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GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL

A CENTURY ON FILM

 

By Bruce Dettman

 

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The Gunfight At The OK Corral, otherwise known by historical purists oddly sensitive about such things as the Street Fight in Tombstone, has come to be viewed as the quintessential expression of frontier violence. If eclipsed at all by such larger and more historically relevant events as Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of the Alamo, its reduced scale, intimacy of events and cast of colorful characters — both as active participants and background kibitzers — has made it more readily accessible to western writers and armchair aficionados anxious for the latest new angle, allegation or theory regarding the confrontation. While only marginally reported by the contemporary press of the time, this 1881 incident involving Earp Brothers Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan plus confederate Doc Holiday allied against the Clanton and McLaury siblings, is, if anything, more hotly debated one hundred and twenty years after the fact than in its day, with modern champions of each side verbally battling it out — not always so cordially — on web sites and in print.

 

Although the trademark label Gunfight At The OK Corral received a real push in the public’s consciousness from the 1957 Kirk Douglas/Burt Lancaster film of the same name (ironic since the depiction of the fight in this particular effort is among the most inaccurate ever placed on film), the shootout had previously been re-enacted on the big screen numerous times harking back to the early days of the talkies when Wyatt and Virgil Earp’s widows were still alive to view, verbally attack and often legally challenge celluloid representations that they felt (correctly) gave a bogus image of their husbands and certain key events. Still, with only few exceptions, the movies have played fast and loose not only with depictions of the central characters of the story, but with the salient facts of the fight as well.

 

Although specific minutiae of the battle remains a widely contested issue (who drew first, who was armed and who not, whether the gunplay was pre-meditated on the part of either side etc. etc.) the basic scenario is that on October 26, 1881, the Earps, headed by Acting Marshall Virgil Earp and including crony Doc Holiday, responded to an ongoing campaign of threats leveled against them by the so-called “cowboy element” of the area, confronted Ike and Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury in a vacant lot directly adjacent to the more colorfully named OK Corral and for thirty seconds — and at extremely close range — traded gun shots with lethal intent. While all cowboys were killed in the melee (save Ike who beat a hasty retreat when the shooting began) the Earps and Holiday survived their wounds and were later — amidst much public debate and clamor — exonerated by the courts.

 

Because the name Wyatt Earp was not so widely known in the late 1800s or even early twentieth century as such giants of frontier mythology as Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock or even Jesse James or Billy the Kid — all of whose exploits on both sides of the law had been championed in hundreds of dime novels, on the stage and even in silent film versions — it took fifty years before the Earp’s story and the attending gunfight was brought to the screen. The 1932 film in question, Law and Order, directed by Edward Cahn and based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, starred Walter Houston in the Wyatt-like role and Harry Carey in the part inspired by Holiday. The final reel gunfight in which Houston (sans Carey whose bushwhacking provides the impetus for the shootout) plus a brother and grizzly pal take on the Clanton-like gang (including what appears to be an African-American participant) is initially set on a Tombstone street then concludes in a cramped horse stable. It is, particularly for its time, a freewheeling, lengthy and very violent version of the fight — inaccurate but spirited and well intentioned — with numerous quick cuts, heated gunplay and a very high mortality rate. Only Houston survives the bloody contest. After dumping his badge and looking shell shocked, he rides out of town in one of the western’s most downbeat endings.

 

There were two later remakes of Law and Order, the first with B western star Johnny Mack Brown in 1940 and the final adaptation in 1953 featuring Ronald Reagan. The latter, a film that did much to end Reagan’s film career, had no true OK Corral gunfight approximation, but the first did feature perhaps one of the oddest versions of the fight ever placed on celluloid when Brown and a companion conduct their gun battle on running horseback. Perhaps just as odd — or even odder — was 1938’s In Old Arizona starring Gordon “Wild Bill” Elliot in the Wyatt Earpish role. While the big gunfight is set in motion with Earp flanked by two crusty deputies (but no siblings) marching down the Tombstone street to have it out with the gang (the Doc Holiday character is gunned down from a balcony at the fight’s beginning) it ends with Elliot beating up one of the baddies in a classic B western slugfest.

