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Novelist Leon Uris wrote the script for this Western directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) and based on the life and times of Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and his sickly companion, Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas). The action inevitably leads to the legendary battle between the two heroes and the villainous Clanton gang, but the film is also very much about the conflicts each man faces with women, with one another, and with their own destinies. Lancaster is terrific as the downbeat Earp, and Douglas has one of his best roles as the consumptive Holliday. The thoughtfulness of the tale is matched by Sturges's captivating way with the dramatic duel. All in all, the film appeals both as a solid action piece and as a fascinating, two-character study. --Tom Keogh
CONSIDERED TO ONE OF THE BEST WESTERN FILMS EVER MADE, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL EXPLORES THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TWO OF THE WEST'S MOST CELEBRATED LEGENDS - WYATT EARP AND DOC HOLLIDAY.
Burt and Kirk Take on the Clantons!,
'Gunfight at O.K. Corral' is one of the many films that have told the tale of the famous showdown between the Earps and the Clantons, but what sets this version apart is the casting of Burt Lancaster as the straight-shooting Marshal Wyatt Earp, and Kirk Douglas as the sardonic, dying gambler, Doc Holliday. As in all their pairings, there is a chemistry between them that makes even mundane scripts seem magical!
Lancaster, continuing his rule of alternating between heavy drama and action films, researched the historic Earp extensively, speaking to many who knew him, and his performance is restrained and assured. Douglas, on the other hand, fresh from playing Vincent Van Gogh in 'Lust for Life', knew he needed a splashy hit film, and played Doc Holliday as larger than life, swaggering, diseased, and charismatic. His portrayal is far closer in spirit to the interpretions of Holliday by Val Kilmer, in 'Tombstone', and Dennis Quaid, in 'Wyatt Earp', than Victor Mature, in John Ford's 'My Darling Clementine'.
The film's climactic scene is fanciful, historically, but a terrific gunbattle!
Other aspects of the film to enjoy...Dimitri Tiompkin's magnificent musical score, highlighted by Frankie Laine's unforgettable performance of the title tune, throughout the film...Excellent supporting players, including Jo Van Fleet as Holliday's mistress, John Ireland as Johnny Ringo, a young Dennis Hopper as Billy Clanton, and Rhonda Fleming as the gambler girlfriend of Wyatt (based on Earp's actual wife, Josie)...cameos by Kenneth Tobey as Bat Masterson, DeForest Kelley as Morgan Earp, Martin Milner as James Earp, and Frank Faylen as the corrupt sheriff.
The director, John Sturges, revisited the Earp saga some years later in 'Hour of the Gun', with James Garner as Earp, and Jason Robards as Holliday, but while the later film may be more accurate, historically, 'Gunfight at the O.K. Corral' is a far more enjoyable film.
I strongly recommend it to any western fan!
The Big Gunfight, Retold Yet Again,
Recently I heard a teenager bemoaning the death of King Kong in Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of the 1933 Merian Cooper classic. He was of the opinion that they should never have made it where Kong died. The ending should have been different. The big guy should have gotten back to Skull Island.
I told this young fellow that there were certain constants in life...and in the movies...that you just had to learn to deal with; Cleopatra was always going to be bitten by the asp, Julius Caeser was always going to go down to assassins' knives,
the Titanic was always going to sink, the Earps and Doc Holliday were always going to kill the Clantons & McLaurys at the O.K. Corral, and King Kong was always going to get shot off the building. That's how life works.
And where those Earps and their friends and foes are concerned, John Sturges's 1957 epic oater "Gunfight At the OK Corral" is one of the top cinematic retellings of that bloody day in October of 1881 when the six-guns started blasting and the lead started flying.
