With its rather deceptive title – the famous ‘gunfight’ lasting barely fifteen minutes on screen - John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) promises more than it delivers, yet still manages to remain a fairly involving melodrama besides; about the oft told, unlikely, though undeniably enduring friendship between gambler, Doc Holliday and squeaky clean lawman, Wyatt Earp. Of the many incarnations this story has taken on over the years, Struges’ arguably remains one of the most star-studded and lavishly produced – tricked out in Technicolor and Paramount’s patented VistaVision; the only widescreen process offering true ‘motion picture high fidelity’.
In keeping with Hollywood’s edicts of its day, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a glamorous affair; Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler’s production design, Sam Comer and Arthur Krams’ set decoration and Edith Head’s recherché costumes resulting in an eerily immaculate milieu, thoroughly out of touch with the dusty/lusty old west from reality. Those seeking a more faithful representation of the dry rot and tumbleweed should watch Kevin Jarre and George P. Cosmatos’ impeccably crafted Tombstone (1993), because the west in ‘Gunfight’ is…well…pretty and pretty damn tidy to boot. Even Boot Hill takes on the Disneyland derivative of Frontier-land as do Fort Griffin, Dodge City and the aforementioned town of Tombstone; each transformed into tourist attractions that just happen to be populated by lawless gunslingers, happy harlots and virtuous marshals, ready to forsake personal happiness in order to maintain peace, order and good government for all who reside within these glossy borders.
A real curiosity about Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is its bizarre lack of extras milling about these glitzy backdrops. Fair enough, we’re not talking about metropolises the size of New York. But these antiseptic sets are made even more unambiguously two-dimensional by an almost total absence of mankind. This isn’t the hustling/bustling whistle stop where anything can happen and generally, anything does; but a sort of embalmed waxworks come to life in the briefest of fits and sparks. In many ways, ‘Gunfight’ is more of a three act drawing room tragedy than a sprawling movie western; Leon Uris’ screenplay (suggested by an article from George Scullin) focusing on two failed romances, one obvious murder, and a brutal showdown that leaves no desperado standing.
The chief hurdle in Uris’ prose seems to be an utter disinterest in pursuing any of the aforementioned narrative threads to their inevitable – if satisfactory – conclusions. We are introduced to characters who simply disappear or bow out of the legend altogether. We’re asked to invest in storylines going absolutely nowhere. Finally, we are shown carnage without bloodshed, the penultimate gunfight as neat and tidy as a hayride through a petting farm where all of the animals just happen to walk on two legs. At times, Uris’ shortsightedness makes for some very sloppy storytelling indeed, with Sturges simply fading to black to move the story along through its’ next series of vignettes. At best, Sturges has managed to make something of a competent western out of Uris’ mishmash; history weighing a tad too heavily, and ultimately whitewashed by Uris’ embellishments of an already ‘good thing’, thus distilling the legitimate dramatic impetus and arcs into second rate melodrama.
The Hollywood western is undeniably a white man’s world with token estrogen meant to decorously augment the scenery. A director like Howard Hawks might have made something more – or rather, better – of Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming) and Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet); the only two prominently featured women in the cast; each respectively made the martyr by their castoff paramours; Wyatt (Burt Lancaster) and Doc (Kirk Douglas). But in ‘Gunfight’ they are merely representative of two archetypes indigenous to the movies in general; so coined much later in feminist literature as the virgin and the whore. Generally, I’m not a fan of such scholarship retroactively applied to artisans who never believed, understood, appreciated, or embraced it. Reach back far enough into the imagination and you can twist just about any artwork to suit a particular interpretation. But in Gunfight’s case the feminist perspective seems to aptly fit.
