Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday in John Sturges’ slick, star-driven Western

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral(1957), directed by John Sturges and starring Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday, is perhaps the most popular and flamboyant version of the events leading up to (and occurred during) the legendary Gunfight in Tombstone.

On October 26, 1881, Dr. John “Doc” Holliday, allied with the Earp brothers – Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil – in a gunfight against the Clantons and the McLowerys in a field behind the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. The gunfight lasted mere 30 seconds, in which, just thirty-four shots were fired in total , but it passed into legend as the greatest gunfight that ever took place in the history of the American West.

This story has been fodder for American cinema for ages, not surprising, considering that the ‘Western’ was it’s pre-eminent genre up until the 1960s. But the first, and most famous attempt at tackling this story , was made by the legendary director John Ford. He made the highly acclaimed 1946 movie My Darling Clementine, starring a mustachioed Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature as Doc Holliday. Though the film is revered even today for the sheer artistry of Ford; the film was far from faithful to the actual events and characters. Worse, a lot of elements in the film bordered on pure romantic fantasy; with the noble, dignity-personified Fonda being nothing like the ruthless, real-life Wyatt Earp; something that inspired legendary producer Hal B. Wallis(Casablanca) to take another shot at telling the story; this time with an emphasis on sticking as close to reality as possible. Wallis was the main creative force behind several classics made at Warner Bros. during the 1930’s and 40’s, but, after a fallout with Studio head Jack Warner – mainly regarding the producer credit for the Oscar winning Casablanca -, he quit the studio and landed up at Paramount Pictures. At Paramount, he wanted to develop a film version of the legendary gunfight in all it’s gritty realism To this end, he optioned a story called ‘The Killers’ by George Scullin, that told the tale of the Gunfight from the perspective of Doc Holliday. He got the famous writer Leon Uris – the novelist who wrote Exodus – to write the screenplay. As director for the film, Wallis chose John Sturges, an old hand at Westerns, who was just coming off the brilliant Bad Day at Black Rock: a modern Western with Film Noir elements. The original cast envisioned for the film were Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster and Barbara Stanwyck as Doc, Wyatt, and Kate Fisher(Doc’s fiery girlfriend) respectively. But all three of them turned it down. So Wallis turned to his protegee Kirk Douglas, who accepted the role of Doc Holliday, on condition that Lancaster would play Wyatt Earp. But Lancaster turned down the role again. In the end Lancaster accepted the offer after Wallis accepted his condition that he will get to play the lead in The Rainmaker as well. Rhonda Fleming and Jo Van Fleet (who had just won an Oscar for East of Eden), were cast as the two principal female characters: Laura Denbow, the gambler, and prostitute Kate Fisher respectively. Fleming was cast for her striking beauty, Van Fleet for her Method intensity. Lyle Bettger was cast as the chief antagonist Ike Clanton. The impressive supporting cast included Earl Holliman, Dennis Hopper, Martin Milner, Jack Elam, DeForest Kelley, Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef, and John Ireland, who was the reckless Billy Clanton in My Darling Clementine was cast here as Clanton’s hired gun, Johnny Ringo.

