Hour of the Gun: James Garner is terrific as a cold & brutal ‘Wyatt Earp’ in John Sturges’ hard-hitting Western

Hour of the Gun(1967), directed by John Sturges and starring James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday, is a quasi-sequel to Sturges’ own Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). This is a more gritty, revisionist take on the story that concentrates on the aftermath of the famous gunfight

This Picture is based on fact. This is how it really happened

John Sturges’ Hour of the Gun(1967) begins with the above declaration. I’m always suspicious when any film starts with the above claim. It more or less means a license for the makers to spin their own story from a true event. and I’m afraid i was right, but surprisingly, only to an extend. The film does distort history at many points, but as a retelling of the Wyatt Earp legend, this is much more faithful than either John Ford’s classic My Darling Clementine (1946) – starring Henry Fonda and Victor Mature as Earp and Holliday respectively – or the director, John Sturges’ own Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) (reviewed Here), starring Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as Holliday, which was a highly fictionalized version. This film is based on the non-fiction book Tombstone’s Epitaph by Douglas D. Martin, and the screenplay is written by Edward Anhalt. As opposed to the Wyatt Earp films that came before it that climaxes with the famed Gunfight at the OK Corral, Hour of the Gun begins with the Gunfight, and then proceeds further, concentrating on the “Vendetta Ride” that Earp, Holliday and their federal posse undertook to avenge the shooting of Earp brothers Virgil (maimed for life) and Morgan (killed). Ike Clanton is shown, correctly, to have survived the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, whereas previous films had him killed at the gunfight. Clanton is the major antagonist of this film. What is not very convincing is the casting of a 58 year old Robert Ryan as a very intelligent and sophisticated Ike Clanton. Clanton, in reality, was just 34 years old at the time of the Gunfight and was a crude, loudmouthed Cattle rustler. The casting of the lead characters are also problematic; with both James Garner and Jason Robards a little too old to play Earp and Holliday respectively, Robards was 6 years older than Garner (and looks much more older on screen) while in reality, Holliday was three years younger than Earp, but the gaunt Robards does fit the description of the physically decaying – he is suffering from tuberculosis – Holliday much better than the beefy likes of Victor Mature and Kirk Douglas who played him in the previous films. Also, for whatever reasons, the corrupt Cochise county Sheriff John Behan is called Jimmy Bryan here. But if one is willing to ignore these issues even in the light of the tall claim made by the filmmakers at the beginning of the film, then “Hour of the Gun” is a typical (and a very good) John Sturges movie which also is a great western. Sturges make masculine action dramas usually set in the great outdoors, where tough guys battle it out; Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, etc. are testaments to that. Hour of the Gun is much more intense, darker and morally grey than anything he has made up to that time. His films are usually devoid of feminine presence, and it is true for this film too; the film has absolutely no female characters, even though both Earp and Holliday had their share of women in life. That part of their character is totally ignored here to create a sustained mood of unease and tension, as Earp goes on a murderous rampage, even as he is trying to avoid being killed by Clanton’s posse headed by Bryan. The film also explores the thin line that exist between a lawman and an outlaw, or how, due to the overlapping of jurisdictions, the Lawmen themselves could become outlaws; there are several forms of law operating at the same time in the film: City, county, federal, and there are vested interests tied to each one of them. Earp who is a lawman for the city becomes an outlaw for the county; so even as he is hunting down criminals on the authority of the federal government, he is an outlaw hunted by the County officials. On one account, he is a honest lawman discharging his duty, on the other hand, he is considered a murderer who should be brought to justice. The film also explores the cost of law enforcement (something that was tackled even deeply in the Burt Lancaster starrer Lawman(1971) reviewed here) and what happens when it gets entwined with personal revenge. Earp gets the authority to arrest and convict the personals responsible for the attack on his brothers, but instead he uses the authority as “hunting licenses” (as Holliday puts it) for killing them; there is no arrest or conviction, every one of them is murdered by Earp in cold blood. Sturges mines these rich themes to create a compelling action drama, but unlike his earlier films, this one does not have a well rounded plot; the film is episodic in nature, as it tracks Earp and his men on their journey until it culminates with the last man being shot, and Earp himself being through with the law.

