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Category Archives: Kirk Douglas

The Indian Fighter

Films like Broken Arrow and Devil’s Doorway broke new ground for the western by offering up portrayals of Indians which were more three-dimensional than had traditionally been the case. Andre de Toth’s The Indian Fighter (1955) treads a similarly sympathetic path, showing the Sioux in a generally positive light. Few of the white characters are shown to be particularly admirable, even the nominal hero is not without his faults, succumbing easily to prejudice and greed. In addition, the film has a pro-ecology subtext that’s blended into the story in a way that’s refreshing and unobtrusive. This is not as powerful a film as the examples by Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann which I mentioned, yet it still manages to get its message across without resorting to the po-faced piety of more recent revisionist pieces.

Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas) is the Indian fighter of the title, an army scout recently returned to the west after the Civil War. He’s been sent along to guide a wagon train bound for Oregon through potentially hostile country. Before he ever reaches his posting though, he’s distracted by two events that are to shape the story that follows. The first is a sighting of Onahti (Elsa Martinelli), the beautiful daughter of Sioux chief Red Cloud, bathing naked in a river. The second is when he stumbles upon a botched deal between two white men, Todd and Chivington (Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney Jr), and a Sioux warrior exchanging whisky for gold. Both of these occurrences illustrate Hawks’ inherent sympathy for his old enemies. The former, naturally enough, arousing his romantic instincts, while the latter emphasises his willingness to side with the Sioux when confronted with the exploitative behaviour of his fellow whites. What draws Hawks to the Sioux is the respect he shares with them for the land which they occupy. Red Cloud’s principal objection to white men on his land is based on his belief that their greed for the gold it contains will wreak environmental havoc on the unspoiled paradise. Although Hawks doesn’t voice such fears specifically, there’s a telling moment later on when he confides in a photographer that the reason he doesn’t share his evangelical zeal to publicize the beauty of the frontier is his knowledge that attracting more settlers, and the trappings of civilization that they will inevitably bring in their wake, will spell the end of the west he loves. Even so, Hawks agrees to guide the wagon train through Sioux territory. However, the presence of Todd and Chivington among the settlers soon leads to trouble and puts the lives of everyone in jeopardy. While Hawks’ desire for Onahti drives him to neglect his duty, the equally strong desire of Todd and Chivington for the yellow metal sparks off a Sioux uprising. Faced with suspicion and hostility from both sides, Hawks is desperate to find some way of averting an impending massacre, and the terrible consequences it will have for the Sioux.

By the time he made The Indian Fighter, Andre de Toth had a string of westerns behind him (half a dozen starring Randolph Scott), and he’d developed into a highly competent genre director. He used the wide cinemascope lens to highlight the natural beauty of the Oregon landscapes where the picture was shot. These stunning images make it very easy to see why both Hawks and the Sioux want to do all in their power to preserve the land. The rich visuals are probably the biggest selling point for this picture, but de Toth was no slouch when it came to filming action scenes and his talent in this area is shown to great effect in the climactic Sioux attack on the besieged fort. Not only are the tactics employed innovative and surprising, but the way it’s shot gets across the excitement and danger too. Many of de Toth’s films display a matter of fact approach to physical violence and this one is no exception. Early on, we get to see two victims of Sioux justice strung up by the heels, though the camera mercifully avoids zooming in to focus on the exact nature of their demise. Then later, as the body of a cavalry officer is removed from the mount he’s been strapped to, his hat drops away to reveal the gory aftermath of his scalping.

