The two Wild West icons have been played by Henry Fonda and Victor Mature in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE; James Garner and Jason Robards in HOUR OF THE GUN; Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer in TOMBSTONE; and Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid in WYATT EARP. But I left out Hollywood's definitive production of the skirmish, shot in Technicolor and VistaVision, John Sturges' GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957) with two of its biggest stars at the time in Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as John "Doc" Holliday. I like GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL for a lot of reasons although it's not my favorite film about Wyatt and Doc. John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (shot in black and white) is my favorite, a more mythical and idealized version of their story.
My favorite Wyatt Earp is Henry Fonda in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE followed closely by Lancaster's portrayal. Kurt Russell's moustache is too distracting in TOMBSTONE. And James Garner who played Earp in John Sturges second telling of the tale HOUR OF THE GUN is miscast. Garner is better as an extrovert but Earp is more of an introvert. My favorite Doc Holliday is Val Kilmer's roguish turn in TOMBSTONE ("I'll be your huckleberry") followed by Kirk Douglas's interpretation. Kilmer looks thin and sick like the real Doc. Victor Mature's Doc in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE seems neither from the South nor sickly. The older films show us Wyatt and Doc leading up to the gunfight. The newer films TOMBSTONE and WYATT EARP have the O.K. Corral incident as one part of their story but go on to show us what happened to the men after the O.K. Corral. I have not seen Kasdan's WYATT EARP with Kevin Costner as Marshal Earp but nothing I have heard or read leads me to believe it's better than MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL.
GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL provides the dream team of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Wyatt and Doc may be the most famous legends of the Wild West since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The allure with them might be that Wyatt was good and Doc a bit shady but they were friends to the end. With a screenplay by Leon Uris (who would later write the novels Exodus and Trinity) suggested by an article by George Scullin, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL has big vistas (courtesy of veteran western cinematographer Charles Lang, Jr), the great Frankie Laine singing and whistling the title song Gunfight at the O.K Corral, and plenty of young actors as sidekicks, deputies, or villains we would become more familiar with in years to come.
It's 1879 in Fort Griffin, Texas. Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef) rides into town with two other cowboys looking to kill gambler and former dental student Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), the man who killed his brother. Doc is holed up in a nearby hotel with his sometime girlfriend Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet). Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) also rides into town from Dodge City, Kansas. Earp is pursuing killers Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) and Johnny Ringo (John Ireland) but local sheriff Cotton Wilson (Frank Faylen) has let them pass through. Doc ends up facing Ed Bailey and kills him in self defense. Wyatt and Kate help Doc escape a lynch mob. The team of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday begins.
Wyatt warns Doc to stay away from his town of Dodge City but Doc shows up anyway (no one wants Doc in their town either). Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a beautiful red headed gambler rolls into Dodge City too. Wyatt and Doc vie for her affections but Wyatt wins out. A jealous Kate bolts town, later to hook up with Johnny Ringo. With many of Wyatt's deputies out of town on a cattle drive, Wyatt asks Doc to help him catch some bank robbers. Doc agrees, feeling he owes Wyatt a debt for saving his life earlier. The cattle drive arrives in Dodge City along with Shanghai Pierce (Ted DeCorsia), Johnny Ringo, and a host of Cowboys, causing mayhem. They even wound Wyatt's only remainng deputy Charlie Bassett (Earl Holliman). Wyatt returns to town from a ride with Laura just in time to stop Shanghai with Doc and the townsfolk assistance.
Wyatt and Laura prepare to head out to California and get married when a telegram changes Earp's life. His brother Virgil Earp (John Hudson) needs Wyatt's help cleaning up the town of Tombstone, Arizona where Virgil is sheriff. Wyatt can't say no. But Laura can. She ends their relationship. As Wyatt rides out of town, he's joined by Doc who's luck has run out in Dodge City. Doc hopes the warm climate will appeal to his health. The two men arrive in Tombstone to learn Ike Clanton is rustling stolen cattle out of Mexico along with Johnny Ringo and young Billy Clanton (a young Dennis Hopper). He needs to move it through Tombstone. Wyatt and Virgil along with brothers Morgan (DeForest Kelley) and James Earp (Martin Milner) create a law prohibiting guns in Tombstone. The Clanton's test the law but are kicked out of town. Ike wants Wyatt dead and plans an ambush the next night but his men kill brother James Earp instead of Wyatt.
Ike sends brother Billy to set up the final showdown between the two clans at the O.K. Corral the next morning. Kate shows up in Tombstone after hanging out with Ringo. Doc is seriously ill. The odds look hopeless. It's just the three Earp brothers versus Ike, Finn, and Billy Clanton; Johnny Ringo, the McLowery brothers, and Cotton Wilson. As the Earp's head into town, the ailing Doc Holliday joins them and the most famous gunfight in the West commences as good squares off against evil.
GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL is like a Howard Hawks or Sam Peckinpah western with men following a code of honor even if they're not exactly cut from the same cloth. Wyatt is from the North, a Union man who follows the rules and upholds the law. Doc Holliday is a Southerner who gambles and whores and has killed many men not always in self-defense. Doc lives on the fringe of the law. But circumstances bring these two polar opposites together as they owe each other a debt and repay that debt. They become a team and eventually friends. Even though Doc owes no alliance to Wyatt or his brothers, he's with them to face the Clanton's at the O.K. Corral. Doc becomes like another brother to Wyatt.