The film begins on the fateful day of 26th October 1881 in the Arizona town of Tombstone. We see Deputy Marshal of Tombstone Wyatt Earp (James Garner); his older brother Virgil (Frank Converse), who is the current City Marshal; his younger brother Morgan (Sam Melville), a Tombstone special police officer; and ally Doc Holliday (Jason Robards), who was made an officer and given a badge for the occasion, slowly marching towards the OK Corral- as jerry Goldsmith’s ominous score pounds on the soundtrack. (I don’t know whether Sam Peckinpah was inspired from this film or not , but this scene is very similar to the climactic march of the 4 wild Bunch members in Peckinpah’s classic western The Wild Bunch that came two years later.) The Earp gang are out to disarm the Clanton gang who has unlawfully assembled at the Corral. County Sheriff Bryan tries to intervene, telling the lawmen that he has already disarmed the Clanton gang and so they should stand down, but they ignore him and march on. We see Ike Clanton, the head of the Clanton gang leaving the spot and hiding out in a nearby building. On reaching the Corral, the Lawmen warn the outlaws to disarm, but they do not comply; and a violent shootout breaks out in which Billy Clanton and McLaury brothers are killed and Virgil and Morgan Earp are wounded. The shootout shown in the film is accurate; lasting for 30 seconds in which about 30 shots are fired, as opposed to Sturges’ 1957 movie in which the gunfight goes on for about 6 minutes. Once the shootout is over, Sheriff Bryan tries to arrest the Earp gang for murder, but Wyatt refuses to be arrested telling Bryan that he has no jurisdiction in the city of Tombstone. Later, Ike Clanton brings murder charges on the Warp brothers and Holliday, but it is thrown out by the judge due to lack of evidence. But soon Clanton has his revenge. using his hired guns ‘Curly’ Bill Brocious, Andy Warshaw and Pete Spence he has Virgil Earp ambushed and maimed, and then has City Marshall elect, Morgan Earp, murdered (at the very night of the day of his election). Earp brings murder charges against Ike Clanton for the shooting of his brothers, but the judge has to exonerate him due to lack of evidence.

Earp decides to take his handicapped brother Virgil and his family along with Morgan’s corpse to California were they will be safe, but Clanton sends his man Frank Stillwell to ambush and kill all the Earps on the way. Earp is alerted to Clanton’s plan by Tucson Sheriff, Sherman McMasters, and thus, Earp is able to intercept and kill Stilwell before he kills his family. Earp is appointed deputy U.S. Marshall and is given authorization to pursue the criminals involved in the attacks on his brothers. Meanwhile, Sheriff Bryan gets a warrant to arrest Wyatt Earp for the murder of Stillwell; Clanton raise a posse of 25 men under Bryan to hunt down Earp; the idea is to kill Earp rather then bring him in for trial. Realizing what Clanton and Bryan plans to do, Earp decides to leave Tombstone, while Holliday volunteers to raise a posse for Earp’s mission. Thus Earp, Holliday and their posse consisting of McMasters, Texas Jack Vermillion and Turkey Creek Johnson sets out on what has come to be know as Earp’s “Vendetta Ride”: a mission to protect his family and pursue the suspects in the attack on his brothers. There is also a bounty of $20 thousand (put up by the good citizens of Tombstone) attached to this mission. The ride lasted till April 1882, by which time, Earp will kill most of his enemies.

Though the warrants have been issued by the Federal government for the arrest and conviction of the suspects, Earp manipulates each and every instance- when he runs into a suspect- to draw them into a gunfight and kill them. His first victim is Pete Spence, whom he confronts and kills at a Railroad stop. Then Holliday has a chance encounter with Curly Bill in the town saloon, and before he attempts to arrest Bill, Earp appears out of nowhere and kills Bill, in what appears to be an act of saving Holliday’s life. Holliday begins to suspect that there is more to his law abiding good friend than meets the eye, and his suspicions are confirmed when they next apprehend Andy Warshaw. Rather than arresting Warshaw, Earp gives him a chance to draw on him, with the words ” We will count 1,2,3, you can draw on 2, I’ll wait till 3“. Warshaw is no match for Earp, who cold-bloodedly guns him down. Now their mission over, Earp disbands his posse and apologizes to them for cheating them out of the bounty money – the bounty was for arrest and conviction not murder. but they make no complaints, except for Holliday, who is disgusted to see what has become of his friend, the one whom he has worshipped for his idealism and character. He never expected to see him stoop so low as to use the law for his personal vendetta. An angry Earp slaps Holliday for berating him, but realizes that Holliday’s strength is about to gives out due to his tuberculosis and Earp transports him to a sanitarium in Colorado.

