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.
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.