We’ve seen recently on this blog how by the mid-1950s Wyatt Earp had pretty well achieved mythic status, as Hollywood icon but also in the American psyche. Thanks to Stuart Lake’s sensational biography, successive movies featuring Wyatt and then, especially, the incredibly popular TV show which started in 1955 and ran through into the 60s, Wyatt Earp had way exceeded his brothers or indeed any other figure of the old West as the clean-up-the-town marshal par excellence (even though we know that in historical reality he was never town marshal of Tombstone, Dodge or anywhere else).
At the very peak of all this Earpery, in May 1957, Paramount released a movie that became one of the most popular Westerns ever made, and it completely confirmed the Wyatt Earp of legend. It was of course Gunfight at the OK Corral.
I love Gunfight at the OK Corral. It is a completely classic straight-down-the-line Western, which came out at the very high water mark of Western greatness, after which, honestly, it was a story of decline. Its protagonists, Burt Lancaster as Wyatt and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday, were rarely better – OK, Burt was better in Ulzana’s Raid, Kirk in Lonely Are the Brave, but I did say rarely. Great music, wonderful supporting cast, lovely cinematography of classic locations, tension, love interest, gunplay, it’s all there. If you want an example of a 50s Hollywood Western under full sail, with no hint of revisionism or self-questioning doubts, you can’t go wrong with this one.
Of course, for true Earpists it’s complete bunkum. Rarely has a movie played so fast and loose with history. No, that’s not right. John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (in which Old Man Clanton and Doc Holliday were killed at the OK Corral) was even greater historical hooey. And Randolph Scott as the first leading screen Wyatt Earp in Frontier Marshal in 1939 was sillier still. But director John Sturges and his writer Leon Uris certainly felt they had carte blanche to fool around with history. And they made the most of it.
They were right, really. We don’t watch Western movies to get at the historical truth, or we’d be pretty dumb if we did. We have documentaries and history books for that. We want Westerns to be heroic, exciting, gripping, with Western tropes we recognize and love, and Gunfight at the OK Corral gives us that in spades.
Rather like Kevin Costner’s 1994 Wyatt Earp, which we’ll be reviewing soon, OK Corral tries to telescope much of the career of Earp into one movie, which was perhaps a mistake. We open in Fort Griffin, move to Dodge and end up in Tombstone. Writer Uris invented a theme which would bind all the disparate scenes and events together by having Wyatt pursue Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo even in Fort Griffin, then making Ringo Shanghai Pierce’s right-hand gunman in Dodge, and then putting Ringo at the OK Corral fight. Good tough guy Ted de Corsia is Shanghai Pierce – a very gun totin’ and un-law-abidin’ cattle-baron Shanghai Pierce, who has put a thousand dollar price on Wyatt’s head.
Sheriff Behan has become Fort Griffin Marshal Cotton Wilson and he then becomes county sheriff down in Tombstone. All nonsense, of course, but it does do its best to tie together a screenplay which is about as far away from the classical unities of Greek tragedy as you could possibly get.
The picture was produced by Hollywood legend Hal Wallis, 28 Westerns from 1935 to 1975, working especially with Errol Flynn and John Wayne. It was a ‘big’ production with a $2m budget.
Director Sturges knew Westerns. He had helmed the excellent The Walking Hills with Randolph Scott in 1949 and equally good Escape from Fort Bravo with William Holden in ’53, and he was on a roll after the outstanding contemporary Western Bad Day at Black Rock in ’55 – it garnered three Oscar nominations, including one for Sturges.
Dimitri Tiomkin was commissioned to do the music for OK (and it was superb). Leon Uris was pre-Exodus but a well-known writer (though not for Westerns). He came up with a script which flirted with disaster: he has James Earp say, “Awful quiet. Too quiet.” And Lancaster has to deliver the line, “There’s stage for Abilene in the morning. You be on it.” Yet these come across as affectionate quotations rather than corny clichés.
And talking of affectionate quotations/clichés, the picture opens with a Tiomkin/Ned Washington ballad behind Lee Van Cleef and two other obvious bad guys riding down into town for vengeance. Sound familiar, High Noon lovers? I even thought one of the other bad guys was Robert J Wilke for a moment, but sadly it was only a lookalike. I am sure this was Sturges playing with us. It works, too.
And the character actors! The terrific John Ireland is an excellently malevolent hired gun Ringo – he had been at the corral back in 1946 too, when he was Billy Clanton for John Ford. Classic oily Western bad guy Lyle Bettger is Ike Clanton, rather smoother than the usual lowlife hick that Ike is in movies.
Young Dennis Hopper is Billy Clanton in a well-developed role (he toys with abandoning the Clantons for the side of law ‘n’ order).
Kenneth Tobey is (briefly) Bat Masterson.
