Monday, December 10, 2007

Movie Review: Gunfight at the OK Corral

(This is the second installment in our series of reviews on classic Westerns inspired by the Gunfight at the OK Corral. For the first part of this series, click here)

The second of the three movies we’re looking at that chronicle the events leading up to the gunfight at the OK corral is, well, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. That makes it easy to remember.

Directed by John Sturges in 1957, the picture stars Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp, and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. John Hudson, DeForest Kelley (yup, Dr. “Bones” McCoy from “Star Trek”) and Martin Millner tag along as Virgil, Morgan and James Earp. Lyle Bettger is Ike Clanton and Dennis Hopper is his little brother (son in real life) Billy. John Ireland, who played Billy Clanton in the 1946 My Darling Clementine, is Johnny Ringo. Rhonda Fleming is Laura Denbow, the gal Wyatt will love and leave behind, and Jo Van Fleet is Holliday’s sometime girlfriend (Big Nose) Kate Fisher. The script is by Leon Uris, who will later gain fame as the author of the bestsellers “Exodus,” “Topaz,” and “QB VII.”

The movie opens with one of those terrible songs that will make your kids roll their eyes when they hear it. Sung by Frankie Laine, it’s the kind of thing Mel Brooks parodied so mercilessly in “Blazing Saddles.” There’s no way not to grin at lyrics like “If the Lord is my friend, I’ll see you at the end of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.” Once it gets revved up, though, you can tell the score is by the great Dimitri Tiomkin.

Like the earlier “My Darling Clementine,” GOKC is a legend western that takes bits and pieces of actual western history and mixes them with pulp and romance to create a story that might look like it’s true but wouldn’t fool anyone who’d seen a 30-minute TV documentary on the affair.

The picture opens 10 years before the events in Tombstone as lawman Wyatt Earp is chasing cattle thief Ike Clanton through Ft. Griffin, Texas. Against his better judgment, Wyatt saves Doc Holliday from a lynch mob. Back in Dodge City, Doc loses Kate to Johnny Ringo and helps Wyatt arrest Shanghai Pierce (Ted de Corsia), who really has nothing to do with the story (nor did he in real life) but has such a great western name Uris just had to use it.

And speaking of nothing-to-do-with-it, Wyatt meets and falls in love with gambling lady Laura Denbow (the gorgeous Fleming). When he gets word from his brothers in Tombstone that they need his help, he tells the gal he loves her but he has to go to his family.

As it is with so many western movies, friendship and loyalty among men is the central theme here. Sturges would continue to mine this vein in years to come as the director of “Last Train From Gun Hill,” “The Magnificent Seven,” and “The Great Escape.” The film admits that the civilizing influence of women is necessary, but secondary to the responsibility imposed on a man by the willing acceptance of male friendship.

Unlike the case with “My Darling Clementine,” this movie pays at least lip service to the city/county politics at play in Tombstone. Wyatt asks for an appointed as U.S. Marshal so he will have jurisdiction over the entire county and can thus pursue the Clantons to their ranch out of town.

Since Wyatt has been chasing Ike Clanton for years, tempers flair when the two clans of inseparable brothers clash, resulting in the ambush death of James Earp, once again played as the baby brother of the family. His murder is the catalyst that causes the big shootout.

Douglas makes a far more believable Doc Holliday than the husky Victor Mature. We can see more clearly in this man the “too-lateness” and world-weary despair that pushes Doc into deadly situations. Our sadness at the waste of such a person is heightened by Lancaster’s holier-than-thou reading of Earp’s character. He’s constantly lecturing Doc on the evils of drunkenness, and while Doc goes out of his way to stand by Wyatt, when the gunfight is over and Earp sees plainly that Doc is dying, he still saddles up and rides away, leaving the consumptive gunman to find his own way.

The movie tries a little too hard to be an epic—a fault that would be noticeable in much of Sturges’ later work--but it is mostly enjoyable. Just remember that you can’t merely check your sense of history at the door—you have to lock it away in a trunk in the attic.

- Doug Bentin

(Doug writes film reviews for eFilmCritic! and book reviews (mostly Westerns) for Bookgasm. His personal blog is The Long Saturday of the Soul).

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. Mr. Bentin knows both films and the West, and makes the needed distinctions here.

I think Frankie Laine also sang the original 3:10 to Yuma theme, and did it hauntingly if memory serves me. But no western theme done by the great Dimitri Tiompkin was ever bad, and some of it, such as High Noon's Do Not Forsake Me Oh, My Darling, was breathtaking.

Richard Wheeler

Anonymous said...

I like your summation of Doc Holliday's character, as played by Kirk Douglas. I thought he was brilliant. The only trouble is though, as you mentioned in your review, this film mixes myth and fact so much the audience is left with a completely false view. Guess this is ok with fiction, but gets confusing for a student of the Old West.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Another small bite at the fact v. fiction debate that tends to crop up when discussing westerns. The degree to which publishers/reviewers/readers are prepared to accept departures from, or distortions of, the facts and recognized myths does seem to vary. And I've found that what is accepted when perpetrated by one book or movie is often not acceptable when it appears in another.

In the field where I've been working -- Black Horse Westerns -- some of the writers are quite adamant that the readers don't want history. Others will spend considerable time and care on research.

A couple of perspectives on the debate can be found in the current edition of the free online magazine Black Horse Extra (link at left under Publications).

Howard said...

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Anonymous said...

Where was it filmed? I see the Superstition Mountains (40 miles east of Phoenix) in some scenes (the road to the Clanton Ranch) but do not recognise other areas. Was it filmed at Apacheland Movie set (now burned to the ground)?

Bob said...

There are, of course, all sorts of other deviations from fact. Just in the first 30 minutes, Wyatt did meet Doc for the first time in Fort Griffin (no tooth pulled ten years earlier), but he wasn't purseuing the Clantons, whom he didn't know in 1877. And in Dodge, Charlies Bassett (Earl Holliman) was the town marshal and Wyatt was his deputy. As I continue to watch the movie, I may post additional information.

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