Jeff Guinn’s ‘The Last Gunfight’ Is Better than ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ by a Long Shot

Ah, the Old American West. What more is there to say, really?

… no, really, what more is there to say? From a popular standpoint, anyway? Over the past century the saga of that long-lost era in which men were men and guns were law has passed through every possible stage of pop-culture appreciation. Romantic idealization has given way to comfortable legend, then ubiquitous cliché, then raw deconstruction. At this point, the salvation of the genre rests with a movie called Cowboys and Aliens, which frankly doesn’t seem to be doing all that well.

About the only thing that hasn’t been thoroughly worked over in the mainstream media is, well, the reality. Admittedly, given that this consisted largely of those involved busily creating the legend out of whole cloth (1880s America was a golden age for the ghostwriter), the truth becomes harder to find the deeper in you get… and the centerpiece of it all, the the story of the shootout at the OK Corral, becomes the Holy Grail of Western history.

Under these conditions,Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight is, I think, about as close as anyone is going to get to not only what really happened the day the Earps – Wyatt, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and loyal pal Doc Holliday – confronted brothers Ike and Billy Clanton and their neighbors Frank and Tom McLaury, but why it happened. It was the iconic climax of the battle for pride and position that defined the real Western experience, all right — but that experience may not be what even the most cynical revisionist was expecting.

Along the way, Guinn uncovers and tells with verve the wonderfully readable human story of what actually happens when you give men that chance at unlimited possibility for power and glory and only basic human nature, and a couple bullets, with which to achieve it. The battle lines were certainly drawn along simple enough Establishment vs. Outlaw lines; it’s in the details that things get complicated.

As it turns out — not at all surprisingly to anyone familiar with history in general and American history in particular — the real power in the Wild West was concentrated around the comparatively mundane worlds of money and politics, not the gun. Which dichotomy between imagination during and after the fact inevitably meant that Wyatt Earp and his fellow steely-eyed dime-novel heroes weren’t in the event so much striding the plains as stumbling through them, grasping – or firing — at whatever chance came handy.

Guinn wisely covers the story from its beginnings, following the Earp clan from their origins in (of all places) Monmouth, Illinois through their long entanglement with both the characters and the circumstances of the frontier territory. In the process, he sketches a satisfyingly complete picture of the real West, civilization slowly-but-steadily emerging from a past that was ever truly ‘wild’ only in the participants’ romantic reminisces.

Told as a matter of fact, going carefully from detail to checkable detail rather than simply dashing from adventure to adventure, the actual Earp saga is just poignant enough not to be ridiculous, and the down-to-earth attitude and wry, offhand tone used here suits them perfectly. Guinn, whose previous volumes of anti-heroic history includes one on Bonnie and Clyde, has a serious knack for understanding both his subjects’ humanity and his audience’s fascination with legend, and translating one to the other without losing — or excusing — either. You really do have to appreciate a historian who concedes in his notes that ‘always learning something new’ is the fun part.

Nobody’s motives become unrelateable here, no matter how outrageous their means. The Earp dream, as collectively instilled by their stern paterfamilias, was to become figures of civic influence – men who had a say in how things were run. This apparently provoked a chronic case of grass-is-greener syndrome in the entire family, but the focus is inevitably on Wyatt and his erratic, hardheaded journey across the new frontier in search of opportunities to impress those who ran it.

As the simplest route to that end – since nothing wowed the Western power brokers like removing the outlaw threat to their money and security — he became a lawman, working his way across the plains to the bustling mining boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona, and calling on his brothers (and their ‘common-law’ wives; the treatment of women in the West inevitably becomes an interesting sidelight) to join him there.

There, they all found outlaws in plenty, in turn all fiercely protecting their own little places in the sun. This is where things get actually exciting, given that, this usually involved rustling — mostly from Mexican rancheros – and then laundering the stolen cattle through friendly American ranchers like the Clantons & McLaurys… hence ‘cowboys’, which was in no sense a complimentary epithet back in 1880s Arizona. As far as they were concerned, though, they were just grabbing that Western dream in both hands and running with it – hence there was no need to respect a government that was only getting in their way.

Admittedly the perspective of a Canadian woman might be a bit out of the usual for this type of tale, but for this reviewer it’s actually Virgil Earp, who eventually worked his way up to Tombstone Chief of Police, that emerges as the closest to an attractive personality of the entire cast — simply for possessing not only actual people skills but the common sense to go with them. Albeit it was his unusual reluctance to force confrontation that led directly to the OK Corral. Catching a break: in reality, not an Earp specialty.

Thus the stage was set for… well, it’s a bit murky, on account of being based on testimony from people who, as aforementioned, saw reality as about as flexible a concept as they did employment. It was also, unexpectedly to this reviewer at least, not a standard occurrence; in keeping with his theme of a reality more humanly entertaining than the romance, Guinn spends considerable time establishing Tombstone’s aspirations to middle-class sophistication and maybe even more, including musical societies and several very good restaurants.

This was the reality Virgil and his brothers-slash-deputies were supposed to protect, and — much to their surprise post-shootout — stalking down the main street brandishing six-shooters at varmints was emphatically not how the city fathers envisioned them doing it.

However… boys, as they say, will be boys, especially when they have grown-up guns. In Wyatt Earp’s version, he was out for the glory of the capture of men wanted for a stage heist, and thus cut a deal with Ike Clanton and a few others to play Judas for a cut of the reward money. Ike got drunk on a trip to town a while later, became convinced Wyatt had betrayed him in turn and started making public threats. In Ike’s version (fed by general local rumour) Wyatt and quite possibly his brothers were themselves involved in the robbery, and bound together in a menacing cabal to silence Ike and pals for good.

Either way – barring a few minor remaining contentious details, like who had a gun when — the rest became bloody history in a back lot corral. Guinn tends to accept the Earp version in most details, not least because Ike Clanton was generally a drunken blowhard difficult to take seriously; but – thanks largely to a post-shootout inquiry brought by a surviving McLowery brother — there’s a highly detailed level of research into almost literally every moment of the iconic scene here, and it’s deployed convincingly on all sides, both as to historical accuracy and dramatic detail. Besides which extensive notes at the back of the book provide valuable links to an entire community of Western historians.

Guinn follows the story through the Morgan Earp’s revenge murder and Wyatt’s subsequent ride for frontier justice with Holiday among others at his side… and then, rather suddenly, it all burns itself out. Tombstone was glad enough to be rid of the Earps, and then itself gradually declined into oblivion. Doc Holliday died of his tuberculosis, the cowboys were brought under control, and civilization marched on. Funny, how melancholy a note these last chapters strike in the reader — despite everything, one really does want these characters to have their happy ending, to ride off into the sunset, not as legends, but as people.

In reality, though, all that survived intact was Wyatt’s burning desire to Be Somebody; hence eventually his self-serving autobiography, years later, that brings the story full circle. He would, Guinn notes as a final wry coda, have thoroughly approved his media canonization as Pop-Culture Icon of the Old West.

RATING 8 / 10