Tuesday, July 12, 2005

It Came From Netflix! Hour of the Gun (1967)

Ten years earlier, director John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) had made a movie about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday entitled Gunfight at the OK Corral. Starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, it was a wildly popular film, although a recent viewing of it left me distinctly underwhelmed.

Still, as the film ended with the titular gun battle, there was a good half of the real life story left, and Sturges returned to Earp and Holliday with the obvious intention of being a bit more true to life than the malarkey-filled first film. Hour announces its intentions with at the beginning with a card reading “This is the way it really happened”, or somesuch. That proves incorrect, although the movie is quite a bit more accurate than Gunfight. (Of course, Gunfight as a retelling of the Earp/Holliday story is just slightly more accurate than, say, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.)

The sequel starts rather than ends with the famous gunfight—which is not portrayed with perfect accuracy, but is at least much closer to the facts than the version that ended Gunfight—during which the McLaury Brothers and Billy Clanton are killed. This is witnessed by Billy’s urbane older brother, cattle rancher/rustler Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan), who had set things up as an attempted ambush.

Here, however, the gang known as The Cowboys is acknowledged, with a young John Voight appearing as real life outlaw Curly Bill Brocius, although here Clanton is misportrayed as the group’s leader. (Johnny Ringo, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen, perhaps because he was un-historically killed during the OK gunfight in the previous film.)

Among the major Earp movies, and prior to the much more rigorously factual Tombstone and (even more so) Wyatt Earp, the movies tended to give the Clantons more weight than they really deserved. I assume this was to streamline the story—the Cowboys aspect really expands the historical cast and complexity of the tale—and because of the plotting neatness of contrasting a ‘bad’ family (the Clantons) against a ‘good’ one (the Earps, along with Wyatt’s surrogate brother Holliday).

In real life, the story of Tombstone revolved around the fact that, in simple terms, some of the town and most of the establishment supported the Earps’ sometimes heavy-handed efforts to civilize a rowdy cow town, and other segments of the populace preferred a more lawless atmosphere. Thus you had the Cowboys and their pocket County Sheriff, Johnny Behan*, on one side, and the Earps and the town’s mayor, etc., on the other.

[*As in Gunfight, Behan is represented, but by a fictional character, here named Bryan. I’m not sure why Behan got the kid gloves treatment, since many more real life people appear here under their real names than had happened in previous versions.]

After the OK Corral Gunfight, Morgan and Virgil Earp—Virgil, by the way, was the town Marshall of Tombstone, not Wyatt, although here, as was common, they switch that around—were ambushed. Virgil lost the use of an arm, and kid brother Morgan died. After that, the surviving Earps and their families made to debark to California, while Wyatt, after procuring the position of federal Marshall (and following another assassination attempt against the Earps), returned to Tombstone and cleared out the Cowboys, with Holliday riding as part of his posse.

There’s no doubt that Hour is a better movie than Gunfight, with an atypically grim James Garner—he never seems entirely easy playing exactly the sort of stiff-spined cowboy hero that was continuously mocked on his sly TV show Maverick—as a vengeful Wyatt and Jason Robards (a much more appropriate choice than the earlier Kirk Douglas) as Holliday.

Hour is a lot more accurate, too, although that leaves a lot of ground for fictionalization. One major fallacy is that it again posits Ike Clanton as the head bad guy, and the finale of the film has Wyatt traveling to Mexico to kill him. In real life, Clanton was killed years later by a guy whose detective credentials were a correspondence course diploma.

By the time this was made, Westerns were getting ‘mature,’ and the film is meant as a gritty look at what drove Wyatt. The film’s tagline, repeated twice verbally in the trailer, was “Hero With a Badge, or Cold-Blooded Killer?” In real life, the answer was, most probably, both. In any case, despite the attempts at presenting a more realistic take on Earp, the film today still seems naïve. They are entirely too on the nose about raising the issue of whether he was a one-dimensional good guy, as he’d always been played in movies and TV prior to this, or instead was driven by a thirst for revenge. Of course, nowadays we don’t buy the White Hat stuff anyway, and a man looking to get the guys who killed his brother seems pretty reasonable.

The worst scene in this regard is the most explicit about the subject, as Robards’ Holliday spells the whole theme out in a speech to Garner’s taciturn Earp. To anyone who knows the story, the idea that a gunsharp like Holliday would fear a lust for vengeance was corrupting his friend is laughable. In real life, Holliday helped Wyatt track down his opponents, and one doubts they ever intended to just arrest all of them.

Personally, I found the film more interesting as a look at the evolving Hollywood portrayal of Earp and Holliday than anything else, although again it’s quite a bit better than its immediate predecessor. Once more, though, both Tombstone and Wyatt Earp are hugely better movies, and gigantically more accurate to boot. And John Ford’s earlier My Darling Clementine might be filled with as much Hollywood bushwah as any version, but at least it’s a great film. Sturges’ films still have their fans, but I don’t expect their circle to grow larger with the years.

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