 

The first — and apparently lost — version of Frontier Marshal (Fox, 1934) had George O’Brien as Michael Wyatt with a fairly traditional gunfight. When the film was re-made in 1938 with Randolph Scott finally allowed to be called Wyatt Earp, the action ended with the intrepid lawman all by his lonesome (Ceasar Romero’s Doc having been killed earlier), cornering Joe Sawyer’s Curly Bill Brocious and his murderous gang in a barn. Not a Clanton or MacLaury in the bunch. Structurally and thematically this picture not only provided the basis for director John Ford’s later classic My Darling Clementine (1946), but established much of the celluloid mythology which would adhere to the Earp legend for years. Despite a carload of historical inaccuracies, there was some attempt to get a few names correct in his production, but the fidelity as usual in these early treatments was kept at a minimum. Certainly no serious attempt at realism was forthcoming in the filming of the gunfight itself. As shot, this altercation is a wide-open, strategic sort of battle fought at dawn and for the most part at a distance allowing for a lot of rifle and even shotgun usage. Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) — who was actually murdered by Mexican soldiers months prior to the October event — and his pack of psychotic offspring await Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Doc Holiday (Victor Mature) and Morgan (Ward Bond) in a shootout that according to Ford was based on conversations he had had with Wyatt when as a young filmmaker he would gab with the aging marshal who ostensibly was in the habit of visiting Hollywood western sets. Apparently either Ford’s memory was not what it once was, he was pulling the interviewer’s leg or Wyatt had quite a sense of exaggeration himself. In this version Doc, who early on in his celluloid career invariably had to atone for his wicked ways by forfeiting his life, is gunned down during the fight while Virgil is murdered the night before. The Clanton Brothers consisting of Ike, Finn (an actual sibling who was not a participant in the battle) and someone name Sam, make up the villains. Old Man is dispatched, after the actual shooting has ended, by Morgan. It’s a great western, evocative and wonderfully filmed and acted, but terrible history.

 

The OK Corral battle was also featured in The Arizonian (1935) and in a 1939 remake called The Marshal of Mesa City, the first starring Richard Dix in the Wyatt part and the second featuring (again) George O’Brien as the gun-toting town tamer. It is the basic variation on the Tombstone saga with the peculiar aberration that the specific details of the corral showdown in each shootout is totally obscured by smoke from a jail fire. Also in both only the Wyatt character survives.

 

The most straightforward and reasonably accurate depictions of the OK Corral gunfight in early sound versions of the story came in Paramount’s 1942’s Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die based on the Walter Noble Burns book and directed by William McGann. Richard Dix plays Wyatt Earp by name this time around and for once his comrades in arms at the OK Corral showdown are correctly both brothers Virgil and Morgan joined by a surprisingly fit Doc Holiday, underplayed by Kent Taylor, up against the Clanton mob led by Ike Clanton (Victor Jory). The logistics of the fight — really for the first time — are honored with the shooters lining up approximately the correct historical distance from each other. Morgan and Virgil are both wounded, Doc creased and all the baddies save Ike biting the Arizona dust. The gunplay is swift and measured and is so calmly dispensed that there is something rather stilted, nearly academic about it. Still, it stands as the most realistic depiction of the gunfight up to that time — and to some degree — of all time.

 

The aforementioned Gunfight At The OK Corral, directed by a helmsmen John Sturgis, was big-budgeted, well scored by Dimitri Tiomkin with a catchy theme song warbled by Frankie Laine. Very popular with the public, it had a strong cast led by a painfully severe Burt Lancaster as Wyatt, Kirk Douglas giving an effective performance as the brooding, self-destructive yet occasionally likeable Holiday, and Lyle Bettiger and Dennis Hopper as Ike and Billy Clanton, respectively. Outside of getting most of the names right (Johnny Behan, Wyatt’s real life rival in Tombstone for both a sheriff’s job and the hand of Wyatt’s future wife Josephine Marcus, is inexplicably referred to as Cotton) the rest is pure fabrication and celluloid hokum of the highest order. The gunfight itself is, like most screen depictions, an early morning affair (the actual fight was conducted at mid-day with plenty of witnesses who, just like today, gave highly conflicting reports on what they had observed) with empty Tombstone streets leading to a wide-open corral with horses and even a covered wagon. The players are mostly correct here although infamous gunfighter Johnny Ringo (as played by John Ireland) is along for the ride and a trip to Boot Hill courtesy of Doc (the real Ringo would be found propped against a tree out in the boonies with a bullet hole in his temple). The Earps and Holiday charge the corral like G.I.s storming the beaches of Normandy. Virgil and Morgan eat some lead and Ike doesn’t get to run away this time. He does, however, get to shoot Cotton. Billy vamooses into a nearby photography shop and is killed by Doc when Wyatt balks at pulling the trigger. It’s a dumb version of the fight, poorly choreographed and disappointingly executed by director John Sturgis.

