Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The story of famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone has been given many workings-over
in westerns, and it must be unkillable because most of the versions are pretty good.
There are 3 classics: John Ford's
My Darling Clementine, and two versions by John Sturges,
this film and the revisionist
Hour of the Gun. With time, the old-fashioned
Tombstone may become a classic as
well. Even the troubled Doc isn't altogether a loss. The mythic elements in the historical
gundown fit right in with Hollywood thinking.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a confident entertainment that sums up everything good about the big-scale
commercial oater 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 suprises in the
professional cast, a collection of types that make the Western seem as stylistically rigid as a Japanese
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 Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), Earp goes to
tombstone with his new friend Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), a flashy gambler with T.B.. Showing
Clanton's gang who's boss doesn't clear things up - when Earp becomes a federal marshall, Ike
bushwacks him but kills one of his brothers by mistake. Then the law dispute becomes a personal
affair - the Earps versus the Clantons.
There never was a glossy genre picture that worked as well as this - we seem to know and love every
detail before it happens. We know that Burt Lancaster is going to be a humorless hero with a heart
of gold, that Kirk Douglas will be charming and stylish. There are no suprises in the cast surrounding
them: John Ireland is a testy gunslinger (getting shot down in his second O.K. film), and Lyle Bettger
plays his umpteenth unredeemable bad guy. Every male cast member fits into a predetermined slot on the
good and bad. Martin Milner is freckled and innocent (getting blasted down almost identically to
the way he did in Pete Kelly's Blues, two years before), Earl Holliman is young but
seasoned, DeForest Kelly and John Hudson are solid family men.
Crossing the line from good to bad, we get Dennis Hopper doing a James Dean bit as a 'troubled youth' under bad
influences, the crooked Sheriff Cotton Wilson (shady Frank Faylen), and then various gunslingers &
other types fated not to survive to the end of the picture. Two classic bad men, Lee Van Cleef and
Jack Elam, make archtypal appearances; Ted de Corsia is a roughneck cattle boss, and Kenneth
Tobey gets a short bit as none other than Bat Masterson.
Using words like stereotype and predictable are not derogatory when it comes to Westerns. In the realm
of comforting fables, these stories reassert values and restage familiar crises to assure us that
the traditional ways are best: women should stay out of bars & loyal to one man; male friendship is
the highest virtue; doing the right thing takes a high toll - 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 more accurate than John Ford's mythologizing, but nowhere near as realistic as the
Hour of the Gun. In reality, Ike
Clanton wasn't killed at the corral, and the classic
good/bad setup wasn't as clear-cut as most movies make it. The Earps were lawmen, but they had
competing cattle interests with the Clantons. People held law offices mainly to wield political
power, and the Clanton/Earp feud was really a competition more in line with gang turf warfare,
played out mainly in the courts. The myth of the lawless frontier doesn't apply here, and there was,
if anything, too much law involved. There were several overlapping city, territory and state jurisdictions in
play: when the gundown 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 of them, but Lancaster and Douglas are a pleasure to watch, as
they carefully turn the adequate dialogue into something better. 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's character in
Out of the Past
described her). Acting honors for the whole show go to Jo Van Fleet, as Holliday's tramp girlfriend
Kate. Van Fleet looks like an alcoholic frontier moll from the old photos, and manages to convey her
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. There are a couple
of scenes where she makes disapproving faces at Douglas that are so convincing, he looks like he's sweating
out the performance. When he roughs her up, she seems to be be saying, "Is that the best you can do?"
There are two special things to mention about the soundtrack. Among its other virtues, VistaVision
was endowed by its engineers 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.
The other audio mention is the title vocal by Frankie Laine, who sang at least a dozen main themes for
Westerns, but few as memorable as this one. 1
Tiomkin has scored the opening with crashing chords suitable for the entrance of angels with
flaming swords, a cacaphony that soon settles down into a folksy, bouncy clip-a-clop ballad that any 3-year
old would immediately associate with horses. Laine's vocal returns at regular intervals, with its
very literal lyrics describing Wyatt's inner state of confusion, a repetition of the issues in the 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 ..."
Laine: "Boot Hill" Chorus: "Boot Hill boot hill boot hill ..."
Laine: "So Cold" Chorus: "Mighty Cold Mighty Cold Mighty Cold ..."
Laine: "So Still!" Chorus: "So still, so still, so still ..."
The clip-a-clop rhythm will have you bobbing up and down and singing along, like
Andy Kaufman doing the Mighty Mouse song.
It's kitschy, but it's cool too ... the recognition factor of Frankie Laine's style was the icebreaker
joke in Blazing Saddles. It's a major factor in the enjoyment of the picture. 2
Paramount's DVD of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a very good but not an outstanding disc. The transfer
is a tad bright in spots, and the color isn't always as vibrant as it might be.
There's also some dirt up front. The soundtrack also isn't quite as dynamic as the theatrical
experience ... it was a plain mono track of very impressive fidelity, and when you crank the
volume at home, it doesn't have quite the oomph it should, even those percussive, booming
gunshot noises. I'm spoiled by those museum screenings of Tech prints with the crystal clear sound.
That said, it looks far better than it does on cable television airings, where the full frame version is
compositionally very loose and dull - lots of wide interiors. Detail and framing are very impressive on
this picture, if seen on a big widescreen monitor.
There are no extras, not even a trailer, but Paramount's low sticker price will ease that pain.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 12, 2003
1. The 'Marina Mine' song from the quasi-Western Blowin' Wild takes
the cake for dramatic hyperbole ... I recommend you find a way to hear it sometime.
2. Second runner-up for cornball-but-irresistable Western theme is the
Marty Robbins vocal on The Hanging Tree. We used to play the tape at home, and my little kids
would do the echoey back-up chorus: "Whup-Wah!"
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson