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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Ringo — from man to myth, back again

by Philip Martin | June 13, 2021 at 2:43 a.m.
Gregory Peck sports his unfortunate mustache in Henry King’s “The Gunfighter” (1950).

Johnny Ringo was sick of it.

In 1864, when he was 14 years old, his family moved from Indiana to San Jose, Calif. On July 30 while crossing the country by wagon train, his father, Martin Ringo, had an "accident."

A Mr. Davidson apparently witnessed the event, and his letter describing it it ended up printed in the Liberty [Missouri] Tribune later that year:

"Just before daylight ... Mr. Ringo stepped out ... of the wagons, I suppose, for the purpose of looking around to see if Indians were in sight, and his shotgun went off accidentally in his own hands, the load entering his right eye and coming out at the top of his head. At the report of his gun, I saw his hat blow up 20 feet in the air, and his brains were scattered in all directions. I never saw a more heartrending sight, and to see the distress and agony of his wife and children was painful in the extreme."

Martin's fresh widow, Mary, recorded in her journal: "Oh God comes the saddest record of my life, for this day my husband accidentally shot himself and was buried by the wayside and oh, my heart is breaking, if I had no children how gladly I would lay me down with my dead ... "

Young John was the oldest child, and he went on to California with the family, but he did not stay. There is no way to tell exactly when he left, for what records exist contradict each other. His brother Charles remembered him as a young drunkard and troublemaker who left the family "in a lurch" before 1869, but census records place him in San Jose, employed by a local farmer, as late as 1871.

He next turns up in Burnet, Texas, where he befriended a former Texas Ranger named Scott Cooley and began to develop a reputation as a reserved and dangerous man. Many assumed Ringo was an educated gentleman, for he peppered his speech with allusions to Shakespeare and (legend has it) Latin phrases.

In 1875 he got caught up in the Mason County War, a feud between ethnic Germans raising cattle in Mason County and rival ranchers in other counties. Cattle rustling was a common problem, and the feud escalated when two rustlers, brothers Elijah and Pete Backus, were dragged from jail and lynched by a predominantly German mob.

Then a German rancher named Peter "Bad Man" Bader killed rancher Tim Williamson, who had adopted Cooley as a baby after his parents were murdered by Indians. Cooley retaliated by shooting to death a former deputy sheriff of German extraction. Then he and Ringo went looking for Pete Bader. Instead they found his brother Charley. They were arrested for Charley's murder, but were broken out of jail by their comrades. As the body count rose — eventually at least a dozen men were killed — and Texas Rangers arrived to keep the peace, the "war" began to peter out.

Cooley was killed and Ringo was arrested for a second time. He stood trial and was acquitted. He became a constable for a time, but moved on to Cochise County, Ariz., in 1879. There, in and around the town of Tombstone, he cemented his reputation as a bad actor, shooting a man for refusing to drink with him (the man, who survived, said he preferred beer to whiskey) and likely participating in robberies and killings with a gang that became known as the Cochise County Cowboys.

He got sideways with Doc Holliday and Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp, who thought he had a hand in the ambush of brother Virgil Earp that left him crippled, as well as the pool room killing of his other brother Morgan.

Wyatt formed a posse and went looking for Ringo. During what has become known as the "Earp Vendetta Ride," he shot and killed Ringo's friend "Curly Bill" Brocius.

In April 1882, Earp and his men left Arizona. A month later, Ringo also left Tombstone. With Earp gone, there was no one with the heart or gumption to pursue charges against him.

And Ringo was sick of it.

So he went back to San Jose to attempt to reconnect with the family he'd left years before. But Mary and his sister and brother scorned him. They were decent people, and he was infamous. So he returned to Arizona, and after 10 days of heavy drinking, he was dead.

The official verdict was suicide. Apparently Ringo was depressive, and often talked about tying it off. He was last seen alive on July 11, 1882, drunk and mopey in the town of Galeyville. Three days later they found him with a .45 caliber Colt Single Action Army revolver in his right hand, a bullet hole in his right temple and an exit wound at the back of his head. His horse was found two miles away with his boots still tied to the saddle.

