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Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
Paramount Home Video
1957 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 122 min. / Street Date April 22, 2003 / $19.99
Starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, Frank Faylen, Earl Holliman, Ted de Corsia, Dennis Hopper, Whit Bissell, John Hudson, DeForest Kelley, Martin Milner, Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef, Joan Camden, Olive Carey, Jack Elam
Cinematography Charles B. Lang Jr.
Art Direction Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Original Music Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by Leon Uris from a magazine article by George Scullin
Produced by Joseph H. Hazen, Hal B. Wallis
Directed by John Sturges

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 Noh play.


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 spectrum between 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 morally messy 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 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. 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
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

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