The Indian Fighter came from Kirk Douglas’ own production company and, as was the case with Man Without a Star, he tends to overindulge himself a little. Generally though, Douglas manages to keep his vigor and enthusiasm within acceptable bounds this time. That is to say, he plays the role of Johnny Hawks with the level of energy that’s not unreasonable for the character. The outdoors nature of the shoot, and the degree of action involved, offered ample opportunity for him to show off his physical powers, which is just as well since Ben Hecht’s script never puts serious demands on his acting abilities. In the role of Onahti, Elsa Martinelli hasn’t a great deal to do beyond looking attractive, and she accomplishes that without too much effort; her introductory swimming scene is one of the more memorable openings for a western. Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney Jr are moderately effective as the heavies, the former faring best, but never pose any direct threat to the hero. The nature of this pair’s villainy comes from the repercussions of their actions rather than the actual menace they generate. Matthau is now best known for his comedic roles but he did make a handful of westerns at the beginning of his film career. He uses that calculating, scheming quality which came so naturally to him, and which he built up in subsequent years, to compensate for the absence of any real physical threat. Chaney’s career, on the other hand, was in decline by this time, and the truth is he cuts a rather shambling figure.

The Indian Fighter is widely available on DVD from MGM. I have the UK release, which I understand is a step up in terms of picture quality from the lacklustre US version. Although the disc offers nothing in terms of extra features, the image is quite pleasing. The anamorphic scope transfer is acceptably sharp, without noticeable damage, and represents the colours very nicely. A film that relies as heavily on its scenic views as this one does needs to look good, and I have no complaints about the presentation. Generally, this is a good and well-intentioned movie, although the villains are a little weak. Having said that, the action and the cinematography make up for such deficiencies. It’s interesting to note that with the exception of Douglas’ skittish lead and the thoughtful cavalry commander, the whites are portrayed as either grasping, prejudiced or duplicitous. The only truly honourable figures are the environmentally aware Sioux. which gives the movie a strangely contemporary feel. I liked it.

 
 

Man Without a Star

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When you think of films about the passing of the old west and the shrinking of the frontier it’s examples from the late 1960s and 1970s that tend to spring to mind. As the western entered its own autumnal phase, the movies, perhaps quite naturally, turned their focus onto the gradual decline of the period they depicted. However, the sense of a way of life passing wasn’t confined to films of this time alone. Man Without a Star (1955) was made during the genre’s heyday, yet it tells the tale of a man driven ever further by the inexorable closing of the open range to seek out a place that offered the kind of freedom he once took for granted. This is a fascinating and emotive theme, and it runs throughout the film, but it’s diluted somewhat by a script that has the hero behaving in a way that, while entirely appropriate within the framework of the classic western, sees him contradicting his own personal philosophy.

Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) is a drifter, as the title suggests, a man who’s lost or perhaps never had a point of reference to guide him through life. His wanderings have taken him ever further from his roots in search of an elusive idyll. He waxes lyrical about the open range that used to allow men to go wherever their fancy took them, and thinks he may have stumbled upon his goal when he finds himself hired on as a hand on an expanding ranch. But that’s not to be; the barbed wire that signals the end of the vast expanses of untamed country are never far behind. No sooner has Rae settled into this comfortable position than the neighbouring ranchers start to string wire and close off the land to protect their grazing from the encroachment of his employer. That employer is Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain), a hard headed woman from the east who intends to make her fortune no matter what obstacles are thrown in her path. After some initial hostility, she sees Rae as the man on whom she can depend on both a professional and personal level. And so Rae becomes Reed’s top hand, her lover, and her enforcer. That ought to be more than enough to occupy any man, but Rae has also taken on a kind of paternal role for a young man, Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), who has drifted north with him. It’s the arrival, with more cattle to swell Reed’s already substantial herd, of an old acquaintance of Rae’s that tips the balance though. Steve Miles (Richard Boone) is a mean and dangerous figure who’s prepared to take the ruthless steps that Rae baulked at, and will force his rival onto the sidelines. Miles’ actions force Rae’s hand and he has no option but to reconsider his previous prejudices. This, naturally, is par for the course in a western but it does have the effect of making Rae’s character less focused – he smoothly crosses the line to defend those whose methods he once railed against. Here we see a man who has suffered personal loss, whose body is crossed by the scars left behind by the hated wire, yet one who is prepared to forget all that and side with his former enemies as a result of his dislike of Miles and his methods. It builds Rae up into a hero of course, but it also cops out to a degree. I can’t help feeling that the story might have panned out into something more interesting and subversive had the character of Rae been allowed to stick to his guns and go down fighting rather than yield to the advance of progress.