 

In the 1950s, the shootout would subsequently turn up on the emerging small screen in various television incarnations (even on Star Trek in one of their tiresome alternative universe shows). The most famous video version was the depiction on the long-running ABC western series “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” starring Hugh O’Brien. Although the events leading up to the final season’s square-off between the Earps and the cowboy crowd had over several years of episodes been distorted, doctored, sanitized and fabricated, the shootout itself (depicted in slow motion as Wyatt later describes it in a courtroom sequence) was surprisingly well staged and more or less relied on historical eye witness accounts with the eight combatants firing at close range for about half a minute. Not so realistic were other renditions of the gunfight as created on other TV oaters such as Stories of the Century (in their Doc Holiday episode which has the dentist initially as an ally of stage robber Ike Clanton) and in the 1976 TV movie I Married Wyatt Earp based on the controversial Glenn Boyer book in which Marie Osmond, as Wyatt’s (Bruce Boxleitner) main squeeze, has a hand at routing the rustlers in the climactic shootout. Other boob tube renditions of the fight would turn up on semi-documentary shows such as You Are There and producer David Wolper’s excellent, if slightly compromised, Appointment With Destiny installment “Showdown At The OK Corral” where the fight is analyzed in slow motion.

 

Returning to the big screen with Hour of the Gun (1967) director John Sturgis, apparently decided to correct the error of his ways in his earlier Gunfight At The OK Corral. Yet despite well-intentioned promises that this time he would get his tale historically correct, it wasn’t quite to be. While mostly concentrating on events subsequent to the OK Corral battle, the film does kickoff with the street fight. Wyatt and Doc (James Garner and Jason Robards) lead brothers Virgil and Morgan (sans mustaches) down the center of a Tombstone street in what appears to be mid-day (Sturgis at least got that right) to meet with cowboy desperadoes smack dab in a corral positioned at the end of the main drag. Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) doesn’t take part in the fight but along with other members of the cowboy gang — including Brocious (played by a baby-faced John Voight) and Ringo — ducks out before the lead begins to fly leaving his brother and McLaurys to be slaughtered and sacrificed for his intended political gain. The participants in the short exchange stand much further apart than in the actual shooting, but there are no grand displays of heroism or giant leaps from historical accounts. Not a bad depiction.

 

What is a bad depiction — not surprising having come out of such a rancid film –appears in the execrable Doc (1971), director Frank Perry’s vile re-telling of the Earp-Holiday relationship (Harris Yulin and Stacy Keach), a thinly veiled political allegory with a homosexual subtext that ends with the Earps, all armed with shotguns, blowing the nearly defenseless Clantons and Mclaurys to bloody smithereens, one Earp, brother Morgan, not surviving the fray.

 

No significant big screen adaptations would be forthcoming for over twenty five years (although there is a flashback sequence depicting the battle in Blake Edwards’ 1988 Sunset in which an aging Wyatt - again played by James Garner - reflects on the fight in his mind’s eye while watching a phony Hollywood recreation), the western, with just a few exceptions, having become unpopular and out of style. In the 90’s, however, the OK Corral battle would be celebrated in two different films Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994).

 

The gunfight in Tombstone comes about midway in the film and there is a considerable buildup to it. Director George Cosmotos attempted to be historically accurate to a point though he could not control the urge to dress up things a bit once leather is slapped. Wyatt (Kurt Russell) is highly reluctant about the whole confrontation, a doubtful scenario at best. Too many shots are fired and Doc Holiday (Val Kilmer) is seen discharging his shotgun twice into Tom McLaury as well as fanning his pistol. The right folks are involved though once again the screenwriters couldn’t resist setting Josie (Dana Delany) right next to the action, this time in photographer Fly’s studio alongside Behan. Still, it’s an exciting battle, coolly fought, well edited and certainly an audience pleaser.

 

By contrast, the showdown in director Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp starring Kevin Costner as Wyatt and Dennis Quaid as Doc has a disappointing feel to it despite it being a fairly accurate version of the shootout. There is little in the way of a buildup to the Clanton-Earp feud (no one in Hollywood has ever been willing to touch one of the true reasons for the rancor between the two factions, namely the confused business following the events an earlier stage robbery in which Wyatt made a deal with Ike Clanton, later broken, regarding the capture of the men involved) and therefore the audience does not feel the tension or emotional escalation necessary to really make the corral face-off important. The fight is measured and swift with little in the way of additions or changes — though I do take exception with Morgan Earp blazing away with two pistols — which is good from a historical standpoint, but from an audience viewpoint leaves something to be desired, particularly in a three hour movie where they have been waiting in expectation of the culminating violence.

 

While it is doubtful that new versions of the events at the OK Corral will be filmed in the near future, it is equally certain that somewhere down the cinematic road someone will dust off things and have another go at it. Accurately or inaccurately depicted, carefully or sloppily staged, this confrontation has come to symbolize the very raw edge, unpredictability and violent finality of the western experience, an experience that continues to resonate within the American psyche. As long as Wyatt and Doc, Ike and Billy are remembered, that October afternoon walk will be celebrated and imitated, not only on our screens but also in our collective imaginations.

 

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