Auburn-tress vixen, Laura Denbow is the more virtuous of the two women, casually tossing Wyatt a coin after he releases her from jail and slyly instructing him to buy a better fitting halo to compliment his saintly façade. The platinum floozy, Kate epitomizes the ‘fallen woman’ with the proverbial heart of gold, jaded and prematurely aged on the surface, but still caught believing in wishing wells and rainbows as she desperately tries to pick up the tatters of her imploding relationship with Doc. Rhonda Fleming is decidedly more underused in the film. Her part starts off promising; her not so cute, chance meeting with Wyatt (he arrests her for gambling because women have no place in a saloon) generating considerable sparks via some fairly snappy dialogue. Regrettably, Laura quickly regresses into the background as love-struck fodder for the would-be lover; a guy whose current halo really is on too tight. Jo Van Fleet’s Kate doesn’t fair much better, although she remains a fixture in the plot right until the bitter end.
History teaches that the real Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were archetypal men of action and decision; their ensconced iconography as gallant figures of the old west made even more butch and brave by the casting of Hollywood he-men – Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster – to fill their formidable boots. But the complicated relationship between the real Doc and Wyatt appears to have impugned the buddy/buddy template Leon Uris is cribbing from to jump start a similar alliance in this movie. Wyatt and Doc start out on a slightly adversarial note, verbally sparring throughout most of their bro-mance, before ending up a united front against the movie’s villains - the Clantons.
Ultimately, Uris has chosen to represent the similarities in Doc and Wyatt’s mindset, rather than make any legitimate attempt to flesh out either character as an independently functioning entity. Doc is Wyatt at a later juncture down a similar life path; their intersection at a particularly introspective crossroads – at least for Wyatt – altering his decision to abandon his ‘halo’ for the love of a good woman. Once again, Uris’ screenplay endeavors to make counterpoints of the Doc/Kate and Wyatt/Laura relationships. Neither romance is satisfactory, or ever resolved to the audience’s satisfaction by the time the movie’s 122 minutes have expired.
The least successful are the Wyatt/Laura musings, drawn with very broad brush strokes from the axiomatic ‘opposites attract’ paradigm. Wyatt is almost instantly attracted to this feisty gal who could out con most men at the poker table and still find time to be femininely flirtatious. But he suppresses his natural male urge to pursue her, instead resorting to a ridiculous faux chivalry – placing Laura under arrest, merely for doing as the boys do, though rather obviously meant to keep her all to himself…at least, for a very brief time.
Doc senses Wyatt’s truer motives and arrives at the jail to spring Laura from her cell. But that’s about as far as Doc’s friendship with Laura will go. Besides, he has his own romantic woes; namely Kate, who loves him so much she’d rather see him dead than alone. Our introduction to the Kate/Doc affair is tempestuous to say the least. He wields a knife at her after she ridicules his southern gentry. She reciprocates by retrieving the blade stuck in a nearby wall and attempting to plunge it into her beloved’s heart. Oh yeah…they’re in love for sure.
Later, after being spurned by Doc one too many times, Kate takes up with his arch nemesis, Johnny Ringo (John Ireland). But it isn’t love – just sex – or rather, merely assumed behind closed doors. After Wyatt’s brother, James (Martin Milner) is gunned down by the Clantons and Ringo at a midnight ambush near the OK Corral, Kate returns to Doc’s side; his brutal attempt to choke the life out of her, thwarted by a fairly violent coughing spell brought on by his rapidly advancing tuberculosis. Neither Kate nor Doc is the ‘forgive and forget’ type, but each comes to their senses, realizing they cannot do without the other.
In Gunfight at the O.K. Corral we are seeing two great stars – Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster – at the pinnacle of their powers; real actors applying the craft that made both men indelible icons in the cinema firmament. These are towering figures in movie lore and they lend immediate and lasting credence to any movie they appear in - even before they appear on camera. Without them, ‘Gunfight’ is just a B-grade melodrama gussied up in color and widescreen. Douglas’ Doc is undeniably the flashier roll, prone to bouts of well-placed and even better-timed violence; as in the moment where he unexpectedly pierces gunslinger, Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef) with his flying switchblade, or in the scene when he slowly closes the door to Kate’s hotel room; a pair of equally bone-chilling daggers protruding from his menacing eyes. And Douglas is so right for the part of this doomed card player turned noble companion on Wyatt’s knight’s errand.
