I love Gunfight at the OK Corral. It is a completely classic straight-down-the-line Western, which came out in the late 50s, the very peak of Western greatness, after which, honestly, it was a story of decline. Its protagonists, Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday, were rarely better – OK, Burt was better in Ulzana's Raid, Kirk in Lonely Are the Brave, but I did say rarely. Great music, wonderful supporting cast, lovely cinematography of classic locations, tension, love interest, gunplay, it’s all there.
Of course, for true Earpists it’s complete bunkum. Rarely has a movie played so fast and loose with history. No, that’s not right. John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (in which Old Man Clanton and Doc Holliday were killed at the OK Corral) was even greater historical hooey. Randolph Scott as the first screen Wyatt Earp (well, apart from Bert Lindley as a cameo Wyatt in William S Hart’s 1923 silent Wild Bill Hickok) in Frontier Marshal in 1939 was sillier still. But John Sturges and his writer Leon Uris certainly felt they had carte blanche to fool around with history. And they made the most of it.
It doesn’t matter. We don’t watch Western movies to get at the historical truth. We have documentaries and history books for that. We want Westerns to be heroic, exciting, gripping, with Western tropes we recognize and love, and Gunfight at the OK Corral gives us that in spades.
Doc and Wyatt
Rather like Kevin Kostner’s 1993 Wyatt Earp, OK Corral tries to telescope much of the career of Earp into one movie, which was perhaps a mistake. We open in Fort Griffin, move to Dodge and end up in Tombstone. Writer Uris introduced a theme which would bind the disparate scenes and events together by having Wyatt pursue Ike Clanton (great! It’s Lyle Bettger!) and Ringo (John Ireland) even in Fort Griffin, then making Ringo Shanghai Pierce’s right-hand gunman in Dodge, and then putting Ringo at the OK Corral fight. Sheriff Behan has become Fort Griffin marshal Cotton Wilson (great to see Frank Faylen again) and he then becomes county sheriff down in Tombstone. Nonsense, of course, but it does do its best to tie together a screenplay which is about as far away from the classical unities of Greek tragedy as you could possibly get.
Ireland is Ringo, Bettger is Ike
Paramount and Hal Wallis spared no expense. They got John Sturges to direct. He had done the excellent The Walking Hills with Randolph Scott in 1949 and equally good Escape From Fort Bravo with William Holden in '53, and he was on a roll after the outstanding contemporary Western Bad Day at Black Rock in '55. Dimitri Tiomkin was commissioned to do the music (and it was superb). Leon Uris was pre-Exodus but a well-known writer (though not for Westerns). He came up with a clever script which flirted with disaster: he has James Earp say, “Awful quiet. Too quiet.” And Lancaster has to deliver the line, “There’s stage for Abilene in the morning. You be on it.” Yet these come across as affectionate quotations rather than rip-off clichés. And some of the other lines are brilliant.
And talking of affectionate quotations/clichés, the picture opens with a Tiomkin/Ned Washington ballad behind Lee Van Cleef and two other obvious bad guys riding down into town for vengeance. Sound familiar? I even thought one of the other bad guys was Robert J Wilke for a moment, but sadly it was only a lookalike. I am sure this was Sturges playing with us. It works, too.
Van Cleef goes for his derringer
And the character actors! John Ireland is an excellently malevolent hired gun Ringo. Lyle Bettger is Ike Clanton – splendid! Good tough guy Ted de Corsia is Shanghai Pierce – a very gun totin’ and un-law-abidin’ cattle-baron Shanghai Pierce, who has put a thousand dollar price on Wyatt’s head. Young Dennis Hopper is Billy Clanton in a well-developed role (he toys with abandoning the Clantons for the side of law ‘n’ order). Kenneth Tobey is (briefly) Bat Masterson.
Bat and Wyatt in Dodge
Lee Van Cleef is the character Ed Bailey who in the first reel wants to gun down Doc – and with a derringer, to boot! Great. Olive Carey is Mrs. Clanton – too high quality for such a small part, she brilliantly comes across, despite having hardly anything to say, as a doubting, worried Ma James-ish figure. And the great Jack Elam is one of the McLowerys (as they are spelled). Whit Bissell is Clum. Frank Faylen is the Behan-figure sheriff. Franklyn Farnum is a barfly in the saloon and Glenn Strange the Great is a Pierce henchman. It really is a top-class line-up! Half the fun of watching the movie is Western character-actor-spotting.
The real Shanghai and Ted
As for the Earp brothers, DeForest Kelley is OK as Morgan but Virgil and James (John Hudson and Martin Milner) are pretty well non-entities. I think it may have been deliberate. Directors and casting people tended to prefer bland Earp brothers so as not to risk overshadowing the great hero. For of course, as always, Wyatt is portrayed as the top dog. He is the marshal, he bosses the others around. In reality, Wyatt was never marshal of anywhere, not even Dodge, only constable, assistant marshal or deputy. But Stuart Lake (and Mrs. Earp) always talked of him as the leading clan member. And Hollywood cemented this notion.
And once again, following Ford, James has become the cadet. It’s odd, this. James Earp (1841 - 1926) was the oldest brother and later a saloon and brothel keeper in various cow towns but in movies he is nearly always shown as the baby of the family, rather innocent. It is because the boy is gunned down in My Darling Clementine that Wyatt changes his mind and takes the marshal’s badge in Tombstone.
