Wednesday, June 22, 2005

It Came from Netflix: Gunfight at the OK Corral (1958)

This proved a well-mounted, star studded, thoroughly professional studio Western. However, its flaws outweighed its strengths. Unsurprisingly based around the titular gun-battle, most of the film revolves around the growing friendship between the straight-laced lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and tubercular gambler/gunslinger Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas). The film concludes after the gunfight between the Earps and Holliday on one side and the Clanton and Lowrey Brothers on the other.

The film is ably—if not with much inspiration—directed by John Sturges (there’s a weird gag in the movie referencing the ‘Sturges Place’), who knew his way around a Western, most notably The Magnificent Seven. Ten years later Sturges would make Hour of the Gun, a follow-up film featuring the adventures of Earp (James Garner) and Holliday (Jason Robards Jr.) following the events in Tombstone. That as well has sort of a middling reputation.

The main problem with this film is that it looks pretty bad, both as a movie and as a historical retelling, compared to the recent Tombstone and Kevin Costner’s concurrent Wyatt Earp. Personally, I prefer the latter, although Tombstone is a very fun movie. In any case, either of those is heads and shoulders above this one.

Compared to those, this entry is almost comically artificial. Several outdoor sequences are shot on obvious sets. Real life characters are fictionalized. Sheriff Johnny Behan, a rival of the Earps, inexplicably becomes the fictional Cotton Wilson, Wyatt’s actress love Josie Marcus is recast as a gambler (?) named Laura Denbow, etc. And in emphasizing Earp and Holliday’s relationship, the movie wrongheadedly minimizes that of the Earp Brothers.

Meanwhile, the gunfight, mentioned in the very title, is woefully misrepresented. First of all, it didn’t actually take place in the OK Corral. More to the point, it involved a nearly pointblank exchange of shots between two groups standing directly opposite each other, and was probably over in under a minute. Here the gunfight lasts a good five minutes and involved people running all over the place. Even more oddly, the Earps well-known matching black suits and Stetsons are not employed here, surrendering a riveting visual that was historically accurate to boot.

If you’re looking for a film that relates the facts with a light hand, you should stick with My Darling Clementine, which is at least a markedly superior movie. Indeed, you could do worse for a weekend’s viewing then watching that, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp.

The cast is fun, but not as much as you’d expect from the opening credits. A veritable roster of famous character and TV actors are on hand, but most of them have but cameos. Even so, it’s hard not to enjoy a cast that includes John Ireland, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, DeForest Kelly, Whit Bissell, Earl Holliman, Dennis Hopper, Martin Milner and Kenneth Toby. How they heck they missed Strother Martin, I’ll never know.

Big name actors have been drawn to Earp and Holliday since they started making movies, but neither of the stars here does much with their role. Lancaster is playing Lancaster more than Earp, and the film’s insistence on portraying him as a typical one-dimensional Western Lawman sucks much of the juice out of the part. Certainly Lancaster isn’t nearly in the class of either Henry Fonda, Kurt Russell or Costner, all of whom do a much, much better job as Earp. Lancaster’s Earp is all straight spine and those Lancaster clenched teeth, and his romantic scenes in particular are almost painful.

Douglas is even worse as Holliday, mostly because he’s so woefully miscast. Douglas was in his manly prime here, and his suits couldn’t disguise the fact that his massively muscled torso was laughably inappropriate for a TB sufferer. Frankly, Douglas’ Holliday looks awful compared to Victor Mature’s in Clementine, and Mature isn’t remembered as the world’s greatest actor. Even more so is Douglas blown out of the water by Val Kilmer (Tombstone) and Dennis Quaid (Wyatt Earp), both of who provided one of the best supporting actor performances of the last ten or twenty years.

Gunfight at the OK Corral will be of interest mostly to omnivorous Western fans and Earp buffs. It’s an acceptable timewaster, but again, you’d be much better off with one of the other versions of this venerable tale.


At 7:11 AM, Anonymous twitterpate said...

Ken, I must complement your skill at finding and comparing movies like this. I've now got the urge for an "all Earp evening". Of course, any excuse to watch [b]My Darling Clementine[/b] again would be appealing.

At 1:10 PM, Blogger Sandy Petersen said...

Another good choice for such an evening woulld be THE WESTERNER and JUDGE ROY BEAN. Two looks at the same man, from opposite sides of the coin. In THE WESTERNER, Bean is the villain, in keeping with 40s mores. In JUDGE ROY BEAN he's the renegade hero.

The reason I thought of these two was because Bean in THE WESTERNER is played by my hero Walter Brennan, who does such a bang-up job as the villain in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.


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