For all of Hal Wallis’ claims about telling an authentic tale of the famed gunfight, this film turned out to be as much a fantasy as My Darling Clementine. The original story and characters, which are rather complex and morally ambiguous, are completely modified to fit into the Western genre conventions. I love watching genre pictures, and ‘Westerns’ is my most favorite American film genre, because a) its the most moral of all genres; b) It’s the most mythical of all genres and c)The genre has become totally extinct today, which make me treasure the experience of watching the Westerns from the classical period (or the revisionist period), because i know that i am not going to get that experience from any contemporary movies, or even the future ones. So, I don’t mean it as a put down when i say that the true story has been made generic, because watching a pure ‘western’ film like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is an immensely pleasurable experience. But anybody who has read the history around events preceding and succeeding the real Gunfight will know that the principal characters involved in it were all morally compromised one way or the other; and there are enough doubts about whether the intentions behind the Earps in gunning down the Clantons were purely altruistic. Also, Wyatt Earp’s role in the gunfight will be greatly accentuated and his virtues blown way out of proportions when the History of the west would be written(or rewritten) in the twentieth century. But when you are making a classical Western based on these events, there is no place for any ambiguity. The characters of the story are now neatly arranged on two sides of the moral divide. On the right side of this divide we have Lawman Wyatt Earp, the morally unwavering hero: stoic, courageous and the chief driving force of the film’s narrative; followed by Doc Holliday, the foe turned friend: Flashy, outgoing, a little flawed, physically weak – afflicted with tuberculosis, but still morally strong; there is Kate Fisher, the proverbial whore with a heart of gold, who may switch sides , but in the end would serve the right side; there’s Laura Denbow, Wyatt’s lover: a purely fictitious character to further accentuate the greatness of the heroic protagonist, and who would be cast aside by the hero in the name of duty and family; and finally there are the Earp brothers: Morgan, Virgil and James; the killing of James would trigger the titular gunfight in the film. On the opposite side of the divide is Ike Clanton, Tom McLowery and Johnny Ringo, the members of the dreaded gang of rustlers and thieves known as The Cowboys, who are assisted by Cotton Wilson, the corrupt Sheriff , who used to be Wyatt’s friend, but has now crossed over to the dark side and is now a Clanton stooge.

Now with the good guys and bad guys perfectly delineated, we can look at the plot of the film; the film unfolds rather episodically, which is actually a big deterrent for it being entertaining. We want our films to maintain continuity between events, otherwise, the audience has to keep picking up the pieces of the story repeatedly through the course of the film. But what saves Gunfight from that drawback is the presence of two Hollywood superstars – Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas – who were at the peak of their talents and their charisma. They also whip up a great deal of chemistry between themselves; this is the second time they will be paired, and they would go on to make 7 films together in total, not to mention the fact that they became close friends in real life as well. Gunfight is designed to be a perfect star vehicle; Lancaster and Douglas just play two characters called Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Burt’s clean cut. movie-star looks is a far cry from the original Earp’s mustachioed appearance; Kirk at least has a thin mustache. They do not acquire any of the characters’ behavioral traits or accents. It is mentioned that Doc is from a an affluent family from Georgia, but he hardly speaks like a southerner – unlike Kurt Russel and Val Kilmer in the 1993 film Tombstone, which is perhaps more authentic to the characters and events that happened around O.K. Corral. Burt and Kirk where different from the previous generation of Western heroes like John Wayne or Gary Cooper, in the sense that , they were more physical, more emotional and industrial, and it benefited the kind of mature, dramatic westerns they were making in the 1950’s; Wayne, Fonda or Cooper, were more subtle, more poetic and less dramatic in their performances. This extends to director John Sturges also, who along with guys like Anthony Mann and Robert Aldrich brought in a more kinetic, hard edged style to the Westerns. Sturges’ choreography of action scenes are especially gripping, and he infuses vitality and energy into the proceedings. The film also benefits from the fact that it’s shot in technicolor, and in the ultra-crisp Vistavision: Paramount’s Hi-Def wide screen process developed as a counter to Cinemascope. Charles Lang Jr.’s cinematography is magnificent; imparting the film with a rich and glossy look, and his deep focus shots posses an astounding clarity that brings to life the arid locations of Old Tucson and Utah, as well as the colorfully designed sets of Dodge and Tombstone. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is also a big asset to the film, even though the bombastic title track – parodied in the 1974 Mel Brooks film Blazing saddles – is painfully dated.

