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Hour of the Gun

Hour of the Gun
1967 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 100 min. / Street Date May 17, 2005 / 14.95
Starring James Garner, Jason Robards, Robert Ryan, Albert Salmi, Charles Aidman, Steve Ihnat, Michael Tolan, William Windom, Lonny Chapman, Larry Gates, William Schallert, Jon Voight
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Art Direction Alfred C. Ybarra
Film Editor Ferris Webster
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Edward Anhalt
Produced and Directed by John Sturges

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In every review Savant has written of a Wyatt Earp movie - My Darling Clementine, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp - I've repeated the opinion that the most satisfying version is this 1967 John Sturges effort. Hour of the Gun demythologizes the legend. The whirlpool of events around the O.K. Corral were more like a gangster story than the making of myth in the Streets of Laredo or El Paso. This film's Wyatt Earp is one of the few Law & Order figures to be properly portrayed on the big screen. He has a sense of justice but is no altruist. 90% of his motivation is pure revenge.

Hour of the Gun surprised people by starting the story where it usually ends, with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In the pre- The Wild Bunch, pre- revisionist year of 1967, everything about John Sturges' movie came as a sobering surprise.


A rigged confrontation at the O.K. Corral between the ranchers and lawmen of the Earp Family and the gunmen of rancher/political aspirant Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) turns into a bloodbath. Judge Herman Spicer (William Schallert) tries to keep a clear view, what with Clanton's hired killers lawfully employed as bookkeepers and stock breeders. Clanton wants to control the Arizona territory so that he can wield power when statehood comes, and that means nullifying the interests of his business competitor Wyatt Earp (James Garner). Earp has already taken office as city marshall to legitimize his opposition to Clanton's power grab, and has hired a friend, notorious outlaw Doc Holliday (Jason Robards) to back his play. The Tombstone business community supports Earp against Clanton as bloody reprisals up the body count. Only the tubercular Holliday has the big picture: Earp's cause may be just but both sides have their pockets stuffed with arrest warrants, so practical legality is a joke. Earp decides to corner Clanton's killers one by one. Knowing that his friend's aim is cold revenge, Holliday challenges him to acknowledge that the papers he carries are not warrants, but hunting licences.

In 1956 John Sturges made the glossiest and (then) most profitable of the golden-age Tombstone sagas, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Like most of the versions, it paints Earp and his martyred brothers as lily-pure lawmen striving to bring peace and justice to the territory. The Ike Clanton gang are just lawless scum in dire need of extermination.

In Hour of the Gun, Sturges follows the reflective direction of John Ford, who in the previous decade had been leaning his westerns toward the subjects of racism, mob mentality and the fate of the Indians. In the crazy political climate ("polarized" is the safer word) of 1967, Hour of the Gun played like a criticism of core American values. After "printing the legend" for a century, it was time for the country to grow up and realize that America not only didn't have the copyright on righteousness, its history wasn't the shining chronicle of virtue taught in school.

Author Edward Anhalt's long list of admirable film credits include several films for Sturges. He pares the drama down to the political facts of the Clanton-Earp feud - nobody admires the pretty scenery or hopes for a glorious garden to be raised from the desert. Most of the talk is about conflicting legal jurisdictions and warring political factions butting heads. It's really a gang war with both lawfully deputized sides posturing to maintain a good front and refusing to flinch under provocation. As a perceptive critic observed, the incident at the O.K. Corral is more like an L.A. drive-by than a Gunsmoke-style shootout. This is a gangster film in western dress.

The story arc plots the deterioration of Wyatt Earp's moral stance. He begins with a clean conscience, but as the body count goes up the fighting becomes too personal to stick to the rule books. The main killings are directed against political candidates, assassinations with the aim of controlling the balance of power in the territory: Tombstone is no more civilized than a Banana Republic. Wyatt maintains an ethical posture for his business backers, who have as much to gain from Clanton being booted from Tombstone as Clanton has incentive to take over. But when the going gets tough and good people start dying, Earp basically takes the gloves off and starts killing those he sets out to arrest - goading some into one-sided duels and simply executing others. When one is the only law in the territory and lives are on the line, cutting corners comes naturally. All of Wyatt's evasions and rationalizations are just that. Hour of the Gun is pure series of violent incidents that don't tell a noble story of good triumphing over evil. That's how things really happen in history.

The Earp/Holliday relationship is less sentimental than in other versions. Holliday is Earp's conscience: When a known killer is critical, Earp has to know he's doing wrong. Jason Robards' best work was on stage, with only a few film roles worthy of him. A couple of his dramatic exchanges in Hour of the Gun are more powerful than any gunplay. Robert Ryan is a great Ike Clanton, the kind of pragmatic scoundrel who realizes the country is changing and isn't above lawbreaking to secure himself a place in its future. Clanton might run for public office but would probably prefer to control things from behind the scenes.

The supporting cast overflows with interesting faces: Albert Salmi (Wild River), Charles Aidman, Steve Ihnat (The Chase), William Windom, Larry Gates, Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy), Karl Swenson (Major Dundee) and Jorge Russek (The Wild Bunch). Robert Ryan and Jason Robards figured strongly in Sam Peckinpah's filmography. One amusing bit has author Edward Anhalt playing the male nurse who sneaks booze in for Doc Holliday during his Colorado "rest cure."

The handsomely shot film has a brief detour in a gentrified Denver and ends with a suspenseful sequence in Mexico. Fans expecting a grandiose shootout at the finish will probably be disappointed. Hour of the Gun is an uncompromised Law & Order western.

It's not hard to guess why the film did not do well theatrically. In 1967 the country was still in the mood for escapist, fun westerns with a boozy John Wayne hitting people and Maureen O'Hara falling in the mud. Sober westerns didn't draw audiences, who were just discovering Sergio Leone's playful shooting-gallery Spaghettis. Also, as good as James Garner is, he couldn't sidestep his smart-mouthed Maverick personality. He tried his luck in a variety of genre works, like the Chandler update Marlowe, but never really hit paydirt until returning to television and the Maverick-like Rockford Files. Not only does Garner's Earp not joke around, he has no feminine interest in the film. We only see a few women in longshots. So much for general audience appeal.

After a string of major successes (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape) John Sturges put out a number of what would be called "interesting" films. The only outright mistake was 1965's abortive The Hallelujah Trail, a comedy with no laughs. Besides a couple of respectable exceptions (The Satan Bug, Joe Kidd) his career went downhill with Ice Station Zebra and the simply awful Marooned. Still, he remains one of the most creative and interesting of the Mirisch stable of directors, and Hour of the Gun deserves to be pushed closer to the top of the list of great westerns.

MGM's DVD of Hour of the Gun may be one of the last westerns to come out under the MGM banner - the company was bought by Sony before street date. The flipper disc has two transfers, a Pan-scan and a full enhanced Panavision version in beautiful color. Sturges was a pioneer in creative widescreen compositions (Bad Day at Black Rock) and the full image is so attractive that I doubt I'll check out the flat version. Jerry Goldsmith's sleek score is a great plus.

The only extra is a trailer. MGM's package copy is very good this time around, but the marketers invent a lame tagline: "In Tombstone, justice is settled with a gun." It's not only trite, but the word useage is questionable. Problems, disputes, coffee grounds are settled - but I don't think justice is "settled" .. justice is justice, an ideal that stays above the fray.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hour of the Gun rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 10, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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