Lee Van Cleef is the character Ed Bailey who in the first reel wants to gun down Doc – and with a derringer, to boot! Not only to boot but hidden in the boot. Olive Carey is Mrs Clanton – too high quality for such a small part, she projects brilliantly, despite having hardly anything to say, as a doubting, worried Ma James-ish figure. And the great Jack Elam is one of the McLowerys (as they are spelled). Whit Bissell is Clum. Frank Faylen is the Behan-figure sheriff. Franklyn Farnum is a barfly in the saloon and Glenn Strange the Great is a Pierce henchman. It really is a top-class line-up. Half the fun of watching the movie is Western character-actor-spotting.
As for the Earp brothers, DeForest Kelley is OK as Morgan but Virgil and James (John Hudson and Martin Milner) are pretty well non-entities. I think it may have been deliberate. Directors and casting people tended to prefer bland Earp brothers so as not to risk overshadowing the great hero. For of course, as always, Wyatt is portrayed as the top dog. He is the marshal, he bosses the others around. In reality, it was Virgil who was Marshal of Tombstone and he who made the dispositions for the OK Corral fight. But Stuart Lake (and Mrs Earp) always talked of Wyatt as the leading clan member. And by now this was set in stone. And to be fair, once Virgil had been maimed, Morgan killed and James escorted the rest of the family back to California, Wyatt did lead the pack.
Talking of James, once again, following Ford, James has become the cadet. It’s odd, this. James Earp (1841 – 1926) was the oldest brother, a Civil War vet and later a saloon and brothel keeper in various cow towns but in movies he is shown as the baby of the family, rather innocent. It is because the boy is gunned down in My Darling Clementine that Wyatt changes his mind and takes the marshal’s badge in Tombstone. You get the impression that there wasn’t much sweet and innocent about the real Jim Earp.
What about the women? Often, Sturges, in common with many a director, didn’t worry very much about them in Westerns. Women were there to be decorative adjuncts to the real players, the men. In historical reality, in Tombstone Wyatt Earp abandoned his common-law wife Mattie, a laudanum-addicted ex-prostitute, for a showgirl, Sarah Marcus, known as Sadie. Sadie was the consort of County Sheriff John Behan, so this gave added cause for the animosity between the rival factions in town. None of this is shown, though. It wouldn’t do in a heroic Wyatt picture.
So a new female character is invented, Laura Denbow, glam lady gambler, played by lovely Rhonda Fleming. Wyatt meets her in Dodge and in scenes very reminiscent of John Wayne and Angie Dickinson two years later in Rio Bravo (director Howard Hawks and writer Leigh Brackett must have seen OK Corral) after first disapproving, the lawman falls for her charms.
Doc Holliday’s woman is ‘Kate Fisher’ (again). She is played, well, by Jo Van Fleet (brilliant as an old lady in The King and Four Queens the year before) as a slightly tarty abused woman. She has a perfectly normal-sized proboscis though and is never addressed as Big-Nose Kate. Holliday’s mistress was in fact Mary Katherine Horony-Cummings, a Hungarian-born prostitute who eventually died in Prescott, AZ in 1940, aged 89. But for some reason she is usually named Kate Fisher, or Elder, in Earp movies. In this movie she goes in with the Clantons, which doesn’t please Doc at all.
The other Earp wives are forgettable non-people in the movie.
The second half of the 1950s was a very pro-Earp period. The anti-Earpists were for the moment vanquished (they would return though). John Ford had given us a very pro-Earp picture after the war (My Darling Clementine was historical tosh but great art and Henry Fonda a splendidly noble Wyatt) and in 1955 decent Joel McCrea as Wyatt cleaned up Wichita. Most of all, in September 1955 The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp launched on ABC and became enormously popular. It purported to be factual (it wasn’t, of course) and many viewers swallowed the pro-Earp line hook and sinker. As a boy I was an avid follower of this show (I had a toy Buntline) and I knew perfectly well that Wyatt Earp was the boldest and best lawman the West had ever seen. Viewers were taking Lake as their gospel – and he was usually on the set of big-screen and small-screen versions as advisor. So Sturges and Uris, using also The Killer, an article by George Scullin, as a starting point (Wallis bought the rights to it in 1954) had no qualms about giving us a heroic law-and-order Wyatt, with Lancaster as an absolutely classic frontier lawman.
60s Westerns (think of The Magnificent Seven at the start of the decade or The Wild Bunch at the end) were about gunfighters as dinosaurs, out of place in an increasingly modern world and feeling they had nowhere to go except perhaps to tread the way to dusty death. And it seemed as if the end of the West was accompanied by the end of the Western. No such doubts trouble Wyatt as he strides down Allen Street with his Buntline Special. He is out to dominate the bad guys and bring law ‘n’ order to the wild frontier. This Western looks forward, not back.
