Favourite Movies

A while ago I was channel-hopping between commercials and came across a movie I hadn't seen in years: 'My Darling Clementine' (John Ford, 1946) starring Henry Fonda and Victor Mature. By chance, another channel was showing the 'Gunfight at the OK Corral (John Sturges, 1957) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Both movies, of course, tell the story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and the famous (or infamous) showdown between the Earps and Clantons on October 26, 1881, in the city of Tombstone, Arizona.

I've always been fascinated by that particular episode in American History, and it struck me that there have been several attempts to put it on the big screen, many of which I've seen.

So here are my favourite 'Wyatt & Doc' movies:

My Darling Clementine:

The film purports to tell the story of how cattle drovers Wyatt Earp and his brothers Morgan and Virgil become lawmen in Tombstone in order to find out who murdered their brother James and stole their cattle.

This will turn out to be Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan in full patriarch mode) and his gang, and with the arrival of gambler and gunman Doc Holliday, the scene is set for the climactic showdown at the OK Corral, after which Wyatt hangs up his guns and moves on.

As a piece of entertainment it's up there with Ford's best. Fonda is of course excellent as taciturn Wyatt, never using more words than necessary, a clean-cut, moral hero for a post-war audience. Brennan is the bad hat, a thoroughgoing villain with no respect for any law but his own. And Victor Mature gives one of the strongest performances of his career as Holliday, if you ignore the fact (as the producers did) that he plays him without any trace of the tuberculosis that ravaged Doc in real life.

In typical John Ford Style, the Arizona desert is played by Monument Valley, Utah.

It works out in the end, of course - law triumphs, evil perishes, antihero finds redemption in heroic sacrifice, hero rides away alone, his work done.

But historically accurate? Sadly not, but then Ford was a romantic...

Gunfight At The OK Corral:

Eleven years later, John Sturges told the Earp/Clanton story in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt, Kirk Douglas as Doc, Lyle Bettger as Ike Clanton and a young Dennis Hopper as Billy Clanton.

The story starts off in Dodge City, Kansas, with Wyatt bringing order to the lawless cow-town at the behest of the local council. It's there that he meets Holliday, a man who, although not perhaps sharing Earp's morals, can be trusted to keep his word. They trade favours, i.e., saving each other's life, before Wyatt decides it's time to move on. He heads for Tombstone, and is joined on the trail by Doc, for whom 'the cards had turned cold'.

It is of course in Tombstone that they encounter the Clantons, cowboys and cattle rustlers, who take none too kindly to the Earps poking their noses in where they don't belong. Things escalate when Wyatt, newly-appointed town marshal, disarms the town and anyone entering it. Doc plays cards.

However, tensions between the Earps and Clantons escalate, culminating the the murder of James Earp (the expendable one). Wyatt gets a message that Ike Clanton wants to settle things once and for all, at the OK Corral on the edge of town.

The Earps and Doc head up the street at dawn, where the Clantons wait.

There is a gunfight. The Clantons lose. Virgil and Morgan Earp are also killed.

The picture closes with Wyatt and Doc leaving town and going their separate ways, passing Boot Hill cemetery on the way out of town.

Again, entertaining if you didn't know the history. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas play off each other excellently, and make their characters three-dimensional (even if they do chew up the scenery a bit).

But in the final analysis (mine anyway) it's a drama, made successful by not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

Hour of the Gun:

A sequel of sorts followed in 1967, when Sturges directed Hour Of The Gun, with James Garner as Wyatt and Jason Robards as Doc. Whether because he was dissatisfied with the original film or wanted to tell the story at a more historically accurate level I'm uncertain, but to me this is a far better picture than the Lancaster/Douglas effort.

The film opens with the caption "This picture is based on fact. This is the way it happened."

There's no flashback, no explanation. You know the four men in black walking down the street are the Earps and Holliday; you know where they're going and why.

The confrontation takes place; three men lie dead, and the story proceeds from there, with the shootings of Virgil and Morgan, Wyatt's subsequent appointment as US Marshal and his so-called 'vendetta' during which he and his men track down everyone involved with the crippling of Virgil and the murder of Morgan.

There's no sentimentality here - no romantic subplots to broaden the appeal (in fact there's only one woman with a speaking part in the picture). This is less a story about justice than about revenge, and James Garner's Wyatt is worlds apart from Burt Lancaster's in Sturges's earlier picture.

Jason Robards is excellent as Holliday, initially supportive of Wyatt, but gradually becoming disillusioned when it becomes obvious that his friend has no intention of returning any of the Clanton men for trial. As they track down Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) in Mexico, Holliday exhorts his friend not to forget the rules he's lived by. Wyatt replies that he's not a complete hypocrite; he's given up on the rules. He takes off his badge and they go to find and kill Clanton.


Almost twenty-five years later, the first of two new versions of the story hit the big screen. The first, directed by George P. Cosmatos (Escape to Athena) appeared in 1993.

