Gunflight at the O.K. Corral (John Sturges, 1957)
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is now over half a century old. I’m just getting round to watching it. Which turned out to be a pretty tall order, if you’re attempting to take it solely on its own merits. I did try. But watching it now, it’s almost impossible to avoid comparing it to George Cosmatos’ wonderful 1992 film Tombstone, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the all-time great westerns (for that matter, it’s #66 on my list of the best movies ever), and thus “taking it on its own merits” is well… impossible, really. And when I put them up against one another, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral comes up short by every metric.
First off, there are the character introductions. Could they have been handled more clumsily? (I’m sure the answer to that question is “yes”, but I don’t want to think about that—this way lies madness, etc.) Insert overly dramatic scene, then throw in the character’s name at the end, in case it hadn’t occurred to you who it is. Melodrama at its… finest? And then there’s… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Plot: this is a romanticized version of the events that took place leading up to October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona (though this film locates much of the setup action in Dodge City, Kansas, nine hundred miles away, for reasons unknown). In short, Wyatt Earp (From Here to Eternity‘s Burt Lancaster), a lawman, and Doc Holliday (Paths of Glory‘s Kirk Douglas), a dissolute gambler slowly succumbing to tuberculosis, cordially despise one another, but find themselves forming a friendship after they keep saving one anothers’ lives. When Wyatt’s brother Virgil (The Screaming Skull‘s John Hudson), the Sheriff of Tombstone, starts trying to bring down the hammer on notorious outlaws the Clanton Brothers, he enlists the help of Wyatt and his other brothers Morgan (Star Trek‘s DeForest Kelley) and James (Martin Milner, who would bat a thousand in a 1957 doubleheader—he would also appear in Sweet Smell of Success with Lancaster). Holliday, entangled in an ugly on-again off-again relationship with a local good-time girl (East of Eden‘s Jo van Fleet), decides to tag along, and the stage is set for what Wikipedia calls “the most famous gunfight in the American west”, though they go on to note that in reality, it probably lasted around thirty seconds.
Okay, if you’ve read my reviews for any length of time, you’ve probably heard me go off on the subject of the emotional shortcut, which is where Hollywood hands you something—a musical cue or a particular camera angle or something like that—and you are supposed to interpret this as “oh, this character feels this way!” Well, let me introduce you to the most ridiculous instance of the emotional shortcut I have ever encountered. The first time we meet Laura Denbow (Spellbound‘s Rhonda Fleming), Wyatt Earp is throwing her in jail for causing a public disturbance. (Ms. Denbow is a well-known high-stakes poker player, and Earp doesn’t want women playing poker. No, I’m not kidding you here.) The second time we meet Laura Denbow, Wyatt Earp is taking her out on a date. And the third time, well, he’s proposed, she’s accepted, and she’s reading him the riot act for traipsing off to Tombstone after she made him promise, as a condition of her saying yes, that he would retire from the lawman’s game. While I was watching this movie, I realized Hollywood has actually come a long way in the emotional shortcut game, because we don’t even get those cues. We just get a tell-don’t-show romantic subplot that serves no purpose in the movie other than that in 1950s Hollywood, you had to have a romantic subplot (there is no better, and more idiotic, example of this than in The Thing from Another World). But man, they didn’t even try.
Sturges put together a fantastic cast for this one (even if some of them phoned it in—hard to believe this is the same Burt Lancaster from Sweet Smell of Success). Too bad they didn’t have a script to match. **
At least as far as Youtube is concerned, the trailer for the film no longer exists. Here’s the opening credits.