"Gunfight" is a well-engineered DVD version of the original widescreen Technicolor original. The colors are warm and vivid and the images sharp and clear. The sound is good and the soundtrack musical score by Dmitri Tiompkin excellent, as is the driving, infectious theme song sung by Frankie Laine. The opening title sequence begins with a group of riders topping a hill and riding down into full audience view with Laine's ballad lyrics (by Tiompkin & Ned Washington) goading the viewer into an interest in who these riders are and what their intentions might be. It is a device that "hooks" viewer attention immediately and draws them quickly into the film story. This is good screenwriting (Leon Uris) and good direction (John Sturges). Really savvy filmmaking.
The film opens with these three "revengers" heading into Fort Griffin, Texas, in order to kill the man who killed...in a fair fight...one of the riders' brother. Their target is one of the west's most famous "bad men", gambler/gunfighter/dentist John Henry "Doc" Holliday. As these men come to Fort Griffin looking for Holliday, yet another trail rider, Dodge City, Kansas, Chief Assistant Marshal (the actual Marshal, historically, was Larry Deger) Wyatt Earp , out hunting outlaw Ike Clanton, rides into town. Earp rides in and meets with the local sheriff, one "Cotton Wilson" (a non-historical, fictional character) seeking info on the Clantons. I would note here that fans of Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" will instantly recognize "Fort Griffin" as BEING "Rio Bravo" (actually a movie set at Old Tucson, Arizona). The street where "Dude" (Dean Martin) is knocked into a horse trough is there, as is the hotel owned by "Carlos" (Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales), where "Feathers" (Angie Dickinson) and
"Colorado" (Ricky Nelson) stay, and the saloon where Doc Holliday kills Lee Van Cleef is the same saloon set ("Burdett's Saloon") where Dude and John T. Chance (Duke Wayne) track a wounded killer and finish him off.
As the old cliche goes, "But I digress". Getting back now to "Gunfight At the O.K. Corral" itself; disatisfied with the answers he gets from "Cotton Wilson", Earp stays over to seek more helpful news on his quarry and, in doing so, becomes involved in yet another...plainly justifiable...killing by Doc Holliday, as well as a local lynch-mob attempt (aided and abetted by same-said "Cotton Wilson") to hang Doc. Earp helps Doc escape from Ft. Griffin and this incident (culled from Stuart N. Lake's biography of Earp, "Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal") forms the basis for the Earp-Holliday friendship that carries through for the rest of the film.
Lancaster's characterization of Earp is pretty much "on the money" historically. The early western film pioneer William S. Hart knew Earp personally and the stoic, heroic, laconic, amd iconic western hero type that plays through all of Hart's westerns...and on into those of Gary Cooper and others...was based on the Earp persona. And Lancaster's version of Earp is not that far removed at all from Kevin Costner's version, done four decades later.
A point of interest in this film is that the famous "Buntline Special" .45 Colt with the long barrel appears here briefly in a scene between Lancaster's Earp and Earl Holliman's Charlie Bassett.What is shown here in this scene is pretty much what the "Buntline Special" actually was; a Model 1876 Colt Revolver-Carbine, a handgun with a 10 or 12 inch barrel (the T.V. Show with Hugh O'Brian depicted it as the 12" version, but research evidence indicates Earp's real revolver-carbine was the 10" version). Thriller writer Ned Buntline bought one of these for several Dodge City lawmen (among them Bat Masterson & Bill Tilghman) and had special fancy-carved walnut handles put on the stocks...handles with the name "Ned" carved onto them. These "Ned" handles were what made one of these revolver-carbines....which featured a bolt-on "skeleton frame" rifle stock attachment..."Buntline Specials"; NOT anything having to do with the barrel length.
As usual in depictions of the Earp saga, this movie is pretty much "owned" by Doc Holliday, one of the most colorful figures of the old west, and in the person of Kirk Douglas, Holliday is given masterful representation. Douglas's Doc is tortured and sardonic, a man with many demons, yet a man of integrity with a strong code of honor. And he is depicted as a Southern Gentleman to the core. Much drivel has been written that "until Kilmer and Quaid" essayed the role in the 1990s Holliday's Georgia roots had never factored into any film depiction previously. The lie is given to this claim in "O.K." in a scene where Big Nose Kate Fisher
(Jo Van Fleet) rages at Doc about being so proud of his Georgia
plantation background when "all of that is gone now". Another verbal jab or two at Doc's "Southern Gentleman" ways and family gets Kate a thrown knife stuck in the wall by her head.