Few today believe it was a suicide, though that seems the most likely verdict. Lots of people claimed to be the man who killed Johnny Ringo — including Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, though their boasts don't survive scrutiny. An abortive knife cut on the back of Ringo's head only indicates that someone had a notion to scalp the corpse (and thought better of it).

People still argue about it, some with a certitude that is genuinely alarming.

Michael Biehn plays Johnny Ringo in 1993’s “Tombstone.”
Michael Biehn plays Johnny Ringo in 1993’s “Tombstone.”

In a sense, Johnny Ringo never died.

Instead he became an American demigod, one of those Old West figures writers and movie makers riff on. There is a Marvel comic book character called "the Ringo Kid" who bears almost no resemblance to the historical Ringo or the Ringo Kid John Wayne portrayed in 1939's "Stagecoach," the movie that made both him and director John Ford genuine stars.

Ringo has been portrayed more than a dozen times in movies and TV shows; Michael Biehn played him in 1993's "Tombstone." Richard Boone had the role in 1953's "City of Bad Men" as well as John Ireland in 1957's "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." Johnny Depp played an animated lizard named "Rango."

None of these films are known for historical accuracy, but some at least conformed to the vague outlines of Ringo's life.

In Sergio Corbucci's 1966 spaghetti western "Ringo and His Golden Pistol," however, the character Johnny Oro, a hired gunfighter of Mexican heritage who uses a solid gold pistol, was renamed "Johnny Ringo" for the English-language dubbed versions in what seems to have been an attempt to borrow some glory from Duccio Tessari's pair of "Ringo" movies released the previous year. These featured Giuliano Gemma (billed as Montgomery Wood) as a character named Captain Montgomery "Ringo" Brown.

And while you might deduce from the time period that Ringo Starr's stage name was inspired by all the "Ringos" popping up on screen during the 1950s, apparently that's not the case. He was called Ringo because he wore a lot of rings. (After the Beatles broke up, Ringo Starr played a cowboy named Candy in 1971's "Blindman," a spaghetti western about a sightless gunfighter hired to recover 50 mail-order brides rustled into Mexico. The movie was based on the 1962 samurai film "The Tale of Zatoichi.")

The best film based on the legend of Johnny Ringo is Henry King's "The Gunfighter," from 1950. It stars Gregory Peck as world-weary Jimmy Ringo, whose reputation as a killer allows him no peace.

There is no doubt that writer Andre De Toth, better known for his film noir scripts, had Johnny Ringo in mind as the model for his protagonist. Part of his research for the "prestige western" he'd been hired to write included a deep dive into Eugene Cunningham's 1934 book "Triggernometry: A Gallery of Gunfighters," which lightly sketched a fanciful portrait of Ringo, his unsuccessful attempt at reconciling with his family and his ruinous end.

De Toth imagined the gunfighter as a kind of cursed celebrity, dogged by his own infamy.

Ringo Starr plays Candy in “Blindman” (1971).
Ringo Starr plays Candy in “Blindman” (1971).

"The Gunfighter" was not a hit when it was released, possibly in part because Peck sported a period authentic mustache, much like the one that appears in surviving photos of the real Johnny Ringo. The head of production of Fox Studios, Spyros P. Skouras, hated the mustache and expected Peck to shave it before production began.

Peck didn't, and when Skouras finally turned up on set and saw the actor, too much of the film had been shot for him to order Peck to shave it off and reshoot. "That mustache cost us millions," Skouras reportedly groused to Peck after the film tanked.

But "The Gunfighter" has gotten inside our culture; even if you haven't seen it or even heard of it, you have felt its reverberations. It's referenced in "Brownsville Girl," an 11-minute, 5-second shaggy dog story that Bob Dylan wrote with playwright and actor Sam Shepard and the one redeeming asset of Dylan's otherwise ordinary 1986 album "Knocked Out Loaded."

[RELATED: Listen to Bob Dylan's "Brownsville Girl,"]

"Brownsville Girl" is a discursive, rueful sort of story-song addressed to an old lover. The singer keeps interrupting his version of the peripatetic romance to describe the plot of "The Gunfighter," though details from several of Peck's '50s westerns pop up in the song. Dylan describes how Peck, as Ringo, reluctantly takes on brash young men determined to make their name by taking down the old gunfighter. (Peck was 34 when he made the film; his character Ringo announces that he's 35.)