The film begins in Fort Griffin, Texas, with Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef) arriving in town to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of gunslinger Doc Holliday. Seeing Bailey, Doc’s girl, Kate Fisher goes into Doc’s hotel room to warn him. But he is nonchalant, and coolly practices his knife-throwing. It seems that Doc is a marked man in town, and the sheriff and the townspeople are looking for an excuse to lynch him; a duel with Bailey might just do it for them. Either Doc will be killed by Bailey, or if it’s Bailey who dies, then Doc will be hanged thereafter. Naturally, Kate is concerned , and a quarrel breaks out between her and Doc. As he is sick with tuberculosis, Doc is coughing badly, but still, he is no one to back out from a fight , and he decides to go into the saloon and confront Bailey. The scenes between Doc and Kate sparkle with an electrifying intensity, mainly because Jo Van Fleet, a method actress, insisted on doing things for ‘real’ . So Kirk would throw a real knife in her direction, or beat her up for real, if the scene demanded it. Meanwhile, Dodge City Marshall Wyatt Earp arrives in town looking for the Clanton brothers. But he is disappointed to see that (the corrupt) Sheriff Cotton Wilson has not implemented the warrant to arrest them , and has let them go. Wyatt comes to know that Doc has played cards with the Clantons, and maybe he knows where they have gone. Wyatt meets Doc, but Doc is rather hostile to Earp – Doc holds a grudge against the Earps, as Wyatt’s brother had run him out of the territory – and he refuses to divulge any information. A disappointed Wyatt decides to leave town, but before he does, Doc kills Bailey. The Sheriff arrests Doc and holds him in his hotel room, while a lynch mob surrounds the hotel. Kate begs Wyatt for help, and although he has no love for Doc, Wyatt helps Doc to escape; Wyatt is too much of a lawman, and he doesn’t want to see anybody lynched. Doc is moved by Wyatt’s actions, and promises to repay the debt at an appropriate time. Here ends the first episode of the film. It establishes the love-hate relationship between Wyatt and Doc and how they eventually became life-long friends. But a lot of the events in this episode is historically inaccurate: in actuality, it was Doc who saved Wyatt’s life once, and even though Wyatt once saved a man from being lynched, the man was not Doc. The events are tweaked and re-framed so as to fit the genre tropes; Wyatt (and Lancaster) being the hero (and the bigger star) of the film.

The next episode begins (maybe a year after the events of the first episode) in Dodge City. Wyatt, the town Marshall, is disturbed by the news that Doc and Kate has arrived in town. He had forbidden Doc from entering Dodge, knowing fully well his propensity for violence. He goes out to confront Doc, who is having a shave. Doc assures Wyatt that he is in town strictly for business: Doc is broke, and Dodge, being a booming town, is a perfect place for a gambler like him to make some money. He also promises Wyatt that he will not indulge in violence of any kind. Satisfied, Wyatt lets him stay in town. Meanwhile, a Lady Gambler named Laura Denbow arrives in town, and Wyatt has to put her in prison, because it’s illegal for a lady to gambling in the territory. But after an intervention by Doc, She is released and allowed to play in the side rooms of the saloon. Next: Wyatt is forced to deputize Holliday to chase down a band of bank robbers, who killed a cashier. Wyatt’s other deputies are out in a posse catching another outlaw, and he has none else to turn to for help, except Doc. They ride out of town and hatches a plan to draw the robbers out. The bank robbers fall for the trap and attempt to ambush them, but are instead killed by Wyatt and Doc. They return to Dodge, only to find out that Kate had taken off with outlaw Johnny Ringo. Doc goes into their room to confront them, but Kate refuses to return, and Ringo pours a glass of alcohol on Doc to draw him to a fight. Doc, in order to keep his word to Wyatt, refuses to fight Ringo and returns humiliated. But Doc gets an opportunity to get back at Ringo and to repay his debt to Wyatt when Shanghai Pierce invades town with his gang of outlaws, in which Ringo is a member. Doc helps Wyatt in defusing the situation and shoots and wounds Ringo when he tries to intervene. Doc later finds Kate waiting for him in his room; and she wants to come back. But Doc does not take her back, and she leaves, telling him that she will see him dead. Meanwhile, Wyatt and Laura have fallen in love and Wyatt decides to give up his profession and settle down with her in California. But an urgent message from Wyatt’s brother Virgil upset their plans. The Earps are engaged in a battle with the Clantons in Tombstone, and they need Wyatt’s help. Wyatt has no other option, but to go help his brothers; and a dejected Laura takes off to California without him. Doc catches up to Wyatt on the trail and both head to Tombstone. This episode details the contrasting love-lives of the two protagonists, which unfortunately for both of them, end in tragedy; they remain stoic loners. It also deepens the bond between the two of them; Wyatt comes to trust Doc more and more, as he realizes that Doc is a man just like him. Doc never lies, keep his word and kills someone only if it is necessary. Doc who started out as quite a hothead and violent, would become more reasonable and pacifistic, while the more solemn Wyatt would become more aggressive. This character trajectory will be carried even further in the next episode, when Wyatt would become downright bloodthirsty, while Doc, of all people, will advise restraint.