Douglas's portrayal here is powerful and charismatic and it is only Lancaster's own considerable screen presence that keeps Douglas from stealing every scene right out from under him. It is a long-standing fact that any attempt to do an Earp movie is going to be a challenge to whoever portrays Earp, because you realize, going in, that audience interest is going to gravitate, ultimately, to the far more colorful and interesting Holliday. Lancaster, to his credit, hangs in there and gets the job done.
The gunfight itself is wildly inaccurate historically, though not as much as was that in John Ford's "My Darling Clementine". There are wagons here, and "Cotton Wilson" (again...now taking on the role of Cochise County's crooked sheriff Johnny Behan), and Phin Clanton (who was not there), and John Ireland's Johnny Ringo (another one who was not there), and a secondary shoot-out in Fly's Photographic Gallery
involving Dennis Hopper's Billy Clanton (another event that never happened...as was Ike Clanton's being killed in the shoot-out). In keeping with the legend...and at odds with history...Doc Holliday shoots down the no good Johnny Ringo (in truth Ringo died months later and may have been a suicide).
Historically accurate? This gunfight? Heck no! But it IS a beautifully realized sequence. The pacing, editing, and ingenuity of the thing are first rate. This is just damn good filmmaking on view here.
The acting throughout the film is first rate as well. Earl Holliman is excellent as Dodge City deputy Charlie Bassett,
Rhonda Fleming does good duty as "Laura Denbow", a gambler gal who wins Earp's heart (and represents a vaguely semi-accurate version of Earp's true-life actress-singer girlfriend, Josephine "Josie" Marcus). Kenneth Tobey ("The Thing","Beast From 20,000 Fathoms", "It Came From Beneath the Sea", and "Davy Crockett And the River Pirates") turns in a great but all-too-brief Bat Masterson characterization that is one of the best I've seen. As for Bad guys, hey, Lee Van Cleef is there but gets it early on from Doc, and Lyle Bettger is his usual arrogant, oily self as Ike Clanton. The great Jack Elam is one of the McLaurys and he, of course, eats lead from Wyatt at the film's climax.
Produced by Hal Wallis (later to helm Duke Wayne's oscar winning "True Grit"), "Gunfight At the O.K. Corral" is a first rate fifties-style western that is just plain hard to beat. Good filmmaking is good filmmaking, whatever the era represented.
This one I recommend highly to anyone who loves the genre. And, if you find yourself liking this one, check out John Sturges's follow-up western (also starring Kirk Douglas and Earl Holliman), "Last Train From Gun Hill", available through Amazon.
Better than OK,
Much like its predecessor "My Darling Clementine", this film uses the names of real people for its characters - the Earps, Clantons, Doc Holliday - but has virtually nothing to do with historial reality. It's a marvelous film nonetheless and entirely different in its feel and approach from "Clementine." "Gunfight" focuses on the friendship between occasional marshall Wyatt Earp and occasional gunman John Holliday (Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas), and if anything underplays the intense bond between the two men in real life. Screenwriter Leon Uris telescopes several years of events into a few months to fit the movie, and director John Sturges was never better at the pacing and staging of his story. For my money this is Kirk Douglas' greatest performance; the combination of menace and degraded dignity he gives the TB-ridden Holliday is something to see. Just as great as the performances and production work is Dimitri Tiomkin's score. It's so powerful it seems almost like another character; the same effect he achieved in "Red River" for Howard Hawks.
(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 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- I just wanted to say the more I check out this blog the more impressed I am by it. You are doing a truly excellent job. The interviews are fascinating, the reviews riveting. Something for lovers of all aspects of western fiction. Keep up the good work!