[12 May 2003]
Say what you will about George W. Bush—he makes a great cowboy. He may not be particularly astute in the niceties of diplomacy, macroeconomics, or polysyllabic elocution, but out on the frontier, those things are irrelevant. Here, one must master the basics: talk plain, stand tall, and keep your holster well-oiled. There’s sidewinders and varmints out there, and while the Washington townsfolk dither and wring their hands, count on a long tall Texan to ride forth and do what needs doin’, and to hell with the consequences.
If Bush’s Presidential posture comes off like a character in a Western, it’s because he learned the walk and talk from a close study of Ronald Reagan, who parlayed his movie-cowboy persona into a leadership stance that neither history nor common sense has diminished, at least in the minds of the American people. Reagan firmly grasped, as Bush appears to, the power of American iconography, specifically the myth of the buckaroo, as hammered into the public psyche for decades by its most potent bard, Hollywood.
Like its heroes, the Western has proved difficult to scrutinize or criticize. Its specific placement in time and space (the American frontier between 1865 and 1900 or so), coupled with the heyday of the genre’s popularity (from the 1930s to the ‘60s), formed a fairly monolithic structure of cultural signifiers. That is to say, the conventions of the Western lionized a very male- and pale-centered view of Manifest Destiny during the period before the Civil Rights, Native American, and Women’s Movements had achieved the kind of currency that Hollywood could no longer ignore. Were there black cowboys? Certainly. Jewish cowboys? Of course. Were the Indians all mindless savages? Of course not. (Ironically, Mel Brooks’ Western parody, Blazing Saddles , is in many ways a more accurate portrayal of the West than the films it lampoons).
These questions only muddy the waters, however, and intrude upon the genre’s all-important formula. The oater ignores historical and cultural ambiguities because, by and large, it ignores ambiguities altogether (the films of John Ford being one notable exception among several). The values of most Westerns, and the source of their mythmaking, lie in a straightforward clash of unquestioned good versus unquestioned evil, white hats against black hats.
Thus it’s not easy to pass judgment on John Sturges’ 1957 horse opera, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Like most Westerns, it’s so damn earnest and sincere that calling it on its historical inaccuracy or broad performances, even the incredibly annoying Frankie Laine theme song, seems like rank bullying. It is, quite simply, the Hollywood Western in full flower, with all the nostalgia and sins of commission and omission that that implies.
Gunfight is, more or less, the story of Kansas lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and the infamous dentist-turned-gunslinger Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) who, along with Earp’s brothers, Morgan (DeForest Kelley) and Virgil (John Hudson), shoot it out with members of the notorious Clanton Gang in the streets of Tombstone, Arizona in October of 1888. History tells us that this incident was the climax of a feud between the Earp and Clanton families (and friends), specifically, and between Democrat and Republican factions in Arizona, generally. Furthermore, it was but one incident in what amounted to a turf war that eventually attracted the attention and intercession of the federal government. Nothing so complex is going on in this film, however. Sturges dwells on the myth of the law versus the lawless, and the importance of choosing sides. It’s just that simple.
Simplicity is the watchword in Sturges’ direction, the script by novelist Leon Uris, and in the performances. There are no subtleties at all, exposition is minimal at best, and everyone speaks relentless Western-ese throughout. In the opening sequence, a hotheaded pistoleer named Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef) rides into Griffin, Texas, with two goons in tow, looking to settle a score with “that yellow-livered skunk” Doc Holliday. They wait at a saloon, where the keeper tells Wyatt Earp, who’s just passing through, that Bailey aims not to kill Doc, but to “put him in Boot Hill.”
Doc, meanwhile, is busy establishing his character, by chucking knives at his hotel room door, manhandling his girlfriend Kate (Jo Van Fleet), whipping the tops off bottles, and throwing shots of whiskey in the general direction of his mouth. When he and Bailey meet, the fight ensues as a series of quick, jerky motions: drawing pistols, throwing knives, dropping to the floor. It’s clear that Sturges wants everyone to be making big “action” gestures, but one might wonder if the film is missing a few frames.
Doc dispatches Bailey—er, sends him to Boot Hill—and is immediately arrested by a pair of marshals who’ve been waiting for an excuse to haul him in. Once Doc’s arrest is made public, the townspeople of Griffin decide, for some reason that’s never made clear since neither of the combatants were locals, to throw him a necktie party. Though Wyatt doesn’t particularly like Doc, he rescues him from the lynch mob, placing Doc in his debt. As Frankie Laine sings like a reedy Greek chorus (“Oh-KAY Cor-RAL… Oh-KAY Cor-RAL…”—the song will haunt your frontal lobe for days), the story then moves to Dodge City, Kansas, where an uneasy friendship develops between the stolid lawman and the morally ambiguous gambler, cemented after Doc helps Wyatt take down two different groups of desperadoes in and around Dodge City. In this proto-buddy-picture, Wyatt is the straight man who teaches the rebellious loner the value of friendship, while said loner helps to remove the enormous stick from the straight guy’s ass.