The final episode is set in Tombstone, where Wyatt, now a U.S. Marshall, enacts a new law prohibiting guns inside the town limit. It’s mainly aimed at keeping the Clantons out of town. Wyatt also learns that Clantons are planning to ship a herd of stolen Mexican cattle by train, but they are hampered by the fact that the Earps control the town. Cotton Wilson, on behalf of the Clantons, comes to Wyatt with a bribe offer: $20,000 for letting them ship the cattle out- but Wyatt refuses. Since Wyatt is now a U.S. Marshall, he has now power everywhere in the country. So the Clantons cannot hope to escape, even if they transfer the cattle to another county. Left with no option, Clantons plan to kill Wyatt, when he makes his nightly rounds. But on the day of the ambush, it’s Wyatt’s younger brother James, who is on the rounds, and he is killed in the attack. Now the battle has become personal. And, as it is with family feuds, Clantons challenges the Earps to a duel. Wyatt accepts Clanton’s challenge for a showdown at the O.K. Corral next morning. Doc, though severely sick, joins the Earps in the fight. In the ensuing gunfight, Clanton and all his gang members are killed. Virgil and Morgan are wounded, but survives, while Doc and Wyatt escapes unharmed. The final scene of the film has Wyatt bidding farewell to Doc, and riding off to California to meet up with Laura. Though the original gunfight took place at 3 P.M; was just 30 seconds long; and was at a close range: about 6 feet; the gunfight in the film takes place at dawn, in medium range and goes on for 5 minutes. It is very elaborate and more theatrical, involving stampeding horses, a burning wagon, and thunderous shotgun blasts as Wyatt and his brothers dive for cover. As for the major inaccuracy: Ike Clanton did not die in the original gunfight, though in the film he does. Ike actually brought murder charges against the Earps after the gunfight, which was later dismissed.

In the end, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral would be just another glossy, fantastical Hollywood western, – though a very entertaining one – as opposed to the gritty, revisionist version that Hal Wallis had originally claimed to have been making. The film was a big hit at the box office, and continues to be a very popular film even to this day – perhaps the most popular western made about the legendary gunfight. Leon Uris, who wrote the script was very disappointed with the final film and disowned it. He was particularly unhappy about a few speeches that was inserted into the film – which he did not write – denouncing violence and vigilante justice; he felt that those themes are already present in the subtext. It was left to director John Sturges to make the changes to the script. Sturges himself was not very happy with the film, even though it was his first big hit. He refereed to himself strictly as a ‘director for hire’ on that film, and called it a Hal Wallis production from beginning to end. He would later make Hour of the Gun, with James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday, which will be a more truthful film about the gunfight and its aftermath.


2 thoughts on “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday in John Sturges’ slick, star-driven Western

  1. First rate appreciation. Always have a hard time with the film’s simplicity—although I find Kirk Douglas always fascinating. Douglas is really a fearless and brave actor, and without a peer. He was not afraid to be disliked—but of course, we love him! Good job!

    Liked by 1 person

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