Saturday, February 8, 2014


Before director John Sturges made "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," he'd only made a few westerns, "The Walking Hills" with Randolph Scott, "Bad Day at Black Rock," with Spencer Tracy, and "Backlash" with Richard Widmark.  I'd say that "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" was the first of his big-budgeted westerns at Paramount Pictures with Hal Wallis producing this polished looking oater. Things are pretty straightforward with Burt Lancaster cast as a stern but charismatic Wyatt Earp sans a mustache, while Kirk Douglas looks a mite too robust as the consumptive Doc Holiday. This was the second time that Lancaster and Earp co-starred in a movie, but it was certainly the first of their best.  One of the best known western villains from the era clashed with the heroes; Lyle Bettger played Ike Clanton.  The music and the ballad of the O.K. Corral are not only atmospheric but accentuate the action.  Sturges stages a much bigger and more ambitious finale at the O.K. Corral with the Clantons shooting it out with Earp and company. This is a first-class horse opera that should be not be missed. If you're a western fan, you must see this movie. 

“Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” opens to “Duel in the Sun” composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s stirring music and Frankie Lane’s heroic lyrics.  Those lyrics punctuate the action and serve as the equivalent of a Greek chorus.  The first scene details a showdown between Kirk Douglas and character actor Lee Van Cleef in a saloon.  Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) is riding through town when Holiday sets foot in a saloon to challenge Ed Baily (Lee Van Cleef) for shooting his brother.  The catch is the neither man is allowed to carry firearms in the saloon.  Doc conceals a switchblade in his cuff, while Baily keeps a derringer in his boot.  No sooner has Doc thrown a knife into Ed Baily’s chest than Sheriff Cotton Ryan (Frank Faylen) arrests him and sticks him in jail.  Later, as a lynch mob assembles, a desperate Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet) entreats Wyatt to help Doc escape the lynch mob.  Wyatt helps Doc get out of town.  Afterward, Wyatt runs into Doc when he enters Dodge City.  Dead broke, Doc plans to gamble up some money and he gets Wyatt to loan him money.  

The ‘square deal’ friendship between Wyatt and Doc gets off to a start after they gun down Richie Bell and his bank robbing buddies who try to sneak into their camp and dry gulch them.  Meanwhile, Wyatt takes up with a headstrong lady gambler Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming of “Pony Express”) who gives him a hard time when he arrests her.  The romance between Wyatt and Laura is short-lived because she refuses to follow him when he rides to Tombstone to support brother Morgan and Virgil Earp.  About an hour into the action, gunslinger Johnny Ringo (John Ireland of “Red River”) shows up to steal Kate from Doc.  They develop an intense rivalry and Doc wings him during a saloon shoot-out.  Doc and Wyatt solidify their relationship when they have a showdown with Shanghai Pierce (Ted De Corsia of “Vengeance Valley”) in Dodge City.
When Wyatt’s three brothers summon him to Tombstone, he finds Doc Holiday riding along to join him.  Laura refuses to accompany Wyatt so he leaves her.  Initially, Morgan and Virgil hate the idea of Doc hanging around with Wyatt.  No sooner has Doc arrived in Tombstone than his old nemesis Ringo and Kate blow into town.  Doc and Ringo clash but Morgan convinces Doc not to kill him.  Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger of “The Lone Ranger”) rustles Mexican cattle and tries to ship it through Tombstone, but Wyatt and his brothers refuse to let him do it.  Eventually, Ike and his brothers have it out at the O.K. Corral in a beautifully staged shoot-out with the Earps.  In an evocative scene, Wyatt, his brothers and Doc assemble for the big finale.
John Sturges has “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer” lenser Charles Lang shoot set-ups from low angles to make everything look larger than life.  Terrific stuff! Sturges would stick to the facts more closely with his unofficial sequel "Hour of the Gun" with James Garner cast as Wyatt Earp.

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