunted character depicted in Dylan’s ‘Billy’ is far more like Jimmy Ringo than he is like Peckinpah’s Billy the Kid. I wonder, again, how long Dylan had lived with The Gunfighter.
The sentiments of abiding friendship, of old comradeship – not common sentiments in Dylan’s work – are beautifully evoked in the Ruby passage of ‘Brownsville Girl’, in which I detect the hand of Sam Shepard. The vividly evoked dramatic situation between three characters – Ruby and “we”, the man and woman who drive up to her home – and the delineation of a fourth character, Henry Porter, offstage, has a playwright’s touch about it.
It’s in this scene that a fourth time briefly breaks through in ‘Brownsville Girl’, the fourth time that Jimmy Ringo is trying to break through to – the future. Dylan’s voice rises, as it were, into another key for perhaps the most wonderful among the song’s many marvellous lines. The voice that has just been sounding worn deep with knowledge – “We’re going all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn” – suddenly becomes intoxicated with promise, despite its being the promise of further loss: “Till the sun peels the paint, and the seat-covers fade, and the water moccasin dies.” A brief burst of innocence beautifully acknowledged in Ruby’s smile: “Ah, you know some babies never learn.”
Ringo doesn’t make it to the future, though. The film ends with his overcrowded, honoured funeral in church, where Peggy gains access by announcing herself (we don’t know if strictly legally) as “Mrs Jimmy Ringo”. It’s as if his funeral becomes her wedding. As the congregation rises to sing “Rock of ages, cleft for me, / Let me hide myself in thee”, the last shot is of a dark horseman riding into the sunset.
This presumably is Hunt Bromley, who has taken Ringo’s place. The “Ring” part of his name has its weight. In conversation with the marshal, he said how the likes of him is likely to die at the hands of a kid, “like the kind of kid I was”. The circle has closed on him, and he’s committed his killer to the same circle again: “I want him to know what it’s like to every moment face is death.” Only, these words that Dylan puts into his mouth aren’t Jimmy Ringo’s last words. Not tragic iambs – “to every moment face his death”, with the split infinitive enacting the tension of anticipation – but rather two gasped monosyllables: “You’ll see what I mean. Just… wait…”
The ending has the proper tragic quality. There’s that strange sense of satisfaction at the inevitability of the doom we hope won’t fall; and there’s that Shakespearian glimpse of a new generation that can rise free of the curse that has played itself out in this one. By making the killer his heir, so to speak, Ringo diverts the curse from his own true son, or he bequeaths to one his guilt and to the other his honour.
It’s the sense of inevitability that Dylan evokes in his final summary of the film: “It starred Gregory Peck. He wore a gun and he was shot in the back” – as though the last two facts are joined by an irrefutable logic, as though one presses upon the other with a Just Weight.
And a dozen years later those dread words still seem to be ringing, in his two-syllable refrain: ‘Can’t Wait’.
There are a few copies remaining of John Gibbens’ book on Bob Dylan, The Nightingale’s Code. Click on the title for more information, including extracts and press comment. Click on the cover image to go straight to the order page.