It cost half as much as 'Wyatt Earp', which would follow a year later, but returned twice that in receipts. Kurt Russell plays Wyatt as a gambler and entrepreneur who arrives in Tombstone with his brothers (the ever-reliable Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton) and sets up in a local saloon dealing Faro.

Doc Holliday shows up, played here by Val Kilmer, not first choice for the role but definitely the right choice.

Before long they come into conflict with the Cowboys, led by Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Booth) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), to whom Doc takes a particular dislike. Wyatt doesn't want trouble, but things come to a head. Virgil takes the job as town marshal and, with Morgan as his deputy, sets about disarming the town.

A troupe of travelling actors arrives in town, including a spirited young woman named Josephine Marcus (the lovely Dana Delany), who makes it her business to get to know the seemingly-disinterested Wyatt.

Tensions build on both sides; Holliday and Ringo have words on several occasions, one exchange in Latin revealing their educated backgrounds.

There is a gunfight - the Clantons lose. Virgil and Morgan are later shot in reprisal, Virgil crippled, Morgan killed. Wyatt, Doc and some associates form a posse and hunt down the killers.

In this version, the instigators are Curly Bill Brocious and Johhny Ringo, with Ike Clanton portrayed as a cowardly braggart who ultimately escapes Wyatt's vengeance by discarding the red sash worn by the gang while in flight from his pursuers.

Wyatt kills Brocious, while Holliday shoots Ringo, and justice (or vengeance) is served.

A gritty, atmospheric story, realistic production design and dialogue makes this my second favourite version of the legend.

Wyatt Earp:

The following year saw the release of Lawrence Kasdan's take on the saga. Kasdan wrote and directed Silverado in 1985 in what was seen as a revival of the 'classic' Western. The cast included Kevin Costner, and Kasdan went to him to play Wyatt Earp in what was essentially a biopic.

The story, which appears to follow the established facts, follows the young Wyatt growing up in his father's (played by Gene Hackman) house, where he and his siblings are drilled that 'nothing is more important than family'. This forms one of the main themes within the story, and is something Wyatt returns to on occasion.

The famous gunfight takes place, with Wyatt signing on as deputy marshal to his brother, and from there the story follows the subsequent events and Wyatt's vendetta. As with Tombstone, Wyatt's relationship with actress Josie Marcus receives honest coverage.

Costner is his usual solid self, although it seemed to me his performance was a little stilted at times. Dennis Quaid is all but unrecognisable as Holliday, so pale and consumptive-looking that one would be forgiven for thinking he'd taken method acting just a little too far.

But for all that, the movie scored on all the important levels, possibly to the detriment of its box-office.

No accounting for taste.

So there you have it - five movies, one classic, two great, one good, one meh.

For me, Hour of the Gun tops the list, followed by Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, My Darling Clementine and finally Gunfight at the OK Corral. Ford's version would have been higher if he'd worked with the facts - after all, he was supposed to have actually known Wyatt when the lawman worked as a technical advisor in Hollywood. But as I said, he was a romantic...

If you've seen these films, you'll have your own preferences - as ever, opinions and comments are welcome.

Until next time...


SamuraiFrog said…
I always chuckle when I read John Ford's own assessment of Clementine: "It's the true story because that's the way Wyatt Earp told me it happened." I love Victor Mature in that movie; the scene where he's doing the Shakespeare soliloquy and then can't continue because of a coughing fit is an emotional moment for me.

Wasn't that Dr. McCoy who played Virgil Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral? Kirk Douglas is my favorite actor.

Hour of the Gun is a lost gem, and Robards and Garner are both excellent in it. I liked the story as a rumination on the powerful pull of revenge.

Tombstone is my favorite version; there's just so much there, the story's so full. It could've easily been too complex for its own good, and the lapses in taste (Billy Zane, Dana Delaney) are easy to overlook. It's so tense but so powerful.

Wyatt Earp is the only one of these five movies I didn't like; I always remember Roger Ebert's description: "plays like someone took Tombstone and pumped it full of hot air." I could've done without the coda of Earp as an old man with an adoring fan. The whole movie plays a little too earnestly for me. Dennis Quaid is excellent in it, and Costner is mostly solid (stilted is the word I'd use, too), but the rest of the cast is a miss for me. Oddly, I read the novelization a while back, and thought it was much better than the movie.

Great post! I'm fascinated by Wyatt Earp, and I love to see movies about him.
It's a fascinating story - on one level it's told as a simple 'lawman vs. outlaw' tale, but when you dig deeper you find that other issues were in play as well.

I'm waiting on a book from Amazon at the moment called 'Bloody Season'. It's written by Loren Estleman, famous for a series of novels about Detroit-based PI Amos Walker.

Estleman puts a lot into his novels, so I'm interested to see how this one reads.

And yes, it was Dr. McCoy (who also ended up playing one of the McLaurys in the episode "Spectre of the Gun"...