Thursday, October 2, 2008


"Bad Day at Black Rock" director John Sturges revisits the Wyatt Earp/Ike Clanton feud in "Hour of the Gun" with James Garner and Jason Robards that he began in 1957 with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the Hal B. Wallis production of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." Although Sturges' "Hour of the Gun" (**** out of ****) boasts greater visual and historic realism than "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," this sequel of sorts veers off course toward the end and two-time Oscar-winning scenarist Edward Anhalt of "Becket" contrives scenes that are not historically accurate principally for the sake of dramatic license to provide audiences with closure. Unlike the Paramount release that featured Rhonda Fleming as Wyatt Earp's love interest, Sturges dispenses with women altogether in this United Artists release and confines himself to the feud. The practically all male cast features lean, rugged Robert Ryan as Earp's chief real-life nemesis Ike Clanton and in his second motion picture lanky Jon Voight of "Midnight Cowboy" fame. Indeed, as much as possible Anhalt and Sturges have tried to stick with history. For example, the dialogue in the courtroom sequences came verbatim from the actual transcripts. Moreover, unlike previous Wyatt Earps, James Garner is allowed to play the legendary lawman without a halo. This Earp wants to kill out of brotherly vengeance than take the villains in to stand trial. After all, the tagline for the film reads: Wyatt Earp - hero with a badge or cold-blooded killer? Known for the affable screen characters that he played over the years, Garner makes a great change of pace as a vengeful Earp in a taut, grim-faced performance unlike anything that he had done before and not again until he starred in Vic Morrow's spaghetti western "A Man Called Sledge." The action opens on the main street of Tombstone as our black-clad in business suited heroes: Wyatt Earp (a mustached James Garner), Doc Holiday (two-time Oscar-winner Jason Robards of "Once Upon a Time in the West"), Morgan Earp (Sam Melville of "Big Wednesday"), and Virgil Earp (Frank Converse of the TV show "Movin' On") march down to the O.K. Corral after Ike Clanton's gunmen have assembled for the fateful showdown. The shoot-out is over in a mere matter of minutes. During the shooting, Ike Clanton ducks into a photography shop and sits out the gun battle. Morgan takes a slug in the shoulder while Virgil receives bullet in the leg. After the gunfight, County Sheriff Jimmy Ryan (Bill Fletcher of "5-Card Stud") and his deputy Frank Stilwell (Robert Phillips of "The Dirty Dozen") confront the Earps and Holiday. Ryan tries to arrest them. "Not today, tomorrow, or ever," growls Wyatt. "You don't have jurisdiction in the city of Tombstone. If you did, you couldn't make it stick if you did." Clanton parades the bodies of his dead through Tombstone and charges that the Earps murdered them. In court, however, Judge Herman Spicer (William Schallert of "Will Penny") concludes otherwise based on factual evidence, and the Earps and Holiday are exonerated. Clanton's gunmen, principally Curly Bill Brocius (Jon Voight), Andy Warshaw (Steve Inhat of "Madigan"), and Stilwell ambush Virgil Earp at night while he is checking doors. Virgil is crippled for life and cannot run for city marshal so Morgan replaces him. Morgan wins the election, but before he can serve, the same three Clanton gunmen blast him in the back with a shotgun while he is playing billiards. Wyatt accuses Clanton's men of homicide but he cannot furnish a witness and the killers go free. Meantime, the honest citizens of Tombstone get Wyatt an appointment as Deputy U.S. Marshal and warrants to serve on those Clanton men alleged to have participated in the shootings of Wyatt's brothers. Wyatt hires Tucson lawman Sherman McMasters (Monte Markham of "Guns of the Magnificent Seven") to help him out while Doc decides to observe the letter of the law and join Earp's posse. Doc recruits a couple of gunmen, Turkey Creek Johnson (Lonny Chapman of "Baby Doll") and Texas Jack Vermillion (William Windom of "Cattle King") and they pursue Clanton's killers.

The joy of watching any John Sturges western lies in the choreography. Sturges is one of the few directors who can make the simple act of men crossing a dusty frontier street look like very cool. Mind you, he knows how to block a scene so that everybody is shown moving around for a purpose. Sturges' movies are full of these cinematic maneuvers. Sturges stages all of the shoot-outs with his customary aplomb. "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" differs drastically from "Hour of the Gun." "Gunfight" qualified as a more bombastic western than the subdued "Hour of the Gun." Sturges has eliminated any love interest for Earp in "Hour of the Gun" so this biographical western is all about business. The photography, the settings, and the atmospheric help make this western outstanding. Sturges generates suspense with Wyatt Earp's moral decline; his willingness to let his personal feelings overwhelm his judgment. Jerry Goldsmith's evocative music seems inseparable from the gritty action. Jason Robards is both brilliant but ironic as the morally unscrupulous gambler who provides commentary on his friend's moral lapses.

An excellent book to peruse if you are interested in John Sturges, his life, and his films is Glen Lovell's top-notch biography on Sturges entitled "Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges." Mr. Lovell spent 10 years writing and researching this seminal text about Sturges.

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