The trouble here is that Lancaster seems to need the stick. A good but never a great actor, Lancaster is soft-spoken and at his best when underplaying a role. There is no room for underplaying here; everything is in VistaVision and larger than life. Thus Lancaster’s primary job is to stand around being a slab of moral propriety while everyone else acts around him. Wyatt’s budding romance with a lady gambler (Rhonda Fleming) is agonizingly stiff, and those moments when he’s called upon to have outbursts of real emotion seem terribly artificial. The real Wyatt Earp was said to be an emotional man who constantly had to keep himself in check to do his job. Lancaster plays Earp like Sergeant Joe Friday of the West.
Douglas, on the other hand, is clearly having fun, even if no one else is. The flamboyant Doc Holliday is the Hamlet of the Western, a role with so many layers and shades that whoever plays it inevitably dominates the film (Val Kilmer’s portrayal in 1993’s Tombstone is the best work he’s ever done, as is Dennis Quaid’s opposite the relentlessly wooden Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp , and even the frankly limited Victor Mature made hay with the part in Ford’s 1946 treatment My Darling Clementine). Douglas, who is capable of great subtlety but at his best when going over the top, is clearly in his element here.
While Lancaster and Fleming have trouble convincing us that their characters even like each other, Douglas and Van Fleet dive headlong into the twisted codependency of Holliday and “Big-Nose” Kate Fisher, who both loved and despised each other with equal passion. Had they lived today, Doc and Kate would rated a Best of Springer tape of their own, but here their volatile, alcoholic, mutually homicidal relationship provides the best moments in the film, as well as setting up the only conflict that actually makes sense, the rivalry between Doc and fellow famous bad-ass Johnny Ringo (John Ireland), as Kate moves back and forth between them.
Unfortunately, the film is at its weakest when it actually gets to Tombstone. Despite the fact that Wyatt has been hunting the evil Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) throughout the film and knows that Ike lives outside Tombstone, it takes a telegram from his brothers to get him out there, with Holliday in tow. What is so urgent about the telegram is never revealed, and why Wyatt is needed in order to stop Clanton’s cronies from moving 2000 head of rustled cattle is not clear either. It seems that Wyatt and Doc are required to be there because otherwise Paramount would have to change the title.
Once there, however, Wyatt engages in one of the strangest exchanges in the film. Ike’s younger brother Billy (Dennis Hopper, practically an infant) is arrested for public drunkenness and Wyatt takes him home to Ma Clanton, sits him down, and gives him a fatherly talk about the evils of gun-slinging. While it’s a touching moment and interesting to see Hopper in his pre-freaky period, it makes as little sense as anything else in the film, other than, perhaps, reinforcing Wyatt’s characterization as basically a decent guy in unpleasant circumstances, something the rest of the picture has been turning cartwheels to do.
Billy ignores his advice and shows up for the fight. The gunfight itself is generic at best, a duck-and-shoot affair that lasts five minutes as opposed to the open-air, 30-second face-off that actually occurred. This is truly unfortunate, because it betrays the most remarkable element of Earp’s legend, the fact that in his entire career, he was never wounded even once, as well as Holliday’s, that his penchant for gunfights was a freely acknowledged death wish. Like so much else in the film, the gunfight seems de rigeur—we must have a protracted gun battle because that’s what happens in Westerns.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is not the weakest treatment of the Earp-Holliday story (Sturges’ own 1967 remake, Hour of the Gun, is probably that), but it ought to be much better than it is, considering the budget and talent involved. More importantly, it ought to be more complex than it is. It’s admittedly difficult not to compare it to the more historically and biographically accurate Tombstone, but even held up against its contemporaries like Shane and High Noon, Sturges’ film falls short, becoming, in the end, little more than a big, loud comic book of a movie.
But even this criticism is hollow, because again, Gunfight aspires to be nothing more than what it is. If Wyatt Earp appears to be one-dimensional here, it’s because he’s supposed to be. We don’t need to know what the Clantons have done, or why Wyatt and Doc must go to Tombstone, or the answers to a hundred other questions. The film is written in a shorthand that presupposes the audience’s firm grounding in the genre’s conventions. The Earps are good, the Clantons evil, and the clash is inevitable—it’s that simple, that iconic, that mythic.