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The story of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone has been given many workings-over in westerns, and most of the versions are pretty good. Despite latter-day efforts with Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, there are still only three classics: John Ford's My Darling Clementine and two versions by John Sturges, this film and his revisionist Hour of the Gun. Most of the tales of the Earps and the Clantons have at least something going for them. Even Frank Perry's troubled Doc isn't altogether a loss. The mythic elements in the historical gundown fit right in with Hollywood's idea of a socko action climax.
1957's Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a genuine super-western, an expensive, confident entertainment that sums up everything good about the big-scale commercial oaters of the time. VistaVision and Technicolor give the exteriors a terrific Big Sky look, and Dimitri Tiomkin's restless score is so exciting, it transcends cliché. There are few surprises in the professional cast, a collection of types that make the Western seem as stylistically rigid as a Japanese Noh play. The show is Hollywood all the way ... judging by the way these men dress, the laundry and dry cleaning service in Dodge City is excellent.
The story takes its time to set up a fictitious version of a grudge feud in the Old West. Marshall Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) wants to quit being a lawman but his brother Virgil (John Hudson) needs help in Tombstone keeping crooked rancher Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) in line. Although he'd like to head West and marry gambler Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), Earp goes to Tombstone with his new friend Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), a flashy card sharp suffering from tuberculosis. The authority of his badge doesn't clear things up -- when Earp becomes a Federal Marshall, Ike bushwacks him but kills one of his brothers by mistake. The legal dispute then becomes a personal affair -- the Earps versus the Clantons.
Western fans must have an active gene that inclines them to love glossy genre pictures, as we anticipate and love every detail of Gunfight before it happens. We know that Burt Lancaster is going to be a humorless hero with a heart of gold, and that Kirk Douglas will be a charming and stylish rogue. There are no surprises in the cowpokes surrounding them: John Ireland is a testy gunslinger (in his second classic O.K. film), and Lyle Bettger plays yet another unredeemable bad guy. Every male cast member fits into a predetermined slot on the spectrum between good and bad. Freckled innocent Martin Milner meets a violent end almost identically to the way he did two years before in Pete Kelly's Blues. Earl Holliman is young but seasoned, while Star Trek's DeForest Kelly and John Hudson are solid family men.
Crossing the line from good to bad, Dennis Hopper essays a James Dean bit as a 'troubled youth' in a bad environment. The crooked Sheriff Cotton Wilson is Frank Faylen, the taxi driver from It's a Wonderful Life. We get a broad selection of gunslingers & other types fated not to survive to the end of the picture. Two classic bad men, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam, make archetypal appearances. Ted de Corsia is a roughneck cattle boss and Kenneth Tobey gets a short bit as none other than our old friend Bat Masterson.
When it comes to Westerns, words like stereotype and predictable are not necessarily derogatory. Like comforting fables, these stories restage familiar crises to assure us that the traditional ways are best: women should stay out of bars and remain loyal to one man, and male friendship is the highest virtue. Doing the right thing takes a high toll, most of it on unlucky featured players and assorted bad guys. These are bedtime tales for grown men.
Shot in bright color and staged with assurance by John Sturges, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral's script was written by Leon Uris, of Exodus fame. His version of the events around the famous gundown are almost as fanciful as John Ford's mythologizing, but nowhere near as realistic as the morally messy Hour of the Gun. In reality, Ike Clanton wasn't killed at the corral, and the classic confrontation wasn't as clear-cut as most movies make it. The Earps were lawmen, but they and the Clantons had competing cattle interests. The Earps held law offices mainly to wield political power. Most of the Clanton/Earp feud was played out in the courts. The myth of the lawless frontier doesn't apply. If anything too much law was involved. Several overlapping city, territorial and state jurisdictions were in play. When the shooting began, fighters on both sides were said to be carrying valid arrest warrants for their opposite numbers. Small claims court wasn't going to be able to settle this one.
The roles are no stretch for either star, but Lancaster and Douglas carefully improve on the adequate dialogue. Douglas doesn't overdo the coughing fits, thankfully. Rhonda Fleming is rather stiff as Lancaster's love interest ('kind of cold around the heart' is how Robert Mitchum described her in Out of the Past). Acting honors for the whole show go to Jo Van Fleet, as Holliday's girlfriend Kate. Van Fleet looks like old photos of alcoholic frontier molls. She manages to convey her fallen woman status through a chaotic series of swaps back and forth between Holliday and John Ireland's Johnny Ringo. Kate stays sympathetic even when she fails to warn the heroes of an ambush. In a couple of scenes her disapproving faces are so convincing, Douglas looks like he's sweating out the performance. When he roughs her up, she seems to be saying, "Is that the best you can do?" Between East of Eden and Wild River, Jo Van Fleet gets our vote as a top film actress of the 1950s.
There are two special things to mention about the soundtrack. Among its other virtues, VistaVision was endowed with a higher-fidelity sound signal, and I remember the audio on this picture being especially sharp and rich. The gunshots were remarkable; the BOOM of the shotguns had a lot of depth. Perhaps the Paramount sound engineers were directed to make the shotgun booms sound like the ear-splitting gunshots in George Stevens' Shane. The actual gunfight is a drawn-out affair, very nicely directed. John Sturges gets his violent moments in without going overboard. He'd labored in the MGM trenches for quite a while, but it was only Bad Day at Black Rock and to a lesser extent Escape from Fort Bravo that got him into the big leagues. Gunfight confirmed Sturges' upper-echelon listing, at least for macho action pictures.
The movie has one of the best western music scores ever. It's ironic that Russian-born composer Dimitri Tiomkin was the composer to really nail the expansive western sound in pictures like Red River and (cough) The Big Sky; nobody communicates as much raw power on the screen. Tiomkin accompanies the VistaVision logo with crashing chords suitable for the entrance of angels with flaming swords, a rude blast that soon settles down into a folksy, bouncy clip-a-clop ballad that any 3 year-old would immediately associate with horses. Frankie Laine sang at least a dozen main themes for Westerns, but few as memorable as his title vocal for this one. Laine returns at regular intervals, singing overly literal lyrics tht describe Wyatt's state of inner confusion, a repetition of the issues in Tex Ritter's song from High Noon. Words like 'killers' and 'die' get exaggerated emphasis, because when Laine sings, every word is stressed. Several stanzas begin with 'Boot Hill,' which the chorus echoes, thusly:
Laine: "Boot Hill" Chorus: "Boot Hill Boot Hill Boot Hill ..."
The clip-a-clop rhythm will have you bobbing up and down and singing along. Well, maybe. Either way the music is a major factor in the enjoyment of the picture. Due to its languorous pace Gunfight seems longer than its 122 minutes, yet it's a wholly satisfying show. This one surely received big rounds of applause from the matinee crowd.
Paramount's Blu-ray (distributed through Warner Home Video) of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is an eyeball-cleaning beauty, with blazing colors, little grain and impressive clarity. The movie looked GREAT in the theater thanks to the fine VistaVision cinematography and I'd say about 98% of that impression has been reproduced for Blu-ray fans. The film elements must have been sitting on a golden cloud somewhere. This is especially pleasing because Paramount's earlier DVD was not all that attractive.
I didn't crank my audio dial but I could hear a little of the BOOM of those shotgun blasts. Home theater enthusiasts looking for that effect should have no trouble reproducing it. The disc is plain-wrap, with no extras. The low price certainly compensates. Let's hope more Blu-rays of desirable vintage titles are on their way from Paramount through Warners.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Blu-ray rates:
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