In most movies about the infamous 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, the titular shootout serves as the climax—Roger Ebert once famously wrote that in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), perhaps the greatest of all films based on the legend, the violence felt more like a “dispatch of unfinished business” than a bloody finale. John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), a retelling of the events surrounding the frantic 30-second gunfight ends with a highly choreographed showdown where a valiant Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster trade bullets and sprint across No Man’s Lands while under heavy fire. For years the film was seen as the definitive cinematic treatment of the gunfight.
Less can be said about Hour of the Gun, Sturges’ re-examination of the events of that dusty October afternoon released a decade after his original movie. Here, the gunfight is practically the prologue, breaking out moments after the opening credits end. Wyatt Earp (James Garner) spends more time tending to his wounded brother Virgil (Frank Converse) while bickering with a local lawman over whether his posse had the legal jurisdiction to open fire than he does actually shooting. Cut from the Corral to a courtroom where the Earps and their ally Doc Holliday (Jason Robards) are tried for murder, each of them methodically questioned and cross-examined. Surviving members of the villainous Ike Clayton gang are called to the stand and give conflicting testimonies of the killings, forcing the lawyers and judge to meticulously comb through the evidence for contradictions.
This legal rigamarole feels self-consciously anti-climactic, almost borderline parody, ruthlessly stripping the romance from one of the most romanticized moments in American history and throwing it to the floor with a dull thud. But then, Hour of the Gun is a different kind of Western, one more interested in interrogating truth than myth. The remainder of the movie is a brutal deconstruction of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday as heroes, following their exploits as they hunt down the last of Clayton’s men and murder them. The killings aren’t technically illegal—Earp and Holliday are very deliberate in letting their prey shoot first so they can claim self-defense—but there’s no denying that they go out of their way to goad, prod, terrify, and humiliate the Claytons so they attack first. These are men uninterested in justice—they want revenge. What’s more, they’re powerless to stop themselves. Nowhere is this portrayed better than a scene where Holliday breaks down and screams to a vengeful Earp “If you’re gonna kill like me you might as well drink like me” before they both set off to more of their bloody business. In the film’s deconstruction of the two icons as Old West heroes, Sturges inadvertently creates a kind of proto-Revisionist Western.
And yet, the film is a plodding, turgid affair, drained of life or momentum by an enveloping morbidity that only truly works in the first act where the Claytons try to turn public opinion against the Earps through chilling public spectacles. Scenes where the corpses of the killed Claytons are laid in state on Main Street and paraded past the jailhouse accompanied by mourners, a marching band, and a giant banner reading “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone” promise a visual viciousness that quickly disappears; much of the film is successions of scenes where stern, serious-looking middle aged men bicker in over-lit rooms. And while Garner and Robards were fine actors, they don’t have the onscreen magnetism or presence of Douglas or Lancaster, leaving Edward Anhalt’s tepid screenplay with the grunt-work of making us like these deliberately unlikable characters.
One could argue that the film’s greatest sin was over-ambition: perhaps Sturges wasn’t ready to make such a dreary, atypical Western. It was still the 60s, after all. Spaghetti Westerns were just beginning to make their way over from Italy and while a number of American auteurs like Anthony Mann and Monte Hellman had made the first baby steps at examining the uncomfortable realities of the Old West, Sturges was still too much of a traditional crowd pleaser. Arguably his best film of the 60s was The Magnificent Seven (1960), an equally romanticized tall tale of the Old West in the same vein as his earlier O.K. Corral. Those curious to experience the film would do well to pick up Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray release of the film, as it contains a decent digital transfer and an insightful insert essay by Julie Kirgo that situates the film within its historical context. But those wanting a superior film about the O.K. Corral would do better to check out the Douglas/Lancaster one. Or better yet, My Darling Clementine. At least Ford never forgot the importance of printing the legend.