I don’t like this movie but it’s obviously fine, maybe better than fine, and while I don’t know much about the actual historic fight at the OK Corral I do know that it lasted all of like twenty seconds. So we’re not exactly looking for something in this movie that really captures history, y’know? That gunfight is just one of those things that’s been blown up into a piece of American lore and it’s useful to our national identity, I think, as the story of how an honest lawman, Wyatt Earp (who also appears, fictionalized, in my beloved Winchester 73), protecting his little town. Sorta man-of-the-earth. Hard-scrabble, etc. Then there’s \his grudgingly deputized Doc Holliday, once a notable guy, now a shadow of his former self due to the boozin’, the cruizin’—the life, y’know? But the two of them set aside their differences and come together when the occasion calls for it, Holliday redeems himself, which is another staple of the American idyll, right?, is that you come here to start afresh. (It just occurred to me, actually: if Starting Over is a staple of the American idyll, that this is a place where the huddled masses might come for a new beginning, it would then suggest that part of the American identity is to be bruised and battered by prior mistakes. Hm.)
We’ve seen the titular gunfight depicted on the List already with John Ford’s beautifully lean and story-minded My Darling Clementine. What I mean by story-minded is that, though carried with Henry Fonda’s trademark 1940s brood agitation and Victor Mature in the supporting role with a different but similar brand of dark charisma, John Ford wove that film together with the intention of recounting what happened in a dramatic but not completely farcical way. It’s as to-the-point as a campfire story.
Director John Sturges here, with Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc, is clearly looking for more than a story of a gunfight: he wants romance, he wants technicolor cowboy beauty on par with Shane, and he’s probably also looking to give his two stars some breathing room so that the movie comes off as something like a character study. Two men of similar sensibilities, diverging in virtue, drawn together by a good cause…
It’s very Hollywood, in other words, and while both douglas and Lancaster are terrific actors there does appear to’ve been a transition in the Hollywood climate between Clementinte and Gunfight. It’s always been a business about stars, and starpower, but we’ve been seeing with these 1950s movies how the studios, in trying to put up a fight against TV and lure people out of their homes, are resorting to bigness, to spectale, which I think manifests here in telling these A-list actors to go nuts, chew the scenery, be your biggest and most brazen selves.
The Doc Holliday scenes in My Darling Clementine are meant to give us a portrait of a character and to advance the story.
In Gunfight, the Holliday scenes are here almost explicitly for the purpose of presenting Kirk Douglas as a dapper, eloquent, temperamental wild card. Do they contribute to the story? Sure. But the takes are long and there’s a lot of dialogue—in terms of communicating information, there’s hardly a scene in this movie that John Ford wouldn’t have cut by probably 30%.
But that’s fine! Because the whole thing is enjoyable for what it is: a very Hollywood cowboy movie with big stars, action, and a touch of romance. If that’s what you’re looking for, this’ll do.