There are certain names and events from the Old West that have captured our country's imaginations so much that their stories get told and retold, with no seeming end to adaptations and interpretations. Jesse James. Billy the Kid. Wyatt Earp. Even people who don't watch westerns or read about the history of the Old West are at least familiar with their names.
And if you've heard of Wyatt Earp, you've probably heard of a certain gunfight he was involved in down in Arizona Territory, in a town called Tombstone, near the Old Kindersley corral. We call I the gunfight or shootout at the O.K. Corral, but it didn't actually take place in the corral, just nearby. If you want to learn about the history of the shootout, the Wikipedia article here is excellent. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about the actual shootout here. Instead I'm going to compare three movies that deal with the events that led up to the gunfight and its aftermath. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Hour of the Gun (1967), and Tombstone (1993). Intriguingly, John Sturges directed both Gunfight and Hour, which I didn't realize until I started writing this post!
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is what I call a "typical western." The Good Guys are tough and generally honorable, the Bad Guys are low-down snakes in the grass, and good triumphs over evil. It begins when Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) is still a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas. Wyatt is on the trail of Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger), who's wanted for various scurrilous activities, and he meets back up with his sometime friend Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) while hunting for Clanton. Later, Wyatt moves to Tombstone to help his brother Virgil (John Hudson) maintain law and order there. Two other Earp brothers, Morgan (DeForest Kelly) and James (Martin Milner) join forces with themtoo, and things heat up between the Earps and the Clantons. Doc Holliday winds up there too, and the titular gunfight is the climax of the movie. Once it's over, things wind up pretty quickly.
Burt Lancaster's Wyatt Earp is strong, morally upright, and sure of himself. Kirk Douglas' Holliday is a firecracker, angry and snarling and unpredictable. Lancaster is supposed to be the star, but Douglas is the better actor and dominates the screen whenever he's in a scene. The rest of the Earp brothers are solid and enjoyable, and this is the only one of the three movies to include James Earp. Lyle Bettger's Ike Clanton isn't particularly fearsome, but he's got the likes of Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam working for him so the bad guys don't lack interest. The title song, sung by Frankie Lane, is catchy and memorable, and the score is by one of my favorite western composers, Dimitri Tiomkin. Overall, this is a great movie to kick back and have fun watching.
James Garner's Wyatt Earp starts out self-righteous and confident, then begins to question himself and spends a lot of the movie struggling to regain his equilibrium. It's a masterful performance from Garner, easily one of his finest. Jason Robard's Doc Holliday becomes Wyatt's moral compass in some ways, which is an intriguing twist on what I had previously thought about the two of them. This Doc is morally corrupt but unflinching in his quest to prevent his friend from becoming like himself. The other Earp brothers are forgettable, but not the focus of the movie anyway. Robert Ryan's Ike Clanton is smooth and slippery and very scary. A young Jon Voight is a stand-out as Curly Bill Brocious.
The score is amazing, by the prolific master Jerry Goldsmith. I just bought this soundtrack, and it is delicious. Overall, this is a deep, thought-provoking movie to watch when you want to wrestle with moral problems and do some character exploration.
Kurt Russell's Wyatt Earp is nice, but not particularly memorable, in my opinion. He's kind of wavery, trying to do the right thing but not always wanting to, and more self-seeking than I like in a Good Guy. But that's okay because Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday owns this movie. He's not conflicted at all about being morally reprehensible, and somehow I just can't dislike him for it. He's comfortable in his own skin, the killer and gambler with the questionable past and no future at all, thanks to his tuberculosis and alcoholism. And these Earp brothers are awesome-- in fact, I like both Morgan and Virgil better than Wyatt. Stephen Lang's Ike Clanton is cringing and whiny, but Michael Biehn's Johnny Ringo is a great adversary, particularly for Doc. And the score is one of my favorites ever,-- a nuanced, fully-orchestrated masterpiece by Bruce Broughton.
Overall, this is a sleek, modern western that never digs deep, but delivers a delightful (but violent) thrill ride.
In sum, I think that Hour of the Gun is the best movie, Tombstone is the most fun movie, and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is enjoyable, but not marvelous. And yes, there are many, many other movies about these characters and this incident, like My Darling Clementine (1946) and Wyatt Earp (1994), but these are the three that I know and like the best.
Thank you Hamlette! :-)