There’s an intuitively animalistic, though genuinely majestic quality to Doc’s subtle transformation. Douglas’ performance takes Doc from implacable scallywag, looking out for number one, to careworn crusader on a cause more worthy of his skills. On the flipside is Burt Lancaster’s taciturn, yet self-sacrificing lawman. Lancaster’s reputation is largely built on this model of silent dignity; his repertoire consisting of stoic figures hard-won in their victories, quietly embittered by life but still clear-eyed and capable of seeing the world and the people in it without any subterfuge. It’s a winning combination for the movie and a genuine plus that helps sustain the audiences’ interest until the climax.
We begin in Fort Griffin, Texas; a gritty little hamlet where gunslinger, Ed Bailey has come to avenge the death of his brother, put in the ground at Boot Hill by John H. ‘Doc’ Holliday. Knowing Bailey is up to no good, Doc’s gal-pal, Kate, hurries back to their shared hotel room to forewarn him trouble is coming. The two incessantly bicker about Doc’s sullen fatalism; Kate attempting to goad him to see things her way by sarcastically criticizing his once-prominent southern lineage. Taking out his aggressions, Doc flings one of his knives into the wall just beyond Kate’s head. She responds by attempting to attack Doc with his weapon, though not really. Like all her motivations yet to follow, Kate is the ‘faithful as a birddog’ type and can’t be devious for very long. She desperately wants to be Doc’s girl. But he’s grown aloof and bitter toward her – perhaps already conscious of the fact he is slowly dying.
Running a parallel course is Wyatt Earp’s arrival to Fort Griffin, believing he has come to arrest and take Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) and Johnny Ringo into custody. Instead, Wyatt discovers that the local sheriff, Cotton Wilson (Frank Faylen) has released both men, despite their outstanding warrants. Red flags go up. Wyatt badgers Cotton, then later, Doc, who has a natural disregard for all lawmen – but particularly Wyatt’s brother, Morgan (DeForest Kelley) and absolutely refuses to help. Confronting Bailey at the bar, Doc surprises the belligerent gunslinger with an expert knife-throw. The blade fatally strikes Bailey in the chest. As a lynch mob begins to gather, Kate pleads with Wyatt to help Doc escape. A lawman first and foremost, Wyatt is also not without compassion. After all, the mob doesn’t want justice. They want Doc’s head mounted on their wall. So, Wyatt decides, at the last possible minute, to help the Doc and Kate flee into the night after Kate sets fire to a nearby hayloft, thereby drawing attention away from their ride to freedom.
Not long after, Wyatt and Doc’s paths crisscross again, this time in Dodge City, Kansas. Dodge is a perfectly peaceful town. It doesn’t need the likes of Doc Holliday to stir things up. So Wyatt orders Doc to leave. But Doc reveals a legitimate loyalty toward Wyatt for helping save his life. In the first of their many quid pro quos, Wyatt concedes Doc can stay in town, but only if he promises no more killings. Doc agrees to Wyatt’s terms and the bond in their friendship is considerably strengthened. In the meantime, Wyatt becomes distracted by the arrival of Laura Denbow, a ravishing lady gambler who inadvertently breaks the law by playing cards with the big boys. Despite strenuous objections from the saloon’s proprietor, Laura is arrested by Wyatt and taken to jail. Wyatt’s deputy, Charlie Bassett (Earl Holliman) coaxes Wyatt into a reprieve. Actually, it doesn’t take much. Wyatt is attracted to Laura and she knows it. Moreover, she won’t hold her incarceration against him, because she too wholeheartedly reciprocates his affections. Wyatt softens his stance on women gamblers, allowing Laura to play poker in a private room at the saloon.
Wyatt’s deputies form a posse that goes off in search of an outlaw, forcing Wyatt to deputize Doc after bank robbers murder one of the bank’s cashiers. It’s all part of a well-orchestrated ambush by Shanghai Pierce (Ted de Corsia) to get Wyatt out in the open. Instead, Wyatt and Doc stake out the robbers – men loyal to Pierce – by pretending to be asleep, then gunning them down as they approach their camp. Upon his return to Dodge, Doc discovers Kate has left him for Ringo. Back at the saloon, Ringo makes several attempts to incur Doc’s wrath and force him into a showdown, thereby breaking his oath to Wyatt. Instead, Doc refuses to fight. That same evening, Shanghai and his men ride into town. They break up a social gathering at the local dancehall with their slovenly behavior, wreaking havoc on the establishment. But things quiet down – momentarily – after Wyatt and Doc arrive. Ringo once again attempts to coerce Doc into a fight. But only after Ringo draws his six-shooter does Doc respond in kind, deliberately wounding Ringo in the arm. He might just as easily have shot him dead. Still, a promise is a promise.
