The Gunfight at Dodge City begins rather unusually for a Cinemascope Western with color by Deluxe: in the dark. One-time gambling gunman Bat Masterson and his half-wit young companion Billy are out in the wilderness discussing guns and other manly stuff as they prepare to take some buffalo skins back to civilization, to sell and all. "What's it like to kill a man?" Billy asks Bat, all eager-like. "Well, Billy, I'll tell you. It's not so good."
Zounds! Could we have here a precursor to Eastwood's elegiaic, ironic Western critique/tribute, Unforgiven? Um, not so much, as it turns out. Bat's quasi-poetic description of a shooting's aftermath sounds silly and prosaic even with lead actor, Western icon Joel McCrea, selling it for all it's worth: "The cuspidor spills, and it's runnin' all over him..." and so on. Then Richard Anderson's which-side-is-he-on gunman shows up, to warn Bat from coming into town, because an ex of Bat's has talked the ear off her current boyfriend—an Army Sergeant—all about Bat, and the Sergeant's a jealous sort who's gonna let Bat have it. Bat goes into town, the dumb ex comes into the bar blathering away at Bat, the Army guy enters shortly thereafter, the ex (one of the dippiest of her sort in the genre, I must say), protests "Bat doesn't mean anything to me," and of course Bat lets the army guy have it—he's Bat Masterson, for heaven's sake—thus putting himself in the awkward position of having to get the hell into Dodge, where a whole other mess awaits, even after he establishes himself as the law there. This sounds like an awful lot of plot, I know. Well, not to come on all churlish, but trust me, you ought to be GRATEFUL that I haven't gone into the bit wherein the aforementioned Bat Masterson, played, I reiterate, by Western icon Joel McCrea, assays an eventually abortive romance with a character portrayed by the toothsome Julia Adams (of both The Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Last Movie fame) who had prior to that point been involved with Bat's brother Ed, or Jud, or whatever the hell his name was. How can I make this clear? How about: DICKENS' BLEAK HOUSE HAS A LESS INVOLVED PLOT THAN THIS PICTURE, IS MY POINT. AND YET...
Despite being about only 80 minutes long, The Gunfight At Dodge City somehow seems twice that length. (Hence the AND YET. ) It could have something to do with pretty much every character except for McCrea's and Nancy Gates' wearing out their welcome pretty much the moment they're introduced—there's a whole snoozy sub-plot devoted to the aforementioned half-wit Billy that makes you wish Anderson's character had shot the kid right off the bat, for instance. Not even the normally entertaining Timothy Carey (above center), as a nasty deputy, registers much. The picture's director, Joseph M. Newman, is known, if at all, for brisk handling of genre fare (see This Island Earth) but his touch fails him here; everytime a couple of characters are on horseback (as we see below; believe it or not, the fellow McCrea's Masterson is riding with their is, indeed, named "Doc"), one is suddenly reminded of that Gerard Manley Hopkins line: "Generations have trod, have trod, have trod."
Some fans of McCrea point out that this was to have been his final bow as a Western hero, and that only Peckinpah's casting of him (alongside Randolph Scott) in Ride the High Country saved him from that ignominuous fate. Gunfight's Region 2 U.K. DVD from Optimum is a pretty handsome rendering of the picture. A picture that has value largely as an example of how tired the standard tropes of the Western came to seem in the late '50s, and why the putative anti-Westerns of Peckinpah constituted a much-needed shot in the arm to the genre.