A young, reckless cowboy named Eddie (Richard Jaeckel) deliberately provokes an argument with the notorious gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck). Ringo is widely known as the fastest draw in the West, making him the perpetual target of every young gunslinger eager to become famous as "the man who shot Ringo". When Eddie ignores Ringo's warnings and draws his weapon, Ringo has no choice but to kill him. Eddie's three brothers pursue Ringo as he leaves town, seeking revenge, but Ringo ambushes them, takes their guns, and drives off their horses, telling them to walk back to town; instead, they follow him on foot.
In the nearby town of Cayenne, Ringo settles into a corner of the largely deserted saloon. The barkeeper (Karl Malden) alerts Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), an old friend of Ringo's. Strett urges Ringo to leave, since his presence has already created a sensation in town, and it is only a matter of time until the brothers show up. Ringo agrees to go as soon as he sees his wife, Peggy (Helen Westcott), whom he has not seen in eight years, and the son he has never met; but Strett says that Peggy has changed her surname to conceal their relationship and has no interest in seeing him.
Meanwhile, Ringo has to deal with Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), another young gunslinger keen to make a name for himself, and Jerry Marlowe (Cliff Clark, uncredited), who mistakenly believes Ringo killed his son. The bar girl, Molly (Jean Parker)—another old friend—eventually persuades Peggy to talk to Ringo. Ringo says that he is now older and wiser, and wants to leave his gunfighting past behind. He intends to settle down to a peaceful life in California, where people do not know him, and he wants Peggy to come with him. She refuses, but agrees to reconsider in a year's time, if he has kept his word and abandoned his past for good. Ringo meets his son at last, although he does not reveal that he is his father.
Ringo's business in Cayenne is finished, but he has lingered too long. The three vengeful brothers have arrived, and lie in wait, but Strett and his deputies intercept them and bring them in. Ringo bids farewell to Peggy, his son, and his friends; but as he departs the saloon, Bromley shoots him in the back, mortally wounding him. As Ringo lies dying, he tells Strett that he wants it known that he drew on Bromley—that Bromley shot him in self defense. Bromley protests that he doesn't want Ringo's help—but Ringo explains to his killer that he is doing him no favors. Bromley, he says, will soon know how it feels to have every hotshot two-bit gunfighter out to kill him. He will become a magnet for trouble. He will learn, as Ringo did, that notoriety as a gunfighter is a curse that will follow him wherever he goes, making him an outcast and a target for the rest of his life. Strett orders Bromley out of his town, punctuating his order with a beating, which he warns is "just the beginning" of what Bromley has coming.
In death, Ringo has finally found what he sought for so long: his wife's forgiveness and reconciliation. At his funeral, as Peggy proudly reveals to the townspeople for the first time that she is Mrs. Ringo, a silhouetted, unrecognizable cowboy rides off into the sunset.Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo
Helen Westcott as Peggy Walsh
Millard Mitchell as Marshal Mark Strett
Jean Parker as Molly
Karl Malden as Mac
Richard Jaeckel as Eddie
Skip Homeier as Hunt Bromley
Kim Spalding as a clerk (his first role, uncredited)
Anthony Ross as Deputy Charlie Norris
Verna Felton as Mrs. August Pennyfeather
Ellen Corby as Mrs. Devlin
David Clarke as Second Brother
Alan Hale Jr. as Brother
Film rights to The Gunfighter were originally purchased by Columbia Pictures, which offered the Jimmy Ringo role to John Wayne. Wayne turned it down, despite having expressed a strong desire to play the part, because of his longstanding hatred for Columbia's president, Harry Cohn. Columbia sold the rights to Twentieth Century Fox, where the role went to Peck. Wayne's final film, The Shootist (1976), is often compared to The Gunfighter and contains numerous plot similarities.
The script was loosely based on the purported exploits of an actual western gunfighter named Johnny Ringo, a distant cousin of the outlaw Younger family and a purported survivor of the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral against Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers. As in the movie, Ringo sought a reconciliation with his estranged family, in California, in 1882; but unlike the film his conciliatory gestures were summarily rejected. After a ten-day alcoholic binge, he died of a gunshot wound, probably self-inflicted. Many of the circumstances and legends surrounding Johnny Ringo's life and adventures have been challenged in recent years.
The film was directed by Henry King, the second of his six collaborations with Peck. 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).
In the original ending, Hunt Bromley was arrested by the town marshal, but studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck was enraged at this resolution, so King and Johnson rewrote the final scene.
The western street set seen in the film was also used in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), starring Henry Fonda.
The studio hated Peck's authentic period mustache. In fact, the head of production at Fox, Spyros P. Skouras, was out of town when production began. By the time he got back, so much of the film had been shot that it was too late to order Peck to shave it off and re-shoot. After the film did not do well at the box office, Skouras ran into Peck and he reportedly said, "That mustache cost us millions".
The film was nominated for a WGA Award for Best Written American Western. Writing for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther noted in his June 24, 1950 review:
"The addicts of Western fiction may find themselves rubbing their eyes and sitting up fast to take notice before five minutes have gone by in Twentieth Century Fox's The Gunfighter, which came to the Roxy yesterday. 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."
Bob Dylan referenced scenes from The Gunfighter in his song "Brownsville Girl", co-written by playwright Sam Shepard. It appears on Dylan's 1986 release Knocked Out Loaded. Peck paid tribute to Dylan's words when Dylan received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1997.