As far as promises go, Wyatt has made a rather fateful one to Laura; to retire and live plainly and obscurely with her. Wyatt invites Doc to the reception. But Doc is his usually deprecating self, telling Wyatt he’s better at funerals than weddings. Returning to the sheriff’s office for what he believes will be the last time; Wyatt is confronted by an urgent telegram from his brother, Virgil, begging his assistance to help clean up the town of Tombstone, Arizona. Blood, as they used to say, is thicker than water, and Wyatt makes a valiant stab to explain his decision to Laura. She openly tells Wyatt she will never acquiesce to being the wife of a lawman, living in constant fear her husband will brutally die a hero’s death. He professes his undying love, but rides off without her just the same. It is a bittersweet moment, moderately quelled when Doc decides to accompany Wyatt to Tombstone.
Upon their arrival in town, Wyatt learns of Ike Clanton’s crooked plans to ship a thousand head of stolen cattle out of the town. He would have already done it too, except that the Earps control Tombstone’s rail depot. Wyatt’s elder brother, Morgan, heavily criticizes Wyatt’s association with Doc. But Wyatt comes to Doc’s defense, explaining to the family that any gunslinger can remain in town so long as he stays out of trouble. Wyatt’s youngest brother, James confides that he has a girl waiting for him back in California who he intends to marry. Seeing shades of his own predicament mirrored in James’ hunger to settle down, Wyatt vows to bring the Tombstone debacle to a successful conclusion with all speed.
Alas, also in Tombstone is Cotton, the corrupt ex-sheriff of Fort Griffin, who now offers Wyatt a $20,000 bribe if he will allow the Clanton’s stolen cattle to be shipped to Mexico. The money could certainly give Wyatt a head start on his life with Laura. But he refuses to be swayed by greed. Instead, Wyatt rides to the Clanton’s farm with their youngest son, Billy (Dennis Hopper) who has been caught drunk and disorderly in town. Wyatt attempts to give the lad some solid advice. Gunslinger is not a profession. It’s a death warrant. Billy seems convinced of as much, but later rejoins his family out of a sense of flawed honor.
The Clantons, Ringo and Cotton conspire to murder Wyatt later that evening as he makes his rounds in town. Kate, who has overheard the plot, says and does nothing. But James decides to go on the rounds in his brother’s stead. In the darkness, Ike’s men confuse James for Wyatt and shoot him in cold blood. Wyatt is now out for revenge – not justice. Doc, whose tuberculosis has rapidly advanced, urges Wyatt to simply walk away. But it’s no use. At dawn, the Earps will confront the Clantons at the OK Corral.
In the meantime, Doc returns to his hotel room to find Kate pensively waiting. He ruthlessly confronts her about the Clantons’ murder of young James, to which she confesses having prior knowledge of the plot itself, though not its outcome. In response, Doc attacks Kate, her narrow escape achieved only after he suffers a crippling coughing spell that leaves him depleted and lying on the floor. Kate returns to his side. She really does love him after all. At dawn Wyatt comes to Doc’s room to discover that he is ailing badly. Kate shoos Wyatt away. “Can’t you see he’s dying?” she coolly explains. Ah, but there’s still an ounce of life left in Doc, and he proves it by mustering up enough energy to rejoin Wyatt for his showdown with the Clantons at the corral.
