Thursday, December 29, 2011

Movie Review: The O.K. Corral-Four Movies, Four Gunfights

It's winter break, so I'm off for a couple of weeks.  I always have something I want to do, some game and/or painting project I don't have time for during the school year.  Painting also means movies to watch.  With my Netflix temporarily h'ors de combat I'm left to ponder my own collection of movies.  I was going to drag out all my westerns and have a kind of Western Week.  Instead I focused on four movies that cover the same ground-Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1956,) Hour of the Gun (1967,) Tombstone (1993,) and Wyatt Earp (1994.)  All of these movies deal, more or less, with the events surrounding the notorious shoot out in Tombstone, Arizona in October, 1881.

What I hope to do is share a bit about each of the movies, the good and the bad, make some comparisons and contrasts.  I confess to having little historical knowledge of this event, or of Wyatt Earp his brothers, or Doc Holliday.  The views I share are simply my reactions to the movies, largely based on portrayals and storytelling.  At the end I'll offer my views on the best of the four.

 Before I begin offering my review of each film, however, let me just say that all four of the movies have some things in common.  First, they are all good movies. None of these would be a waste of two hours (or more in some cases.) Some, in my view, are better than others and that's what I hope to sort out.  All tell the story of the O.K. Corral gunfight.  Some provide context leading to the shootout, others give epilogue, focusing on the events that ensued from that event, some movies do both.  All the movies focus on the relationship between tough lawman Wyatt Earp and John "Doc" Holliday, the consumptive, dissolute frontier gambler and notorious killer.  In some movies, the relationship softens Earp's hard edges, in other cases Holliday's illness, his drunken, cynical, violent behavior serves as a contrast to Earp's simple, moral rectitude . At times, Holiday is Jiminy Cricket, Wyatt's conscience, when he has strayed or is about to stray from the straight and narrow path of morality he has chosen.  Doc has seen Pleasure Island, and hopes to keep his friend away.

Each movie is rated on three areas: portrayal of Wyatt Earp, portrayal of Doc Holliday, and storytelling.  The ratings are 1-5 with 1 being horrible to 5 being excellent.  I'll also follow up with some tidbits worth knowing.  Here goes.

 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. 1956. Producer Hal Wallis, directed by John Sturges
Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp.
 Wyatt Earp: Burt Lancaster Rating: 4  I confess to being a Burt Lancaster fan, and the man could really fill up a screen.  Lancaster's Earp is drawn as the incorruptible tough guy marshal.  Lancaster is solid and dependable, but linked to the irredeemable Holliday.  Big and tough, with his steely blue eyes, Burt was the right man for the job.  If anything, Lancaster is undone by the simplicity of the story which simply trots the Earp myth out for public consumption.  Good performance in a limiting role.
Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday plying his trade
 Doc Holliday: Kirk Douglas Rating: 3 This movie is not Kirk Douglas' greatest moment, and it suffers in comparison to all other Doc Holiday performances.  In order to create a contrast between the saintlike Earp, and the utterly corrupted Holiday, Doc is written as simply violent, misogynistic, sick, drunk and somehow devoted to Earp.  Sadly, it's a one-dimensional portrait of Doc.  Douglas does the best he can with the material, but often seems to have a crazed, hateful look pasted to his face.

Storytelling: 3 This movie seems dated compared to all the movies that have come after.   The movie promotes the Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday mythology, and the suggestion that the Old West was all good guys and bad guys.  It does contain some traditional elements of the Earp story:  Earp's links to Dodge City, his evolving friendship with Holliday, Earp's ties to his family and their subsequent move to Tombstone, and the growing animus between the Earps and those forces in Tombstone including the Clantons, Johnny Ringo and others that resulted in the clash at O.K. Corral.  Unfortunately, the characters outside Wyatt and Doc are poorly drawn, serving only to strengthen those long-held myths about Earp and Holliday.  The movie ends with gunfight, when so much of the tale is left to be told.

Stuff you should know:  Of all the movies, this one may have the most interesting collection of minor supporting actors.  DeForest Kelly who played Dr. Leonard McCoy in the original Star Trek series appears as Morgan Earp, Wyatt's younger brother.  Lee Van Cleef, Martin Milner, and Dennis Hopper all very young, have significant supporting roles, especially Hopper, who portrays a conflicted Billy Clanton.  The gunfight is drawn differently than any other movie.  The gunfight is described as lasting only 30 seconds, and a blaze of gunfire at very close range.  Here it is portrayed more as an assault on a fortified position, pretty different, entertaining, but pretty different than the other examples. Finally, I cannot depart without noting the hideous score that goes with the movie.  Not the entire score, which is only mildly annoying 50's crap, rather Frankie Lane's sung portions.  They are simply vile. 
Not to be dismissed, Hour of the Gun provides a different take on the Wyatt Earp myth.

