Thursday, January 23, 2020


Gordon D. Shirreffs (1914 – 1996) started writing in 1945, after serving in World War in Alaska and the Aleutian Campaign. Coached by published boy’s adventure writer Frederick Nelson Litten at the Chicago campus of Northwestern University, Shirreffs broke into the young people’s market with pieces in Boy’s Life, Young Catholic Messenger and the later pulps like Dime Western, Ace High, and Six-gun Western. Experiences at Fort Bliss during the war served Shirreffs well in nailing down the gritty scenery of the Southwest, a setting that served him well throughout his career.

He wrote for Dell Comics (Roy Rogers, Johnny Mack Brown, Rin Tin Tin) for $8.50 a page, and got a raise to $12, while also penning pulp stories for $35 to $50 each. It was a living, but not overly lucrative, so in the early ‘50s, Shirreffs took a crack at novels. In 1956, he sold a first novel, Rio Bravo, to Fawcett for $2,000 (not to be confused with the John Wayne film, Rio Bravo based on a short story by B. H. McCampbell).

While writing original stories about the Southwest, Shirreffs also ran a hobby shop and took whatever paying work he could find. He was a working writer, continuing to write juveniles or whatever came his way. In addition to his own byline, he turned out work in the mid-50s under the pseudonym Gordon Donalds and Stewart Gordon. In 1958, he was asked to pen the adaptation of a screenplay by James Poe from a story by Les Crutchfield, Last Train From Gun Hill.

The film was the bottom feature of a 1959 double-bill with Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Both films were directed by John Sturges and starred Kirk Douglas. Both were shot in Paramount’s new wide screen format, VistaVision.

The story’s a simple one, and Shirreffs delivers a compelling narrative in the book. United States Marshal Matt Morgan (played in the film by Kirk Douglas) is married to a Native American woman who, with their son, Petey, is waylaid on the road by the Rick Belden, the drunken son of a rich cattle baron and his sidekick. Belden rapes and kills Mrs. Morgan, setting up Morgan’s hunt for justice, but with a twist—Belden’s wealthy father is the marshal’s old pal Craig Belden.

Both book and film play out as you’d expect with Craig Belden trying to get his privileged louse of a son off the hook. Naturally, Morgan won’t be bought and takes Rick into custody, promising him a fair trial back in Pawley. In a scene reminiscent of the film Three-Ten to Yuma, Morgan must wait in a besieged hotel room for the train to return and carry him home with his prisoner. 

In the book, Shirreffs writes the claustrophobic scenario with tough, tight prose, superior to the movie’s portrayal (enjoyable though it is). The film uses the VistaVision process to show us a colorful wide open saloon, some stunning location shots, and a rousing fire during the movie’s climax that matched Shirreff’s rock-solid descriptions. Or maybe it’s the other way around—the adaptation playing it so close to the final shooting script of the movie, there’s virtually nothing to differentiate the two. 

In the end, Shirreffs wasn’t the only writer to adapt the script. Dell Four Color-Comics No. 1012 put the story into the hands of writer Gaylord DuBois and artist Tom Gill for a pedestrian version no better nor worse than any other Dell movie title.

Film-wise, Last Train From Gun Hill is enjoyable if not a classic, and the book is worth your time, if not uniquely Shirreffs. 

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