Saturday, 14 January 2012

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

Dir. John Sturges
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet

Hollywood has always been fascinated by the myth of the Wild West. By ‘myth’ I don’t mean to say that the Wild West didn’t exist – it surely did. Once beyond the frontiers of the ever-expanding United States it was a free-for-all where folk could strike it rich or die penniless, where law could be imposed only at the barrel of a gun – and where the man with the biggest gun made the law. No, the ‘myth’ that Hollywood loved was that there were good guys and bad guys, and that you could tell them apart.

The good guy in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is the lawman Wyatt Earp, a stern, noble clean-shaven law-enforcer, somewhat stiffly played by Burt Lancaster. The film starts with his entry into Fort Griffin, Texas, on the trail of the cattle-rustling Clanton clan. He arrives too late; he does, however, manage to prevent the lynching of a gambler. He then heads back to his post as Marshal of Dodge City, Kansas. He keeps the peace by making all visitors surrender their firearms at the ‘deadline’ south of town. It is here that he meets the gambler Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming). It is his attraction to her that makes him want to give up his dangerous life and instead start a farm in California with her as his wife. But the demands of duty and family cannot be outrun – a telegram from his brother Virgil, a lawman in Tombstone, Arizona, alerts him to the presence of the outlaw Clantons. He heads to Tombstone to stand alongside his brothers and clean up the town. He is such a Dudley Do-Right!

The Clantons are just one of a variety of bad guys he meets along the way. They are easy to spot – they are rough-talking, rowdy, heavy drinkers, keen to go for their guns but cowardly when confronted. In Dodge Wyatt is able to face down first a drunken gambler defending Laura’s honour and then later an entire mob of fresh-off-the-prairies trigger-happy cowpokes under the leadership of Shanghai Pierce (Ted de Corsia) and perennial gun-for-hire Johnny Ringo (John Ireland). The moral? A stern unwavering gaze and the courage that righteousness provides can see a man through against incredibly unfavourable odds.

The interest in the film comes from Wyatt’s reluctant budding friendship with the gambler whose life he saves in Fort Griffin at the start of the film. This gambler is John ‘Doc’ Holliday, a consumptive ex-dentist. Kirk Douglas plays him with exactly the right blend of roguish charm. He doesn’t gloss over Doc’s temper or his mistreatment of his woman, soiled desert rose Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), but knowing that his ailment will kill him before long powers his devil-may-care attitude. “I don’t lose”, he tells Wyatt, “because I have nothing to lose – including my life”. If you want to imagine him, think of a proto Han Solo with a moustache. And when Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef) comes looking for him in Griffin, yes, Han shoots first (well, throws a knife). But he shows up in Dodge City because he owes Wyatt his life, and he is determined to pay off that debt. He does this by riding out as a deputy to track down a gang of bank robbers and then standing beside Earp against Shanghai Pierce’s mob. Debt repaid. But Doc then joins Wyatt on the journey to Tombstone, for no other reason than the growing respect the two now feel for each other. He forces himself from his sickbed to join the Earps as they confront the Clantons in their climactic showdown at the O.K. Corral: “If I‘m going to die, at least let me die with the only friend I’ve ever had!” And Wyatt needs Doc to do the things that he, the paragon, cannot. Wyatt is the hero – he would never have been able to kill the wounded young Billy Clanton (a worryingly baby-faced Dennis Hopper). Doc is the antihero – he shoots Billy and saves Wyatt’s life. 

I'm O.K., you're O.K.
Doc, Wyatt, Virgil & Morgan do the power strut

Of course, the real story of the shootout at the O.K. Corral was not quite so clear-cut. For starters, it didn’t even take place at the O.K. Corral (it happened in Tombstone's Fremont Street nearby). It was a close-range, quick scuffle that left three dead. Ike Clanton escaped alive. And Johnny Ringo – with whom Holliday had a feud, though not over Kate – was not even there. The Earps, representing the town, business and Republican interests, held various positions as lawmen. Against these were ranged the ‘cowboys’ – the Clantons and McLaurys, the ranchers and Democrats who lived outside the town (and who had the sheriff on-side). Both sides were endeavouring to expand their business empires, and both used less-than-pristine means to do it. There is conflicting evidence about how the gunfight started, though the Earps were later acquitted of three counts of murder. The bad-blood between the families continued, however, with assassination attempts on Virgil (unsuccessful) and Morgan (successful) Earp, and Wyatt leading a vendetta ride to hunt down the men he thought responsible.

All the same, within the parameters of Hollywood which dictated that there had to be a ‘hero’, the film of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a good movie – if slightly overlong. The action does not even switch to Arizona until well over half-way through, instead focusing on the crossing paths of Wyatt and Doc, with some romantic sub-plots thrown in. The screenplay by Leon Uris has plenty of moments of tension and sudden violence and plenty of good lines for Douglas to enjoy. It has everything I expected from a Western of its era: clear distinctions between the white hats and the black hats, stock ‘Western’ interiors (well lit saloons, sheriff’s offices and hotel rooms that all look alike) and exteriors (wood-fronted main streets and scenes out in the countryside surrounded by the same boulders and trees in slightly different configurations). It is only when the shot changes to a genuine exterior shot as horses gallop across the chaparral or clop past the various ‘Boot Hills’ (cemeteries) that one gets a feel for a real world as opposed to the sanitised freshly-constructed studio one. These scenes also give the story the feel of an epic folk tale, courtesy of Dimitri Tiomkin’s charging score and Frankie Laine’s singing.

What have I learnt about Arizona?
That its early years were turbulent ones. With the law spread very thin on the ground those with the will or the muscle could make themselves a fortune - Wyatt is offered $20,000 to look the other way, with this contrasted against a lawman’s pension of $20 a month. There was friction between the townsfolk, and those that lived out on the prairie ranching / herding / stealing cattle. The latter were welcome in town for their money, but their rough and rowdy ways caused friction and had to be controlled. As Shanghai Pierce declares when busting into a church dance, he and his men were not ‘civilised’ enough for the snobby townsfolk.

Can we go there?
Well, first I should point out that the bulk of the film was shot at the Paramount studios in L.A. or just outside the city. Some of the movie was filmed on location in Arizona, however, not far from Tombstone at the Old Tucson Studios. Many films were shot here including Arizona, Rio Bravo, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Three Amigos, Tombstone and the original version of 3:10 to Yuma. TV series included The High Chaparral and Little House on the Prairie. Each added more buildings to the sprawling set, which can now be toured. The experience includes stunt shows, gunfights and saloon bar girls and looks lots of fun!

And if you’ve made it as far as Tucson, you might as well continue south-east towards the Mexican border and visit Tombstone itself, 'the town too tough to die'. The town centre has been preserved as a National Historical Landmark District, and visitors can see where the infamous gunfight took place. This too has daily live performances and frequent festivals.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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