Hour of the Gun. 1967.  Produced by John Sturges.  Directed by John Sturges
Wyatt Earp: James Garner Rating: 3 In many respects this is the revisionist portrayal of Wyatt Earp, the opposite of Lancaster's version.  Transformed to a mourning, vengeful agent of the law, Earp is willing to bend every rule to kill all the gang that murdered younger brother Morgan. This is not a role that suits Garner. The likeable actor made his reputation as  the funny, talkative Brett Maverick, and would go on to other comedic portrayals, including the funny, talkative Jim Rockford.  This Wyatt Earp is silent, vengeful, menacing, and it requires an actor who is charismatic while remaining taciturn. This is a fascinating characterization of Wyatt Earp; one that takes a step past the incorruptible lawman to another that is profoundly altered by his grief and desire for revenge, and willing to use the law to get it. Garner didn't pull that off. Yes, he's quiet, yes he takes revenge, but he doesn't fill up the screen the way Lancaster and Kurt Russell do. Earp is completely dominated by Doc Holliday in this movie. 
Garner's Earp is too understated to pull off the revision director John Sturges hoped to achieve.  Just the wrong guy for the part.

Doc Holliday: Jason Robards Rating: 4 There is something about Jason Robards in the movies.  He is always smart, sometimes smarmy, often an acerbic cynic.  He brings all these to bear in his portrayal of Doc Holliday. In doing he is less a detested gunman, and more a world weary observer.  Alarmed at the transformation of his friend, he becomes Jiminy Cricket, Wyatt's conscience, albeit a murderous, drunken one, who knows the dark side of the mind his friend has entered. Unafraid to call him out on his use of the law, Holliday tells him the federal warrants Earp's received on the Clanton gang are merely "hunting licenses."  Powerful, emotional, Garner's Earp stands squarely in Holliday's shadow.
Sick and world weary, Jason Robards' Doc Holliday's cynical world-view simply overpowers Garner's underplayed Wyatt Earp

Storytelling Rating: 4 Sturges, who also directed the 1956 film, has created something altogether different here.  First, this movie begins with the gunfight.  We also learn about political conflict between the local rich guy, Ike Clanton, played well by Robert Ryan, and the Earps.  Clanton wants to control Tombstone with his money and through the vote, while the understated Earps want to hold on to what they have.  When the Earps and Doc Holliday are hauled into court by the prosecutors, under the control of Clanton, Judge Wells Spicer who dismisses the case for lack of evidence.  However, when Vigil and Morgan are both shot, Wyatt finds no succor through the courts and realizes he'll have to seek "justice" on his own.  Sturges tells a more complex story than even the 90's movies, which is interesting and makes the movie worth watching. 

Stuff you should know. The supporting cast, aside from Ryan, are strictly lesser lights, with the exception of a very young Jon Voight who plays Curly Bill Brocius. Very few women in this movie and only for brief appearances.  Of all the movies, only Hour of Gun devotes much energy to the trial that followed the shootout-Wyatt Earp does to a lesser degree.  The trial of the Earps was important to the story and lasted 30 days.

 Tombstone. 1993. Cinergi Productions. Directed by George Cosmatos.
Wyatt Earp: Kurt Russell Rating: 5 Without question, Russell's Earp is the best of this lot.  I confess I've never seen My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda as Earp, which was supposedly a great portrayal of the lawman.  But Russell brings an intensity to the role that was lacking in all the other performances.  Except when he is with Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany), his Earp is taciturn, direct, demanding and ultimately ruthlessly vengeful.  We mostly remember him roaring:  "You tell 'em Ike.  I'm comin' and hell's comin' with me."  Yet, when he is with Marcus, both in the horse riding sequence and at the end of the movie, we see a different Earp: a person who is able to be a different man before and after the intervening catastrophe.  Russell plays his part as a man who knows what he wants, as a ferocious enemy, as a person closed to everyone, even his wife, except for Doc Holliday and Josie who manage to touch his soul.
The defining moment from Tombstone.  "You tell 'em Ike.  I'm comin' and hell's comin' with me." Kurt Russell as an avenging Wyatt Earp.
Doc Holliday: Val Kilmer Rating: 5 Kilmer's Holliday is interesting.  It is drenched in realism as Doc drinks, gambles, whores, shoots and knifes his way through the movie, while he is soaked in sweat, coughs up blood, and becomes incapacitated.  The movie shows him a ferocious enemy, quick to take a offense and deadly in his retribution.  Yet he manages to be endearing too,  as time and again he shows himself to be a reliable friend, both in the gunfight at O.K. Corral, and the final shootout with Johnny Ringo. In the end it is not Earp's wife, or his brothers that seem to understand Wyatt, it is Holliday.  Kilmer seems to play the role with the right combination of a secret understanding, southern charm, gallows humor, and deadly earnestness.  The final scene as he is dying and is visited by Earp is very poignant. Kilmer's  portrayal of Holliday is the most memorable.
Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday is smart, sardonic, and deadly.
Storytelling: Rating 5  Tombstone relies on context to help us understand the conflict between the Cowboys and the Earps.  Though the Cowboys were by no means the united criminals depicted in the movie, it was a great unifying element in the story.  The sort of a band of lawless anarchists that were a menace to all the good citizens provided a common point for rallying the Earps in bringing law and order to Tombstone.  It also largely supports the myth of Wyatt Earp, incorruptible good guy.  Yet, the story goes further to give a look inside the Earp family-the union of common law marriages, the intense desire to be somebody in the community without resorting to the tried and true law enforcement occupations.  If the story has a drawback, it is the focus on Earp as a relentless killer, with all the ridiculous images of Wyatt and his supporters hunting down all the red-sashed Cowboys.  Strictly overblown stuff.  Despite its flaws, Tombstone provides the most fully formed look inside the Earp legend at Tombstone,  and despite its exaggeration, misstatements and false interpretations, still provides an image of Wyatt, Holiday and his family that is multi-dimensional and interesting.