Just as interesting as the relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL are the relationships between Doc with girlfriend Kate Fisher and Wyatt with gambler Laura Denbow. Doc and Kate have an abusive love/hate relationship. They're like drug addicts. They try to leave each, disparage one another but they can't break the habit of their relationship. They're co-dependent on one another. Kate (in real life known as Big Nose Kate) is an alcoholic, prone to violent men like Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday. But she's tough too. She helps Doc escape Fort Griffin and later, keeps Doc awake so he can participate in the legendary gunfight.
Laura Denbow is the opposite of Kate. Refined, sophisticated, and a good gambler to boot, Laura doesn't expect any special favors from her male gambling competitors except for good manners and taking their money. When Wyatt Earp throws her in jail for no good reason (except he likes her), she takes it all in stride, not asking for any special favors as she enters the small cell because she's a lady. Where Doc and Kate have weaknesses, Wyatt and Laura are strong and confident. Laura's so confident, when Wyatt receives the telegram that his brother Virgil needs his help, Laura breaks off their engagement. She will not be dragged around from town to town like somebody else's wife. Kate and Laura are strong female characters in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL although not in the same way. Kudos to costume designer Edith Head for her colorful green and crimson dresses that actresses Fleming and Van Fleet wear like exotic birds of paradise.
Hollywood of course takes liberties with the facts surrounding the battle in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL and its two heroes Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. For instance, the actual gunfight was not at the O.K. Corral but in an empty lot behind the O.K. Corral (in the films, the filmmakers make sure to have plenty of signs with O.K. CORRAL visible so we know where the men are). The actual gunfight lasted 30 seconds but in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, it goes on for about five minutes.
GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL is always portrayed as a battle of good versus evil but according to Wyatt Earp biographer Andrew C. Isenberg, Earp and his brothers actually were working together with the Clanton's and McLowery's until a disagreement led to the infamous confrontation. It was more "police officers versus informants" Isenberg states. Doc Holliday studied to be a dentist (in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE he's a surgeon). Most interesting, Wyatt Earp is shown in movies as an honest, law abiding marshal but truth is often stranger than fiction. Biographer Isenberg says Wyatt Earp was a self promoting opportunist, constantly reinventing himself. Earp was actually a professional gambler who worked as an amateur law officer for less than five years including the O.K. Corral incident. The real Wyatt Earp would later try to rewrite his legend with various writers before he died in 1929.
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas would act in seven films together besides GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL including John Frankenheimer's SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) and their last teaming in Jeff Kanew's TOUGH GUYS (1986). Their Wyatt and Doc are the best combination of the men, a friendship that seems genuine and earned. Lancaster gives the only Wyatt performance so far without a moustache. His Wyatt is masculine, confident, yet restless. Wyatt yearns for a piece of land and a wife to share it with but he's constantly pulled back into fighting the lawlessness of the time. Kirk Douglas seems too fit and strong to play the wheezing Doc Holliday but Douglas wins you over with his charisma. His Doc plays loose with life, willing to gunfight anyone who challenges him because Doc's life is a gamble. He never knows how long he has to live with his tuberculosis.
I give director John Sturges a great deal of credit for his knack of finding young interesting actors for his films. Sturges followed his gut and cast a young Steve McQueen in two of his more well known films THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). In GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, Sturges gives us Lee Van Cleef (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE) as the vengeful Ed Bailey, Earl Holliman (TVs POLICE WOMAN) as Wyatt's loyal deputy Charlie Bassett, Martin Milner (TVs ADAM-12) as Wyatt's doomed younger brother Jimmy, DeForest Kelly (best known as Dr. McCoy on TVs STAR TREK) as brother Morgan, and perennial western bad guy Jack Elam (THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF) as Tom McLowery.
In an interesting bit of cinematic trivia, John Ireland who plays sneering gunslinger Johnny Ringo in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL appeared in the first film about Wyatt Earp as Billy Clanton in John Ford's 1946 MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Ireland would have a prolific career but often starred in Westerns including Howard Hawks RED RIVER (1948) and Sam Fuller's I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949) although he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Robert Rossen's ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949), a political film. So who plays Billy Clanton in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL? None other than a young actor named Dennis Hopper. Hopper's Billy Clanton is a conflicted kid. He's not sure he wants to be a gunfighter but Ike and Finn are his brothers so he owes his allegiance to them. Hopper bounced around in supporting roles at the beginning of his career like REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), COOL HAND LUKE (1967), and TRUE GRIT (1969) but then disappeared a bit in the 70s before making a comeback in Francis Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). Hopper's revival would take off after that with amazing performances in David Lynch's BLUE VELVET (1986) and David Anspaugh's HOOSIERS (also 1986) to name but a few.
The story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday fighting the Clanton and McLowery's at O.K. Corral is a classic American moment that resonates in our historical lifeblood. The way Hollywood tells it, it's good versus bad with good coming out on top. The truth is a little grayer but for the most part Hollywood gets the story right. We don't want the Clanton's to win. We want to root for the underdog. We like that two unlikely men with different backgrounds and morals would unite for a common good. GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL gives us that story with the dynamite combination of Lancaster and Douglas as Western heroes Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.