Lindsey Tries to Appreciate Westerns: Gun Fever (1958)

Sam Weller (John Lupton) is part of a gang, playing watch dog as his father Trench (Aaron Saxon) and a man named Charlie Whitman (Dean Fredericks) raise hell. They kill, they steal, they get themselves into all kinds of trouble.

(Image via Movie Poster Shop)
(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

After their latest raid on a settler’s shabby cabin results in the death of a woman, Sam decides he wants out of all of this criminal business. And with Sam ducking out, the gang falls apart as Charlie Whitman tries to take over Sam’s share of the “earnings” made from these raids.

With few options left to carry on with his thievery, Trench decides to convince a group of Sioux men (including the infamous Iron Eyes Cody) to raid stagecoach waystations and steal loads of gold that are being shipped east.

He promises riches to the men, but lets them take the blame and be painted as “savages” in the media. He’s the mastermind of all of the raids, but he’ll never admit that, instead using the Sioux as a means to protect himself from legal consequences.

When Trench and his gang attack the waystation owned by the Ram family and kill most of the family, son Luke (Mark Stevens) vows to track down and get revenge on the man who is behind the raids. And coincidentally, having gone “straight,” Sam – Trench’s now-estranged son – happens to be working with Luke.

Gun Fever was directed by Mark Stevens (Cry Vengeance), who also stars in the film, for Jackson-Weston Productions. It was written by Stevens along with Stanley H. Silverman (Lux Video Theatre), from a story by Harry S. Franklin (The Brave One) and Julius Stevens (Sword of the Avenger).

I was fully expecting to hate this film for its portrayal of the Sioux, anticipating that it would be a standard “good cowboys vs. evil Indians” fare. It certainly isn’t a film without its problems in this respect. Iron Eyes Cody serves up a stereotypical portrayal of a chief, as expected. Caricature portrayals are given of both the Sioux and of Mexican people (through the character of “Amigo,” Trench’s sidekick).

(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

However, these caricatures aside, I do have to give the film a smidge of credit. In the beginning, it offers a surprisingly complex exploration of the topic of relations between the Sioux and the white settlers. Mr. Ram, Luke’s father, gets into a discussion about how he thinks a lot of the problems between the two groups could be solved if only the settlers would treat the Sioux with fairness, humanity and respect. Later in the film, the Sioux are shown raiding the waystation, but it’s a known fact from the beginning of the film that they’ve been manipulated by Trench, so they aren’t demonized in the way that I’ve seen in some other Westerns.

And rather than going after the Sioux, Luke vows to get revenge on Trench alone. Luke’s views about the Sioux align with his father’s and in addition to wanting to avenge the loss of his own family, Luke seems to also be partially motivated to get revenge for the way that Trench is taking advantage of the Sioux.

Without the inclusion of stereotyped characters, this could have been a very good and thoughtful film, given the perspective of Luke and his family.

Director Mark Stevens himself portrays Luke. He and John Lupton (who co-stars as Sam) give solid performances. Saxon is also quite menacing at times in the role of Trench, but he’s not quite as believable in his role as Stevens or Lupton. Stevens’ performance and character are the big draw for the film. His goal is to kill Trench, but despite this violent streak, the audience can easily sympathize with him.

Along with Stevens and Lupton’s performances, the film also benefits from nicely lit black and white photography. The atmosphere is dusty, windy and gritty – very appropriate for the film’s setting and mood.

Did it boost my appreciation of the Western genre? SOMEWHAT. I appreciated the *story’s* effort to give more thought than Westerns usually do to the relations between the Sioux and the settlers, but the film did also hit on one of my pet peeves with the poor casting and caricatured portrayals of the Sioux and Mexican roles.

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