In a blazing display of marksmanship, Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan and Doc make short shrift of the Clantons; Ike kicking off the battle by shooting one of his own dead – Cotton (who has had an attack of cowardice). Wyatt and Doc finish off the Clantons; all except Billy who is wounded but left to flee back into town, breaking into a local haberdasher’s to take refuge. Reluctant to kill Billy, Wyatt instead pleads with the young man to surrender his pistols and face the consequences of his actions. Naively, Billy takes a potshot at Wyatt. Doc, who has no personal affinity for the boy, shoots Billy from his balcony perch; Billy’s lifeless body plummeting to ground level. The Clantons defeated, Wyatt casts his U.S. Marshal’s tin star at Billy’s feet (a rather glaring rip-off, akin to the realization that hits Gary Cooper’s devoted law man at the end of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon 1952). In their penultimate farewell, Doc – remarkably restored to health - is seated at the poker table. He and Wyatt share a stiff drink before Wyatt gallops off into the sunset, presumably heading to California to be reunited with Laura as planned.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is an ‘okay’ western. Regrettably, it isn’t a magnificent one. The story is too grounded in its melodrama. Worse, it persistently violates the basic precepts of narrative storytelling by constantly shifting not only its locale but also its roster of supporting players. Along the way we lose Earl Holliman’s congenial Charlie Bassett, Rhonda Fleming’s sultry Laura Denbow, and, finally Lee Van Cleef’s dastardly Ed Bailey – the latter, much too soon. Arguably, these are tertiary characters incidental to the main story. Except that the main story – at least, according to the movie’s title – is the gunfight that occupies less than fifteen minutes of the movie’s runtime and serves as its somewhat anti-climactic finale.
The movie’s failing is thus one of plotting and expectation; neither satisfactory fulfilled by all these disquieting backstories, most unraveling to open-ended interpretation. Doc’s miraculous recovery from his fitful bout of tuberculosis is far too idealistic. We never learn what has become of Kate or, for that matter, Wyatt and Laura’s relationship. This lack of resolution is nothing new in the western genre – or movies in general, for that matter - and, in other western movies more particularly, it has its place, and, on occasion, even works spectacularly well. But it’s a tricky device to pull off and one not entirely licked in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. We need to know what became of these men after they said goodbye to each other. It doesn’t work to simply leave Kirk Douglas’ rapscallion/loner shuffling cards at the poker table, or allowing the audience their brief witness of Burt Lancaster’s resigned lawman as he quietly fades into a speck on the stark and lonely horizon. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is interpolated with a ballad sung by Frankie Lane. The latter has woefully dated and more often interrupts (rather than augments) the action whenever Leon Uris’ screenplay has painted itself into a narrative corner. Regrettably, this happens with increasing frequency as the story continues. In the final analysis, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is held together by its two finely wrought male star performances. It really doesn’t get any better than Lancaster and Douglas. Together or apart – they’re at least two of the reasons yours truly fell in love with the movies in the first place.
One could just as easily fall under the spell of Paramount’s sumptuous Blu-ray transfer. Under their present distribution deal with Warner Bros., Paramount is releasing some very fine 1080p discs. At first, I wasn’t entirely convinced of the quality – the credits marginally hampered by some increased grain (the result of optical printing) and the credits themselves ever so slightly wobbling left to right, with minor hints of mis-registration between their recessed black and red lettering. It didn’t look promising, I must admit. Ah, but then the credits end and the image snaps together as it should. This is hi-def done right. We get superb clarity and colors so robust they practically leap off the screen; the ‘wow!’ factor in evidence in every frame. You are going to love this presentation. It’s just that simple. Film grain has been accurately reproduced. Flesh tones are fantastically on point. Contrast is bang on. Just wonderful and much appreciated.
The 5.1 DTS track is also a minor revelation. All movies shot in VistaVision contained no true stereo audio, a goodly number of Paramount’s widescreen releases incorporating the inferior Perspecta-Sound; a sort of rechanneled mono rarely convincing in its mimic of Cinemascope’s six track genuine stereo. But this new 5.1 mix is astounding, and thunderous, revealing a new and vibrant clarity arguably unheard before – either in theaters or on home video. Fantastic! Less so – we get no extra features. Not even an audio commentary. But we won’t complain. The transfer is utterly gorgeous and that is where the studios ought to be putting their money these days. More classics looking absolutely wonderful in hi-def. Bravo! Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)