Kirk Douglas displaying his mean streak in Man Without a Star.

I haven’t seen a huge number of King Vidor’s films, especially not his early output. However, of those I have seen (six or seven pictures I guess), I must admit they all look great. Man Without a Star is no exception in that regard, there’s a richness to the images on show that’s extremely attractive. Clearly, having a top class cameraman like Russell Metty on hand didn’t hurt, and the result is some very well staged sequences. The climactic stampede, leading to the fight between Douglas and Boone, is a good example of this. Kirk Douglas’ performance in the movie is what I’d term a patchy one and not really up there with the best he was capable of. At times, he produces the kind of intensity that marked his more memorable roles, while at other moments he resorts to something akin to a parody of himself. In the same way that his character arc, which I mentioned before, doesn’t entirely satisfy, the jump from brooding, hair trigger moodiness to comedic mugging fails to flow naturally. In fact, the comic interludes are perhaps the least successful aspects of the film. At one appalling point, William Campbell strolls into the saloon done up in the kind of outfit that might have given Bob Hope pause for reflection in The Paleface, leading to some merciless ribbing from Douglas. The thing is though that it doesn’t actually work as it just feels forced and it jars. Scenes such as this don’t blend in with the rest of the movie and seem like they’ve been ported over from an entirely different production. What does succeed is the needling relationship between Douglas and Richard Boone, whose work generated some discussion on this site a few weeks back. Personally, I found myself yearning for more screen time for Boone and considerably less for Mr Campbell. Another positive aspect is the role played by Jeanne Crain. The traditional western template equates the feminine with domesticity, pacifism and a civilising influence. Man Without a Star, on the other hand, sees this truism overturned. Ms Crain exudes a sassy antagonism, sat on her buckboard, skirts hitched high and hat at a provocatively rakish angle. It is she, rather than the meek, male neighbouring ranchers, who takes on the role of aggressor and advocate of the open range that characterised the real wildness of the old west.

As far as I’m aware, Man Without a Star is currently available on DVD from three sources, and all of them bear some imperfections. There’s a French release that presents the movie, I believe, in a 4:3 aspect ratio and forces subtitles on the English track. There are also versions out in Germany and Australia, both of which have the movie in the correct 2:1 ratio. I’ve only seen some screencaps of the German disc but it appears that the colours have been drained and the overall result is a drab and flat looking image. I have the Australian DVD, which offers far richer colours yet looks like it may be interlaced. Despite that, the R4 version is a generally pleasing effort and I can’t say I was aware of any print damage or other distractions. The disc is completely barebones – no extras, no subtitles, not even a menu that I can locate. All in all, Man Without a Star is an imperfect film; it looks good and explores some interesting themes, but there’s an uneven quality to both the writing and lead performance that weaken it slightly. Even so, it’s an above average production that deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in westerns of the period.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Kirk Douglas, Richard Boone, Westerns

 

Last Train from Gun Hill

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I love the complexity of westerns from the 1950s. Moreover, I love the fact that this complexity could be contained within the framework of relatively simple and compact stories and still lose nothing in the telling. Take Last Train from Gun Hill (1959): on the face of it we have a fairly standard pursuit and revenge tale, yet it successfully tackles the themes of racism, loyalty (both to friends and to family), justice and the father/son dynamic. Not only that, but it wraps the whole thing up in a run time of an hour and a half or thereabouts. The result is tight, intense moviemaking that draws you in from the very first shot and only relinquishes its grip when the final credits roll.

Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) is a US Marshal with a Cherokee bride and a young son. Within minutes of the opening Morgan’s wife has been assaulted, raped and murdered by two young thugs. This is a brutal and shocking way to begin any story, and despite the camera mercifully cutting away none of its power is diminished. The point is further hammered home when Morgan arrives to survey the terrible aftermath, horror, sorrow and outrage all flitting across his features. Morgan’s grief is compounded by his realisation that a saddle left behind at the scene of the crime points the finger of guilt at an old friend and comrade Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). Morgan doesn’t for one moment believe that Belden himself could have been directly involved in this heinous act, but the presence of the saddle means some member of his entourage must have been. The sting in the tail comes from the fact that the chief culprit is Belden’s son and heir Rick (Earl Holliman), a spoilt and inadequate young man living hopelessly in his father’s shadow. The perverse and damaging nature of this father/son relationship is eloquently summed up in a short scene at Belden’s ranch house. When the foreman ribs the boy about the reason for a cut on his face Belden goads him into fighting for the honour of the family name – Rick is soundly beaten, causing humiliation to him and disappointment to his father. When Morgan learns the truth the scene is set for a confrontation between the two old friends. The bonds between the two men are strong but the events that have taken place put an intolerable strain on them. Morgan is determined to take Rick back to stand trial while Belden is equally determined to stop him. As Morgan and his prisoner wait in a cramped hotel room for the arrival of the last train, Belden and his men lay siege outside. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma at this point, although Rick lacks the charm of Ben Wade and Morgan’s personal loss lends him more inflexibility than Dan Evans. As the clock ticks inexorably towards the arrival of that last train the pressure mounts on Morgan, and the issue is raised of whether he too might have to face the same situation as Belden somewhere down the line – for Morgan (like his former friend) is now a widower faced with the unenviable task of trying to raise a boy alone.

I am the law - Kirk Douglas in Last Train from Gun Hill.

John Sturges always knew how to shoot an action scene and there can be no complaints on that score here. However, this movie isn’t a string of back to back shoot-em-up set pieces, and it’s sometimes forgotten how good Sturges was at coaxing strong performances from his cast. Both Douglas and Quinn give convincing portraits of men unaccustomed to ceding ground to anyone and torn between conflicting loyalties. The few scenes where they actually share the screen are a pleasure to watch – the initial meeting at the ranch when both men realize who really killed Morgan’s wife, and what the consequences must inevitably be, contains some marvellous work with an enormous amount of feeling conveyed simply through subtle glances. As good as Quinn is, Douglas steals the show with his grim determination and suppressed fury boiling just below the surface. He’s playing a man for whom respect for the law and the badge he carries is paramount, even to the extent that his own personal grief is subordinated to duty. There are only two occasions when his professionalism is allowed to slip momentarily, both triggered by racial slurs directed at his murdered wife. The first is a reflexive burst of physical violence against a local loudmouth. The second, however, is merely vocal but has a sadistic quality that is quite chilling – his deliberate and detailed description to a shackled and cowed Rick of how the judicial process that will lead to his certain death will be as slow and protracted as any Indian execution is the only time he permits himself to savour the taste of revenge. Earl Holliman played Rick as a whining, craven creature who never elicits the least sympathy from the viewer. This seems to be largely down to the writing, and if any particular criticism is to be made of the film it’s that Rick’s character is just too unlikeable. If there had been something even vaguely attractive about him it would have added yet another layer to the story, but that’s really just nitpicking on my part. Carolyn Jones has the only female role in the movie (not counting the extremely brief appearance by Morgan’s wife) as the on/off lover of Belden. Aside from providing a counter to all the machismo on display, she occupies (for most of the film at least) a place similar to that of the viewer i.e. watching from the sidelines while feeling some sympathy for both the protagonists. In the end, it’s her respect for Morgan and his motivation, and her disillusionment with Belden and his son’s brutality, that leads to the decisive shift in the balance of power.

