Monday, November 14, 2011

Use All the Cliches!

Film: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Let’s start with this: there’s not an ounce of historical accuracy in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt Earp showed up in Tombstone with essentially no legal authority except that given him by his brother, Virgil. He never had a torrid affair with a female gambler around this time, and he already had a common-law wife who was an opiate fiend. Whatever. We’re not judging this film based on its historical value, but on its value as a film, right?

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is about the famous gunfight, and this is the reason that Surges threw history out the window when it came to the story. The real story isn’t that interesting, really. The gunfight lasted about 30 seconds, and there’s some controversy as to whether or not the “bad guys” were trying to surrender to the Earps when they were shot. That would make for kind of a crappy mid-50s Western, though, so again, we’re not going to worry about accuracy here.

Much of the opening of the film concerns the nascent friendship between upright lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and the degraded, tubercular dentist Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas). Initially, they don’t think much of each other. But then Earp saves Holliday’s life and quite a bit later, Holliday saves Earp, so they at least gain a great deal of mutual respect for one another. It’s a bromance as only could happen in a macho Western.

As we might also expect in a typical Western, there’s some frontier-style romance. For Holliday, the woman he shacks up with and abuses is Kate (Jo van Fleet). She spends part of her time with Holliday and the rest with Johnny Ringo (John Ireland). Earp discovers a woman named Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a professional gambler. It’s evident in the first two minutes they’re on screen together that they’re going to end up sexing it up eventually, so when they do, it comes as no surprise.

There’s plenty that goes on with these two men getting a lot of people angry at them, although they seem to stand mostly on the side of good and law. And eventually, Earp decides to hang up his badge, marry Laura, and open up a store in California. But that’s when he gets an urgent telegram from his brother Virgil (John Hudson) in Tombstone. Trouble is brewing, and he’s a dead man without some considerable help. So Earp goes, despite the fact that Laura says she won’t live this way for him.

And so finally, after about an hour and a half of movie, we get the two sides lined up for the big confrontation. On the one side, we have the Earps—Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan (DeForest Kelly), and Holliday. Jimmy Earp (Martin Milner) is left out of this exclusive group because he gets capped earlier. On the other side is the Clantons—Ike (Lyle Bettger), Billy (Dennis Hopper at about age 6), Johnny Ringo, and a few others. And it takes us the whole film to get there.

Really, that’s the problem here. The film is a touch over two hours long, and the eponymous gunfight happens in the final 15 minutes of the film. The whole movie builds up to this, but almost none of it does much but set up the characters a bit and give them a reason over and over to go and shoot at each other. In short, it could have been handled faster and in ways that were even a touch more interesting to get us to that point. What we get instead is virtually every single western trope and many a movie trope besides to give us a false sense of wanting to continue to watch what happens. And I do mean every trope. Billy Clanton gets pulled aside by Wyatt and told not to follow in his brothers’ footsteps, but Billy rides with them, because they’re his brothers—essentially the same reason Wyatt arrived in Tombstone. There’s even a drunk tossed through a saloon door at one point, and there's a railing kill, when someone is shot and tumbles over a balcony.

Anyway, the gunfight itself is pretty good, even if it’s as predictable as the rest of the film.

What strikes me most odd here is the theme song, which pops up now and again to narrate on what has happened and what will happen. When Wyatt rides off to Tombstone, for instance, We get a verse or two about how he’s riding off to Tombstone and leaving behind the woman who loves him. See, I knew all of that already because I’d been watching the movie. I didn’t really need the Western equivalent of a Greek chorus.

You want the truth here? While it’s fun to see Dennis Hopper at this young age and DeForest Kelly wearing a tin star instead of a Star Fleet badge, there are far better and more engaging Westerns out there. Frankly, Tombstone is a better movie.

Why to watch Gunfight at O.K. Corral: Westerns don’t get any more western.
Why not to watch: Every trope you’ve ever heard of is here.


  1. Steve, I saw this film a while back, and the thing that I remember the most is the constant playing of the silly theme song. Despite some decent acting and a solid gunfight at the end, it dates the movie in the worst way possible. Like you say, it also suffers in comparison to Tombstone and other Earp films.

  2. Oh, man, that theme song. For those of you who have made it this far in life without being subjected to this auditory equivalent of a dentist drill,

    Now, imagine that as a narrative that pops up at regular intervals to sum up the last 20 minutes of what you've been watching. For Monty Python fans, it's a bit like the Dennis Moore song.

    High Noon suffers a bit from the same thing, but that song only recounts the basic plot; it doesn't turn the song into a narrative. And, the song is better.

  3. Had it not been for Kirk Douglas and his Doc Holliday story I would have agreed with you completely. He is the shining light of an otherwise total cliché movie.
    Happy to find out I was not the only one who hated that theme song.

    1. Oh, that theme song! The only one I can positively say I hated more was I Know Where I'm Going! Both of them are wretched.