Brazos Kane (Randolph Scott) is a legendary gunfighter who has more notches on his gunbelt then he can count. His reputation is so fearsome that he can’t even enter a town without having to worry about someone drawing a gun on him in an attempt to make a name for themselves. When he’s forced to shoot his own best friend when the latter tries to outdraw him, Brazos says that he’s had enough. He tosses aside his guns and he heads to the home of his friend, Bob Tyrell. Brazos says he’s going to retire from gunfighting and just “ride the range.”
When Brazos reaches Bob’s cabin, he discovers that Bob has been murdered. When Brazos rides to the nearby Banner ranch to report the crime, he’s arrested and accused of shooting Bob. When it’s pointed out that Brazos doesn’t have a gun, corrupt Deputy Yount (Grant Withers) says that Brazos most have tossed it in the creek after he shot Bob.
With the help of Bob’s employer, a rancher named Inslip (Charley Grapewin), Brazos narrowly avoids getting hung. Both Yount and the sheriff (Charles Kemper) encourage Brazos to leave town but Brazos isn’t going anywhere until he gets justice for Bob. His investigation leads to him getting involved with two sisters (Dorothy Hart and Barbara Britton) and a young cowhand named Johnny (John Miles), who wants to become a famous gunslinger. It also leads Bob into conflict with Bard Macky (Bruce Cabot) and Hen Orcutt (Forrest Tucker), who are both determined to run Brazos out of town. Brazos finds himself tempted to go back on his word and pick up his guns yet again.
Based on a novel by Zane Grey, Gunfighters is a surprisingly mature and multi-layered western. Brazos’s refusal to carry a gun and his genuine dislike of violence makes him a far more interesting protagonist than the typical B-western hero and Randolph Scott, one of the best of the cowboy actors, is appropriately world-weary in the role. The villains are also written and played with an unexpected amount of depth, with Bruce Cabot the stand-out as Bard Macky.
Gunfighters is full of good scenes. The opening sequence, featuring the pivotal gunfight between Brazos and his best friend, is excellently directed and captures how quickly violence can erupt in the old west. Later, when Brazos first meets Johnny, the younger man is engaged in target practice and talking about how a man named Brazos Kane murdered Johnny’s best friend. Johnny is practicing so he can kill Brazos himself. Without revealing his identity, Kane gives Johnny a few pointers on how to draw and aim his gun. It’s only after Johnny has perfected the quick draw that Kane laconically introduces himself and explains that he had nothing to do with Bob’s death. Later, in a powerfully acted scene, Kane explains to Johnny just what exactly it means to be a famous gunfighter and to know that everyone you see is a potential threat.
Directed by George Waggner, Gunfighters is an intelligent and well-acted western and one of Radolph Scott’s best.