Gunperson: Romero's gender-flipped Western

George Romero's Gunperson script.

In the Archive, we have a screenplay titled Gunperson, a treasured project for Romero that he would talk wistfully about for the rest of his life. The screenplay is dated 1978, but mentions of the project go all the way back to August 17, 1973, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shared the news that Romero had “received word that his Western script, ‘Gunperson,’ will be shot in Israel on sets recently used by Gregory Peck’s independent company, as an American-German-French-Israeli coproduction, slated for shooting late this year.” According to Romero, they were considering “name talent,” including legendary Italian star Claudia Cardinale.

(Also in this article, written by arts & culture columnist George Anderson, Romero shares that the Latent Image, along with Communicators Pittsburgh, was negotiating to produce an adaptation of Kristin Hunter’s The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, to possibly be directed by Ossie Davis! In addition to their “steady diet” of commercials and sponsored films, the still-new Laurel was seeking to expand its production slate beyond Romero.)

Like many of the cinephile directors of his generation, Romero adored Westerns. This was the earliest true Western script that we have in the Archive, and he seems to have tried to get it made throughout the rest of the 1970s, as Laurel still had it on their production slate in 1980. He’d try again to make a Western in the 1990s, working with co-writer William B. Farmer on a screenplay called Quevira. And there are a handful of other projects that incorporated Western elements, even if there weren’t literal cowboys and it wasn't set in the Wild West. The closest he’d get to actually making one was his final film, Survival of the Dead, but elements crept into many of his zombie projects. The early versions of Day of the Dead in particular have strong Western tropes, most explicitly in the figure of Bub, a zombie who is a trained sharpshooter described in one draft as wearing "Western-style gun belts" with six-shooters holstered on each side.

Gunperson was a gender-flipped riff on The Magnificent Seven, close enough to its predecessor that the second paragraph of the script shouts out Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score. But it’s not gender-flipped in the sense that Ocean’s 8 or the Melissa McCarthy Ghostbusters is. Gunperson takes place in a world in which the entire society has switched gender roles. Women fill all the positions traditionally occupied by men in a typical Western scene, and vice-versa, as we see in our introduction to the Twisted Arm saloon:

… the scene is from every familiar western we’ve ever seen. People lean over the bar, laughing and swilling from jiggers as the bartenders pours generous glassfuls. Gamblers stand at dice tables, and others sit in poker games. The piano player chugs a beer with one hand, playing on the keys with the other. The difference in this scene is that these people are all women. Dressed in the traditional, male western garb, drinking, smoking gambling, but all women. The only man is a singer who tries to keep up with the lady piano player’s tempo.

The film’s setup is typical of Westerns from an older era, in which a community is threatened by natives - here, a group of bandits let by an Apache woman named Azuma. As in The Magnificent Seven (or Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai) before that, the threatened community hires a group of gunfighters to save their village. In taking the job, one of the gunfighters, Drago, leaves behind her lovesick boyfriend George, telling him that “You and the people in this town been good ta me. Accept me fer what I am as a woman…rather than fer what I can do with…THIS!” as she pulls out her gun.

Despite the script featuring artifacts from an older era of Westerns, the supposedly villainous Azuma is a charismatic leader who only needs food for her community. She repeatedly offers Drago the opportunity for her and her comrades to walk away from the fight, or even to join her, as they seem to get along fantastically well. The climactic gunfight ends with Azuma’s death, but the two of them end their story by expressing their mutual respect and affection for each other, calling each other "friend":

AZUMA: Nice work with you Drago (cough)…

She dies.

DRAGO: Nice workin with YOU, Apache. Yore the last ‘o yore kind. I’m proud to have gunned ya.

Drago buries Azuma alongside her own fallen friends from the battle. She and one of the other survivors ride off in the direction of Mexico, where they’ve heard about some “action south o’ the border. Gal by the name of Villa.” Another rider drops out – at least for the time being – because although she wants to join, she thinks she might be pregnant. The duo end the film discussing how lucky they are to have the freedom to ride wherever they want “without lookin’ back. Just lookin’ ahead.”


-Adam Charles Hart