The R1 DVD from Paramount has Last Train from Gun Hill looking just great. The vistavision elements have been transferred beautifully at 1.78:1 anamorphic, with colours looking rich and saturated. I can’t say I noticed any damage or flaws worth mentioning and the image is sharp and detailed. There are no extras whatsoever on the disc, and that’s a pity as this is a movie that would seem to be just begging for an intelligent commentary track. This is a movie – like many by Sturges in fact – that knows how to keep the tension simmering and the viewer hooked. There’s no preaching or tiresome moralising yet the messages are all communicated clearly and seamlessly without impeding the narrative or the entertainment. In short, it’s a high class film.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1950s, Anthony Quinn, John Sturges, Kirk Douglas, Westerns

 

The Last Sunset

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The Last Sunset (1961) is a film that seems to have all the credentials, all the ingredients that go towards making a top flight production: a highly talented director, a fine cast, and a script by a top writer. In spite of all this the final result is a movie that doesn’t quite gel and one that delivers a lot less than it initially promises. As is usually the case when a film proves disappointing, the fault lies with the script. There are some interesting elements which are introduced and then disposed of before they’ve had a chance to play out fully. Generally, this leads to both clutter and a lack of focus. In the end, we’re left with a film that’s not exactly bad but one that could and should have been a whole lot better.  

The opening credits play over a dogged pursuit across a southwestern landscape, down into Mexico where the bulk of the action will unfold. O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) is the black clad fugitive, a killer who carries a derringer instead of a six-shooter. Hot on his trail is Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), a lawman with a personal interest in seeing his quarry brought back to Texas to hang. O’Malley is heading for a ranch run by a faded Virginia gentleman with a fondness for the bottle. The rancher, Breckenridge (Joseph Cotten), happens to be married to O’Malley’s old sweetheart Belle (Dorothy Malone) and it’s soon evident that he’s continued carrying a torch for her for years. The two men strike a deal whereby O’Malley will help Breckenridge drive his herd up to Texas, but he also claims he’s going to take his new partner’s wife off him. That in itself could have provided an interesting scenario, but the script has no intention of remaining so simple. Stribling’s arrival leads to an uneasy truce with hunter and hunted agreeing to pool their talents in order to ensure the success of the cattle drive before settling their own scores. With both newcomers being clearly interested in the charms of Belle the scene looks set for a juicy three-way contest for her affections. However, that’s not to be for Breckenridge soon departs the scene after being gunned down in a cheap cantina. What’s even more frustrating is the fact that moments before his death the audience is treated to revelations about Breckenridge’s shameful past. So, two potentially rich plot veins are left unmined. Instead we’re treated to the seemingly interminable drive to Texas with too much talk and too few sparks. It seems that the producers were aware that they were in danger of bogging the plot down, so three shifty and unscrupulous cowboys, who plan to get in on the white slavery racket, are introduced (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and James Westmoreland) to try to spice up proceedings. Again the opportunity is lost as these characters are killed off before they have the chance to make an impression. The script still has one hole card in reserve though, and it’s a real stinger. Nevertheless, in keeping with the rest of the picture, this gets handled poorly too. The problem is not with the nature of this final reveal, it’s suitably shocking, but the fact that we learn about it too soon. I won’t go into details here lest I spoil things for anybody, but the timing really draws all the tension and drama out of the climactic duel and leaves us with a flat and predictable ending.

Kirk Douglas

With a combination of Robert Aldrich directing and Dalton Trumbo writing, I don’t think it’s unfair to have high expectations. For whatever reason, neither man was at the top of his game on The Last Sunset. Trumbo’s script meanders all over the place and flatters to deceive, with too many plot turns and too many undeveloped ideas. Aldrich allowed the momentum to flag after the first half hour or so and he never really recovered it after that. There are some nice shots, a well filmed sequence during a dust storm, and an attempt to claw back some tension in the climax through quick cutting but none of it adds up to enough to save the film. On top of all this the performances of the two leads are nothing to write home about either. Douglas seemed to be trying for the kind of deadly rascal that Burt Lancaster pulled off in Aldrich’s Vera Cruz but it doesn’t really work for him. Hudson just didn’t convince at all as the driven lawman and he comes across as merely bland. Dorothy Malone and Joseph Cotten were altogether more successful as the Breckenridges; the former exuding a worldly sexuality that made the attention of her various suiters highly credible, while the latter provided a fine portrait of a broken and guilty man. Maybe if Hudson’s character had been the one to snuff it in the cantina we would have got a more compelling film. It’s also a shame that Jack Elam and Neville Brand had to disappear so soon since such character actors were capable of raising the quality of any production.

