Tuesday, May 11, 2021

#2,566. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


The date was October 26, 1881

The time, around 3 p.m.

The place: Tombstone, Arizona.

The Earp brothers and Doc Holliday were on one side, and the “Cowboys” - Ike and Billy Clanton, the McLaury brothers and Billy Claiborne - on the other.

Approximately 30 shots were fired, and the melee is said to have lasted no more than 30 seconds. Yet this showdown, which occurred at a small stable on the outskirts of town, is, to this day, the most famous shoot-out in U.S. history.

It has been immortalized time and again on the silver screen, starting in 1932 (the Walter Huston vehicle Law and Order) and as recently as 2017 (Alex Cox’s Tombstone Rashomon). The most noteworthy films to throw a spotlight on this firefight, however, were directed by John Ford (1946’s My Darling Clementine), George P. Cosmatos (Tombstone, released in 1993), and, of course, the great John Sturges, whose 1957 movie is the only one of the three named after this legendary conflict: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

As the movie opens, Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and gunslinger / gambler Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) are in Fort Griffin, Texas, on opposite sides of the law. Holliday is forced to kill Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef), who was looking for revenge (Holliday shot Bailey’s brother, in self-defense). When Holliday is arrested by the sheriff, Wyatt - spurred on by Doc’s girlfriend Kate (Jo Van Fleet) - helps him escape, narrowly avoiding the lynch mob that was forming in the streets below.

From that point on, Wyatt and Doc are friends. Doc settles down in Dodge City, where Wyatt is the law, and even helps Wyatt when Shanghai Pierce (Ted de Corsia) and Johnny Ringo (John Ireland) ride into town.

Wyatt, who has fallen in love with gambler Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), decides to hang up his guns and settle down. That all changes, however, when Wyatt’s brother, Virgil (John Hudson), the sheriff of Tombstone, asks for his help.

It seems Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) has been rustling cattle South of the border, and needs to move the herd through Tombstone to take it to market. Wyatt, joined by his other brothers Morgan (DeForest Kelley), and Jimmy (Martin Milner), ride in to help Virgil stop Clanton and his gang, with Doc Holliday tagging along as well, setting the stage for a showdown unlike any the west has ever seen.

Lancaster delivers a strong performance as the straight-laced Wyatt Earp, a lawman who never backs down from a fight. But it’s Douglas’s turn as the ornery Doc Holliday that steals the show. A drunk with a persistent cough (the real Doc Holliday suffered from tuberculosis), we, like Wyatt, are never sure if Doc can be trusted. He is often drunk, and mistreats Kate, so much so that she eventually leaves him and hooks up with Johnny Ringo. Yet, when the chips are down, each man knows that the other has his back, and it’s watching that friendship grow that gives Gunfight at the O.K. Corral its center.

Director Sturges, who in later years would helm The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, does a fine job staging the film’s various battle scenes, and the supporting cast, which also features Jack Elam (as Tom McLaury) and a young Dennis Hopper (as Billy Clanton), is excellent. But it’s Lancaster and especially Douglas who helped Gunfight at the O.K. Corral rank alongside The Searchers, High Noon, Rio Bravo, and Winchester ’73 as one of the finest westerns of the 1950s.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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