Visually, Gunfight at the OK Corral is excellent. It was photographed in Technicolor VistaVision by Charles Lang (“Charlie Lang, one of the greats,” as James Coburn said) who had worked on two The Virginian versions (1923 and 1929), and did The Man from Laramie for Anthony Mann. Later he would shoot Last Train from Gun Hill for Sturges, also with Kirk Douglas, which used many of the same locations as OK Corral, and, of course, The Magnificent Seven, again for Sturges. He was a fine photographer. The locations are lovely, round Old Tucson and many other sites in Arizona. There are of course a lot of sound-stage interiors and unfortunately the occasional studio ‘exterior’ as well but most of the exteriors are shot outside and are often very beautiful.
Douglas (Hal Wallis originally wanted Humphrey Bogart) is very good as Doc. In fact he comes near to stealing the show. He doesn’t overdo the tubercular coughing. He is dapper in his frock coat and silk vest. He comes across as charming, cynical and deadly. His lifestyle is pretty lethal too with alcohol and tobacco featuring prominently (he says that his idea of healthy living is to be up by noon and take a twenty-yard walk). He knows he is dying and it is that which makes him reckless of his own safety. He might even prefer to go out in a blaze of gunfire than die coughing in bed. It’s a very good performance, and Douglas must go down as one of the better Docs, alongside Victor Mature for Ford, Jason Robards in Hour of the Gun (a later Sturges Earp myth), Val Kilmer in Tombstone and Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp.
Lancaster was probably the big-screen Wyatt Earp if you go for the implacable good-guy frontier-marshal Earp. Burt gave us an Earp chock-full of integrity, grit and single-minded determination to impose the law. He is steely. Not even Hugh O’Brian, not Kurt Russell, not Kevin Costner were as good. Henry Fonda, yes, he was magnificent, but Burt even rivals Hank as Wyatt Earp. He is superb. And the developing relationship between the lawman and the consumptive dentist, moving from frank dislike through acceptance to even affection, is well handled.
They are played as opposites, the ‘straight’ lawman and the dubious gambler, and the unlikelihood of the friendship is stressed. The posters cried, “The strangest alliance this side of heaven and hell!” Lancaster could have been overshadowed as the straight man by the charismatic good-badman, but he wasn’t. He was magisterial.
Sturges made the most of the actual gunfight. The historical thirty-second shootout on Fremont Street (it wasn’t in the OK Corral at all, of course) between three Earps and Holliday on one side and two Clantons and two McLaurys on the other is inflated into a massive ten-minute gun battle with seven guns against the Earp party (Ringo is there too, with the sheriff and Phin Clanton, Ike’s brother). These characters scuttle for cover all over the place. It was certainly the most dramatic OK Corral fight to date, and given that later Earp movies tended to at least try to respect the facts a little more, it will probably remain as the showiest one on film. Wyatt gets Ike with a shotgun (in fact Ike fled the scene and was killed by a detective six years later), and Doc is winged but gets Ringo (who wasn’t even there and died of a gunshot wound, possibly self-inflicted, in July 1882). Wyatt is obliged to kill Billy Clanton in Fly’s photographic parlor and then dumps his star, High Noon-style. It’s all over.
Complete hooey, but I don’t care! It’s thrilling stuff. Well done, everyone. Any Western fan worth his salt will watch this picture. It’s unmissable.
The picture got two Oscar nominations. The critical reception was generally positive, although Bosley Crowther in The New York Times review was lukewarm. He said that “The old gambling, boozing, boasting, shooting type of Western that more or less went out of style with the showing of such adult items as The Gunfighter, High Noon and Shane is back in full cry in Hal Wallis’ Gunfight at the O. K. Corral, a big color and VistaVision picture that came to the Capitol yesterday.” Crowther added, “It is an ordinary pattern, studded with glittering clichés, both of situation and conversation, that pop up in stalwart Western films … It is all very obvious, but it is active.” Crowther could be dismissive of Westerns and often missed quality in them.
Variety liked it more, calling it “an absorbing yarn” and saying that “Both stars are excellently cast in their respective characters.” The Saturday Review’s Hollis Alpert found it “original and refreshing.”
Later critics are also divided. In his 1980s guide Western Films, Brian Garfield thought that “the story is necessarily picaresque and unfortunately that makes it suspenseless.” Garfield added, “It’s so overshadowed with ‘B’ dialogue that it doesn’t work.” In the 1990 Great Hollywood Westerns, Ted Sennett calls it “a fairly perfunctory film which at least enshrined its clichés in high Technicolor.” Dennis Schwartz wrote, “The film served as a great influence at the time and encouraged the making of big-budget adult Westerns with known actors. Nevertheless, it was still a disjointed venture despite its box office success and the pleasing performances by Burt and Kirk.” Personally, I don’t agree with any of those.
The film grossed $4.7m in US and Canadian rentals on its initial domestic release, and has since gone on to be one of the highest-earning Westerns of all time.
And indeed, it has become one of the most famous Westerns ever. For some years now I have been conducting an experiment (I should probably get a PhD for it). I have been asking non-fans of Westerns (for such poor benighted souls do exist) to name a Western movie. Many come up with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a favorite Western of non-admirers, and some mention Stagecoach, but six out of ten first mention Gunfight at the OK Corral. That must mean something.