Stuff you should know. In addition to fine performances by Kurt Russell, this movie is buoyed by a plethora of solid work turned in by Sam Elliot as Virgil Earp, Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp, and Dana Delaney as Josephine Marcus.  In addition, the bad guys are also formidable with Stephen Lang as Ike Clanton, Powers Boothe as Curly Bill Brocius, and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo. Charlton Heston even makes an appearance as Henry Hooker, a neighboring rancher who provides some brief shelter for Earp and his men, and a place for Holliday to recover from his attack of consumption.   
Wyatt Earp is a beautiful, sprawling epic.  We don't see many like it.
Wyatt Earp. 1994. Produced by Tig Productions/Kasdan Productions.  Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
 Wyatt Earp: Kevin Costner Rating: 4  Because this movie is so different than the others, it is difficult to rate.  Earp is portrayed from his adolescence when he wanted to run off to fight in the Civil War with his older brothers to his trip to Nome on with his fourth wife Josephine during the Alaska Gold Rush.  Costner's portrayal of Earp seems to me a lot like Costner portraying Earp.  It's not bad, but Costner seems so much like an everyman sort of actor that it isn't strong and distinct.  Even so, Costner is behind Tig Productions, and though his performance and the movie are flawed, it is still a magnificent production and does many things well.  That's worth an extra half point. Costner's performance runs the gamut from his early grief from his first wife, Aurilla's, death, through his "I've been in a really bad mood the last couple of years," stage to his effort to move on by pursuing Josephine Marcus. I'm not sure Costner is convincing, but I appreciate the effort to bring complexity to Earp's life.
Costner's Earp is a bit too understated. 
Doc Holliday: Dennis Quaid Rating: 5 Quaid gives a a quality performance as Doc Holliday.  Looking tall and emaciated and effecting a rumbling southern drawl, Quaid provides a glimpse inside Holliday.  The performance is more measured, less sweaty, less over the top than Kilmer's.  It is more worldly and weary than Robards'.  It offers the same realistic view of the Doc as sick man as Kilmer's, the same deep friendship and loyalty toward Wyatt.  Quaid is great, but probably a half point shy of Kilmer's performance.
Quaid's Doc Holliday is worldy, weary, and Wyatt Earp's friend.
 Storytelling: Rating 5 While the other three movies are focused ultimately on the famous shootout, Wyatt Earp is a huge rambling trip through the famous lawman's life.  We meet his father, an important figure, who insisted that blood (family) was the most important thing, and that when fighting evil it was important to hit first and hit hard. Costner's Earp goes through plenty of hard times, the death of his young wife, his descent into lawlessness, and his eventual resurrection as a lawman.  Like Tombstone, Wyatt Earp provides a larger contextual portrait of Earp in his own time.  Like Tombstone, it doesn't quite succeed in freeing the man from the myth, which doesn't make it any less entertaining a movie. 

Stuff you should know: A bit less gritty than Tombstone, it also isn't quite as celebratory about the killings. Though it was generally panned at the time of its release, and didn't do real well at the box office, if you like westerns with some history to go with it, Wyatt Earp is a good movie. Warning: at 190 minutes it is by far the longest of these films. Huge supporting cast, with Gene Hackman as father Nicholas Earp, Catherine O'Hara, Mare Winningham, Jeff Fahey, Bill Pullman and a host of others.  None were particularly noteworthy.  For me, the best performance was Quaid's Doc Holliday.


DougH said...

Like I have stated before, you should really apply as a movie reviewer. Excellent critiques. Bravo.

Reel Inspiration said...

Very insightful review. I studied "Gunfight at the OK Corral," "Tombstone" and "Wyatt Earp" to spoof in my comedy/fantasy script, "Behind the OK Corral." After reading your review, I am anxious to watch "Hour of the Gun." I agree with most of what you wrote. But frankly, I didn't see that big a difference between Costner's and Russell's portrayals. Loved Kilmers and Quaid's Doc Holiday. (I agree Kilmer has the edge.) I especially enjoyed the efforts made to be more historically accurate (on the guns, costumes, locals) in "Tombstone." Unfortunately, with so many supporting characters there wasn't enough time to clarify the true motivations behind the famous gunfight. (Though the motivations behind Wyatt's revengeful "vendetta" are quite clear.)

Thanks for taking the time to reflect on these films, and write it up. I'm posting it on my f.b. page for other Western fans to enjoy.

Jana Segal