The Last Sunset was given a release a few years back by Universal in R1 in the Rock Hudson – Screen Legend set. The transfer is a fine anamorphic one and, apart from the odd speckle, there’s not much wrong with it. Colour and sharpness are both strong with good detail. There’s a trailer for the film provided but that’s it as far as extras go. This movie couldn’t be classed as anyone’s finest hour but it’s not a complete dud. There are a handful of worthy performances and the adult theme that becomes apparent as it draws to a close mean that it deserves a look. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t be an ideal introduction to the work of any of the principals

 

Along the Great Divide

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-You’re new in the territory.

-The law isn’t.

That exchange takes place during the tense standoff that opens Raoul Walsh’s Along the Great Divide (1951). This is a film that examines notions of law and justice and, like any quality western, also looks into the hearts of the characters and their motivations. The framework of the story is a fairly standard pursuit through vast open spaces but the fact that it’s got a relatively small cast allows time for the psychology of each of the main players to be thoroughly probed.

When Len Merrick (Kirk Douglas), a US Marshal, chances upon a mob of angry cattlemen bent on a lynching he’s duty bound to call a halt to proceedings. His dogged determination to see the law run its prescribed course will plunge him into a tangled mess of jealousy, revenge and violence. The man on the end of the rope is Pop Keith (Walter Brennan), a homesteader whose fondness for rustling has landed him in deep trouble. Keith has been accused of the murder of the local cattle baron’s son, and the father is keen to visit justice on the old man personally. With the reluctant help of his two deputies (John Agar and Ray Teal) Merrick takes the prisoner into custody and sets about escorting him back to what passes for civilisation, and a fair trial. However, the relentless pursuit of the lynch mob means that the lawmen, with Keith’s daughter Ann (Virginia Mayo) in tow, need to alter their plans. If their prisoner is to be delivered into the hands of the proper authorities then the only way to do so is by traversing the unforgiving desert in high summer. This punishing trek is further complicated by ambush, treachery and the psychological taunting of the marshal. Keith has stumbled upon a dark secret in Merrick’s past relating to his father, and baits him mercilessly every step of the way. The situation isn’t made any easier when Merrick not only finds himself becoming attracted to the daughter but he also realizes that his doubts regarding Keith’s guilt are growing by the day. By the time the climax rolls round, Merrick will have to face down both his enemies and the demons of his past before he can make peace with his own conscience.

Rattling the skeletons - Kirk Douglas & Walter Brennan in Along the Great Divide.

Along the Great Divide is typical Raoul Walsh fare, with hard men braving a hostile environment and battling both the elements and themselves. For the most part, the movie was shot outdoors on location at Lone Pine and the director made the most of what the landscape had to offer. The ambush among those familiar rock formations is skilfully handled, and the desert crossing has a realistically dusty and arduous feel. This was the first western role that Kirk Douglas took on and he seemed to slip very naturally into the genre. He portrays Merrick as a complex yet competent man who tries his best to do the right thing, even though he’s not always sure what that is. Walter Brennan is as reliable as usual as the wily old timer whose amiability and charm are undercut by a streak of malice that he freely indulges at Merrick’s expense. In the role of the tomboyish daughter Virginia Mayo is also highly effective, with her tough and feisty character giving a grittier edge to the romantic angle. As for the support cast, John Agar and Ray Teal are fine as Merrick’s deputies, the former loyal and steadfast while the latter is conniving and slippery.