On the set
What about the women? Often, Sturges, in common with many a director, didn’t worry very much about them in Westerns. Women were there to be decorative adjuncts to the real players, the men. In reality, Wyatt Earp abandoned his common-law wife Mattie, a laudanum-addicted ex-prostitute, for a showgirl, Sarah Marcus, known as Sadie, who was detested by Virgil’s wife Allie (who called her “a strumpet”). None of this is shown, though. It wouldn’t do in a heroic Wyatt picture. So a new character is invented, Laura Denbow, glam lady gambler, played by lovely Rhonda Fleming. Wyatt meets her in Dodge and in scenes very reminiscent of John Wayne and Angie Dickinson two years later in Rio Bravo (director Howard Hawks and writer Leigh Brackett must have seen OK Corral) after first disapproving, the lawman falls for her charms.
Ripped off directly in Rio Bravo
Doc Holliday’s woman is ‘Kate Fisher’ (again). She is played by Jo Van Fleet (brilliant as an old lady in The King and Four Queens the year before) as a slightly tarty abused woman. She has a perfectly normal-sized proboscis though and is never addressed as Big-Nose Kate. Holliday’s mistress was in fact Mary Katherine Horony-Cummings, a Hungarian-born prostitute who eventually died in Prescott, AZ in 1940, aged 89. But for some reason she is usually named Kate Fisher (or Elder) in Earp movies. In this movie she goes in with the Clantons, which doesn’t please Doc at all.
The other Earp wives are forgettable non-people in the movie.
The late 50s were a very pro-Earp period. The anti-Earpists were for the moment vanquished (they would return though). John Ford had given us a very pro-Earp picture after the war (My Darling Clementine was historical tosh but great art and Henry Fonda a splendid Wyatt) and in September 1955 The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp launched on ABC and became enormously popular. It purported to be factual (it wasn’t, of course) and many viewers swallowed the pro-Earp line hook and sinker. So Sturges and Uris (using The Killer, an article by George Scullin, as a starting point) had no qualms about giving us a heroic law-and-order Wyatt, with Lancaster as an absolutely classic frontier lawman.
Hopper is Billy Clanton: do the right thing or stand by your clan?
So the late-50s were the high water mark of Earps who could do no wrong. And this Western has not a hint of self-questioning revisionism, or ‘end of the West’ tone. 60s Westerns (think of The Magnificent Seven at the start of the decade or The Wild Bunch at the end) were about gunfighters as dinosaurs, out of place in an increasingly modern world and feeling they had nowhere to go except perhaps to tread the way to dusty death. No such doubts trouble Wyatt as he strides down Allen Street with his Buntline Special. He is out to dominate the bad guys and bring law ‘n’ order to the wild frontier. This Western looks forward, not back.
Visually, Gunfight at the OK Corral is excellent. It was photographed in Technicolor VistaVision by Charles Lang (“Charlie Lang, one of the greats,” as James Coburn said) who had worked on two The Virginian versions (1923 and 1929), and did The Man from Laramie for Anthony Mann. Later he would do Last Train from Gun Hill for Sturges, also with Kirk Douglas, which used many of the same locations as OK Corral, and, of course, The Magnificent Seven, again for Sturges. He was a fine photographer. The locations are lovely, round Old Tucson and many other sites in Arizona. There are of course a lot of sound-stage interiors and unfortunately the occasional studio ‘exterior’ as well but most of the exteriors are shot outside and are often very beautiful.
More lovely photography
Douglas is very good as Doc. He doesn’t overdo the tubercular coughing. He is dapper in his frock coat and silk vest. He comes across as charming, cynical and deadly. His lifestyle is pretty lethal too with alcohol and tobacco featuring prominently (he says that his idea of healthy living is to be up by noon and take a twenty-yard walk). He knows he is dying and it is that which makes him reckless of his own safety. He might even prefer to go out in a blaze of gunfire than die coughing in bed. It’s a very good performance and Douglas must go down as one of the better Docs, alongside Victor Mature for Ford, Jason Robards in Hour of the Gun (a later Sturges Earp myth), Val Kilmer in Tombstone and Dennis Quaid in the 1994 Wyatt Earp.
Kirk is Doc
Lancaster was probably the screen Wyatt Earp if you go for the implacable good-guy frontier-marshal Earp. Burt gave us an Earp chock-full of integrity, grit and single-minded determination to impose the law. Not even Hugh O’Brian, not Kurt Russell, not Kevin Costner were as good. Henry Fonda, yes, he was magnificent, but Burt even rivals Hank as Wyatt Earp. He is superb. And the developing relationship between the lawman and the consumptive dentist, moving from frank dislike through acceptance to even affection, is well handled.
One of the best ever Wyatts
Sturges made the most of the actual gunfight. The historical thirty-second shootout on Fremont Street between three Earps and Holliday on one side and two Clantons and two McLaurys on the other (with Ike Clanton running away) has been inflated into a massive ten-minute gun battle with seven against the Earp party (Ringo is there too, with the sheriff and an invented Clanton, Finn) and it is choreographed as the characters range all over the corral area, scuttling for cover all over the place. It was certainly the most dramatic OK Corral fight to date, and given that later Earp movies tended to at least try to respect the facts a little more, it will probably remain as the showiest one on film. Wyatt gets Ike with a shotgun (in fact Ike fled the scene and was killed by a detective in June 1887). Doc is winged but gets Ringo (who wasn't even there and died of a gunshot wound, possibly at his own hand, in July 1882). Wyatt is obliged to kill Billy Clanton in Fly’s photographic parlor and then dumps his star. It’s all over.
The final showdown looms
Complete hooey, but I don’t care! It’s thrilling stuff. Well done, everyone. Any Western fan worth his salt will watch this picture. It’s unmissable.
And indeed, it has become one of the most famous Westerns ever. For some years now I have been conducting an experiment (I should probably get a PhD for it). I have been asking non-fans of Westerns (for such poor benighted souls do exist) to name a Western movie. Many come up with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a favorite Western of non-admirers, but seven out of ten first mention Gunfight at the OK Corral. That must mean something.