Meanwhile, Ike Clanton realizing that his time is at an end, decides to flee for Mexico. Before leaving, he gives Bryan one last order, to extradite Earp from Colorado, and have him killed. But again, the good, wealthy citizens of Tombstone step forward to end the dispute, buying out Bryan’s posse and thereby neutralizing him. Now Earp and his family are safe, and Earp is given an enticing offer: to serve as Chief U.S. Marshal that could one day make him the Adjutant general for the territory. Earp promises to think about the offer, but now he has heard that Clanton is in Mexico, prospering as a cattle rustler, so naturally we would like to finish him off first before moving onto anything else. Though he try to keep his Mexican mission a secret, Holliday sniffs it out and forcefully accompanies him to Mexico. With the help of Mexican Federal authorities Earp almost manages to arrest Clanton. but once again Clanton uses his old dirty tricks to kill the witnesses the Federales have against him. So now Clanton cannot be legally arrested. Earp decides that enough is enough and tells Holliday that he is going after Clanton on his own. Holliday warns him that it may not be as easy as he thinks, since Earp has always lived by the law, he cannot lead a life of a lawbreaker, but Earp cannot hold on to his hypocrisy anymore; obviously, he has been breaking the law for some time now. As it turns out, he is no different from Holliday, who has no compulsions in killing either inside or outside the law. Earp and Holliday sets off for Clanton’s place, which they find more or less abandoned. But then Earp succeeds in locating Clanton and challenges him to s duel; Clanton’s men, realizing that his time has come, disperses leaving Earp and Clanton to shoot it out. Needless to say, Earp wins the duel, thus putting an end to their lengthy feud. Earp visits Holliday one last time at his sanatorium and promises him that this time he is returning to Tombstone to accept the post of Chief U.S. Marshall, but as he leaves the place, he tells the doctor that he is through with the law and he is leaving that part of the country forever. The film ends with Holliday on the terrace of his hospital playing cards as he watches his friend Wyatt Earp ride away in a buggy.

Hour of the Gun provides all the pleasures expected from a great John Sturges movie. Sturges, though no artist and more of a journeyman director, has put all his skills as a good movie craftsman in the service of this film. Like Howard Hawks, he is at his best showing tough guys bonding in crisis. His action choreography is impeccable as ever, though this film does not have those big, elaborately staged action scenes as in Gunfight at the OK Corral or The Great Escape; The gunfights in this film are quickly over, but it’s the build up to those gunfights that are terrific. Right from the opening Gunfight, the emphasis here is on building suspense; the movement of the actors in the frame, the editing cuts are all perfect. The standout sequences are Holliday’s ambush of ‘Curly’ Bill and the climax duel between Clanton and Earp in Mexico. James Garner, who usually plays very affable and even lackadaisical characters, is magnificently dour here as the intense, taciturn, morally compromised Wyatt Earp. As his Vendetta Ride proceeds, and his moral corruption increases, he becomes downright scary, to the point we actually start praying for his victims, who themselves are highly virulent characters. This is undoubtedly Garner’s greatest performance and it is a pity that he didn’t do more characters like this , except for a Duel at Diablo or A Man called Sledge, which are all far inferior movies than this one. As for Robards, he gives a typical Jason Robards performance: showy and acidic, brimming over with wry humor and a cynical attitude, he gets the best lines in the film and steals every scene he is in. Like his predecessors – Mature and Douglas – he does not bother to affect a southern accent; for that we have to wait till Val Kilmer‘s highly colorful tour de force in Tombstone (1993) or Douglas Quaid‘s less entertaining but still great turn in Wyatt Earp (1994). Apart from that, Robards’ Holliday claims to have fought in the civil war, which is really absurd, because Holliday, who was born in 1851, would have been too young to do anything like that.; Looks like a concession made to justify Robards’ age. There are even more historical gaffes in the film, like Earp’s killing of Pete Spence (never happened) or the manner in which Bill Brocious is killed and above all the final duel between Earp and Clanton in Mexico; Clanton never went to Mexico nor was he killed by Earp; he was shot down in 1887 by law enforcement officers while stealing cattle in Arizona. But the big omission is that there is no Johnny Ringo, who was a main guy in Clanton’s ‘Cowboys’ gang and a fierce rival of Doc Holliday – Ringo is very prominently featured in Tombstone (1993) and in Sturges’ own Gunfight at OK Corral (1957).

Sturges’ was very disappointed by the 1957 film, where he was only a hired hand and didn’t have much creative control. That was a highly fictional version of the events, with big stars and a simplistic, glossy treatment , though very entertaining. So this time, he achieves what he set out to do, which is to make a psychological Western that’s more of a character study than a glossy, straightforward Hollywood Western. Right from the credit sequence – where he thankfully jettisons the embarrassing title song of the 1957 version – he plunges the viewers directly into the midst of the characters and the main action. This economy is maintained throughout, but that also leads to some of it failings; the film is so intense and dour, that it isn’t very entertaining. This may be the main reason why the film was a total failure at the box office. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is spectacular, but its more earthy and gritty rather than glossy, and the film is predominantly shot outdoors – in Mexico – as opposed to the 1957 film which is done mainly on studio sound stages. The film came at a time when the traditional western was slowly dying out and the Spaghetti westerns and anti-westerns – like The Wild Bunch – were just coming to the fore. This film fell somewhere between these two types of movies. The film is also a bridge between the Earp movies made in 40s and 50s and the ones that will come in the 90s, with their increases emphasis on historical accuracy and presenting a three dimensional Wyatt Earp. Tombstone that came out in 1993 is obviously the Wyatt Earp film that is most historical accurate and also the most entertaining, with some terrific performance from Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. Hour of the Gun is not as pacey, entertaining or accurate as Tombstone, but it possesses a lean masculinity, intensity and economy that i find very attractive, and draws me back to this film again and again.


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