This movie has made an appearance in R1 as part of the Warner Archive programme, but there’s an excellent pressed disc available in R2 from France. Warner obviously had a strong print to work with for that R2 disc presents the film very appealingly. The image is sharp and highly detailed (with the exception of a few zoom shots which are softer and have heavier grain) with little in the way of damage. Bearing in mind the short running time and the total absence of extras, it seems a bit odd that the movie has been granted a dual layer disc. However, this means that there’s no issue with compression. As with all Warner French releases I’ve seen, the subtitles are optional and can be switched off via the main menu. It’s hard to go wrong with a western directed by Raoul Walsh, and Along the Great Divide is one of his usual polished and well-crafted works. Recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1950s, Kirk Douglas, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

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With Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) John Sturges took his turn at putting Wyatt Earp’s story on the screen. When this film is compared to those which went before, there can be no doubt that it does come closer to the truth. There are more characters represented who actually played a part in the real events, small incidents which have a basis in fact are shown, and a little back story is provided. Having said all that, there are still lots of inaccuracies with names being changed and things not happening as they really did. Still, this is not a documentary, it’s a movie – and a highly polished and entertaining movie at that. 

Frankie Laine’s rendition of the title song opens the movie as Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) rides into Fort Griffin, Texas in pursuit of Ike Clanton. During his stay he meets Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), whom he subsequently saves from an angry mob intent on lynching him. This places Holliday in his debt and provides the basis for the two men’s friendship. As the film proceeds we see Earp and Holliday cross paths again in Dodge City before moving on to Tombstone, and the famous showdown. The fact that each segment is both punctuated and linked together by the theme song gives the film a slightly episodic feel. Mind you, that’s not a criticism; Laine’s vocals work almost as well as Tex Ritter’s do in High Noon (both of which, coincidentally, were scored by Dimitri Tiomkin). There are romantic sub-plots thrown in for the two leads – the one involving Earp and a lady gambler (Rhonda Fleming) is mostly superflous, while the stormy, abusive relationship between Holliday and Kate (Jo Van Fleet) works better since it does serve to drive the narrative forward.

Doc Holliday and the Earps on the way to the O.K. Corral

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was the second film that Lancaster and Douglas made together and they work well in tandem, each playing nicely off the other. Lancaster’s Wyatt has more of a hard, grim edge to him than was seen in previous incarnations. At one point Holliday tells him, “You know Wyatt, you and I are pretty much alike actually. Both of us live with a gun – the only difference is that badge.” However, Sturges doesn’t explore this side of things too much, and it would be left to later films to point out the fact that Earp’s badge might have been used as a mere convenience. Kirk Douglas’ Doc Holliday follows the usual pattern of presenting him as a tortured and volatile soul, but his self-loathing has a greater pathos than either Romero or Mature brought to the role, and it’s a vast improvement. John Ireland makes his second appearance in an Earp film, playing Johnny Ringo (he was Billy Clanton in My Darling Clementine) and again comes to a sticky end. In fact there are lots of familiar faces: Dennis Hopper, Kenneth Tobey, DeForest Kelley (Star Trek’s ‘Bones’), Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam etc.

Now a word about those items the movie got right, and those it didn’t. On the plus side we get a full complement of Clantons and McLaurys, Doc’s woman Kate is present, and Bat Masterson appears in Dodge City. Earp and Holliday are shown to meet in Fort Griffin and later in Dodge, where Doc saved Wyatt’s life as he attempted to stop a fight in a saloon. There’s also a brief reference to Old Man Clanton being shot dead as a result of his rustling activities. As for the negatives, James Earp is again falsely portrayed as the youngster of the family whose death is the catalyst for the gunfight – in truth he was the eldest and lived to a ripe old age. Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo didn’t die at the O.K. Corral, Ringo wasn’t even there. Also, the corrupt County Sheriff has his name changed from Behan to Wilson. 

The film is out on DVD from Paramount in R1 in a wonderful looking widescreen transfer. I haven’t seen the R2 to compare but I imagine it uses the same transfer. There is only very minor damage to the print and the colors are strong. Unfortunately, the disc is utterly barebones with not even a trailer present. The lack of supplements aside, this a great example of a 50’s western and one of the better movies about Wyatt Earp.

 
 
 
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