At the end of the movie Ringo is leaving town, the three brothers who have tracked him down to kill him safely in custody of the local marshal (Millard Mitchell), one of Ringo's old outlaw buddies gone straight. But as he starts to ride away, a young man who had confronted him earlier steps from the shadows and shoots him in the back.

As Ringo lies dying, he prevails upon the marshal to let the young glory-seeker go, cursing him with the reputation of "the man who outdrew Jimmy Ringo."

Dylan doesn't talk about the movie the way a film critic might; he imagines himself as playing a part in the movie, having his photo published in the Corpus Christi Tribune over the caption "a man with no alibi."

Later, he says he's standing in the rain, in line to see another movie with Gregory Peck:

"He's got a new one out now, I don't even know what it's about," he sings. "But I'll see him in anything so I'll stand in line."

■ ■ ■

Peck was not Columbia Pictures' first choice to play Jimmy Ringo — the studio initially offered the part to John Wayne, who apparently loved the script but refused to work with Columbia's president Harry Cohn. "Personally I couldn't stand him," Wayne told Roger Ebert in 1969. Columbia subsequently sold the rights to 20th Century Fox, where the role went to Peck. (Wayne's final film, 1976's "The Shootist," contains more than a few plot similarities to "The Gunfighter.")

It was the second of six collaborations between Peck and director King. Others included the World War II film "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949), "David and Bathsheba" (1951), "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1952), "The Bravados" (1958) and "Beloved Infidel" (1959).

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In King's film, Jimmy Ringo has come to the town of Cayenne, Ariz., after killing a "whippersnapper" (Richard Jaeckel) who drew on him in Tombstone. Ringo is determined to see his estranged wife, Peggy (Helen Westcott), and 8-year-old son Jimmie. She has changed her name to Walsh and Jimmie has never known his father, so he knows Ringo only by reputation and hearsay. When the other boys from school skip out to peer through the saloon window at "the bad man," he joins them.

Meanwhile Ringo, who understands that he's being pursued by the dead man's brothers, asks his friend the marshal to take a message to his wife, asking her to see him. At first she refuses. But after another old friend, a saloon girl named Molly (Jean Parker) who is grieving the recent death of her lover Bucky Harris — another of Ringo's old outlaw buddies — approaches her, Peggy agrees to see Ringo.

She lets him meet their son, though Ringo is not to reveal that he's his father. And she agrees to meet with Ringo again in a year. If he has kept his promise to abandon the outlaw life, she will consider reconciling. And so an optimistic Ringo prepares to leave town.

Later, at his funeral, Peggy and Jimmie appear late and have to be ushered into the overcrowded chapel, where she is acknowledged as Ringo's widow.

The movie poster for “The Gunfighter” (1950)
The movie poster for “The Gunfighter” (1950)

"The Gunfighter" is 85 minutes long, and it's most remarkable for its black-and-white cinematography and the way it employs deep focus in its barroom scenes.

It did not go completely unappreciated in its time. It received a single Oscar nomination for Best Motion Picture Story for William Bowers and de Toth, and some critics recognized it for what it was — one of the seminal deconstructions of western myth.

Bosley Crowther, the New York Times critic who these days is usually trotted out as an example of how contemporary critics misjudged films that have gone on to matter in the culture, wrote that "addicts of western fiction may find themselves rubbing their eyes and sitting up fast to take notice before five minutes have gone ... For suddenly they will discover that they are not keeping company with the usual sort of hero of the commonplace western at all. Suddenly, indeed, they will discover that they are in the exciting presence of one of the most fascinating western heroes as ever looked down a six-shooter's barrel."

Most of what we understand as the American gunfighter myth is the fanciful invention of penny dreadful authors and screenwriters. Fast-draw rigs with holsters tied tight to a shootist's thigh were an invention of 1950s westerns; lots of murderers we romanticize as gunfighters preferred more lethal shotguns and more accurate rifles to pistols. And like a deputy points out in "The Gunfighter," the smart ones sneakily got behind their intended quarry.

But legends begin with human beings, and with stories as sad and brief as Johnny Ringo's.

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