A gold prospector (Johnny Cash) is riding towards the small town where he hopes to get some money for what he has found when his horse is bitten by a rattlesnake. He shoots the snake, but his horse is injured, so when he reaches town he takes it straight to the blacksmith's to let the animal recover. Then he goes over to exchange his gold for money, but is disappointed when he doesn't receive as much as he thought he was due; and not only that, when he gives his name to the banker, as is the law, rumours start to spread. He is Abe Cross, a notorious gunfighter from a few years back who many believed was dead. As it so happens, another retired gunfighter, Will Tenneray (Kirk Douglas) lives in this town, and the expectation of the locals is that they will eventually fight...
Financed by a tribe of American Indians, A Gunfight saw two real life legends playing two fictional legends, film star Douglas and country music star Cash facing up against each other. While Douglas was renowned for his forceful screen personality, Cash wasn't really a great actor, and mostly appeared in TV movies, unless you count Door To Door Maniac. Then there was that episode of Columbo, remember? The one with him parachuting out of the plane? Anyway, this movie probably represents his best role outside of one of his concert documentaries as he has such a history behind him that he is believable as a mythic figure.
Scripted by Harold Jack Bloom, one of the producers, the film is basically a long preamble leading up to the expected showdown. Tenneray lives in the town with his wife Nora (Jane Alexander) and young son (Eric Douglas, Kirk's son offscreen too), and is coasting on his slowly dwindling reputation. So now Cross is here, he has a brainwave inspired by the bullfighting held over the border: he can make a lot of money, enough to get out of town, by challenging Cross to a gunfight in the bullring and charging folks for tickets to see it. At first his would-be opponent is unhappy about this arrangement, but when his horse has to be put down and he is left unable to afford another, he changes his mind.
Douglas was an old hand at westerns by this time, but Cash acquits himself surprisingly well for a non actor, even if he does tend to fall back on being grumpy to convey his character's personality - and of course he is dressed in black throughout. There's no doubt that Tenneray and Cross respect each other, but Tenneray seems to be more confident about winning than his opponent. Nora doesn't want the contest to go ahead at all, not quite as confident as her husband, and Cross has befriended a prostitute, Jenny (Karen Black) who also doesn't want to see her champion die. But the upcoming killing is now inevitable.
There's something cheap and morally bankrupt about the whole set up, and it's as much the fault of the audience as it is the fighters who have been encouraged by them, if not more so. Because they can't escape their reputations, those reputations will be the death of Cross and Tenneray sooner or later, and not necessarily at the hands of each other. After hearing of the contest, a young gunfighter (Keith Carradine) arrives in town to challenge them both, only to be shot down by Tenneray after he has injured the marshal, more proof of the approaching doom. But Bloom seems reluctant to let either one be triumphant, perhaps as a nod to the fans of both actors, so what you get is an ending where both win (and both lose). It could be a way of showing that there are really no winners, or it could be a gigantic cop out, but it does leave you pondering. Music by Laurence Rosenthal, with a title song by Cash.