1957; directed by John Sturges; adapted by Leon Uris; 116 mins
So, here’s an example of a film that is more interesting for it’s various historical curiosities rather than it’s own merits as a western. John Sturges‘ star vehicle which, it seems, actually helped make the titular gunfight iconic (alongside My Darling Clementine and Stuart Lake’s 1931 biography of Wyatt Earp) is the kind of Golden Oldie western that you look back on and think: “Thank God for the 60s!”
1881: Wyatt Earp gets word that the Clanton brothers are lurking throughout the territories, breaking the No Arms laws as they go. In his search for them, he becomes acquainted with gambler and perennial trouble-magnet, Doc Holliday. The Clanton issue falls by the wayside as the two men try to navigate their respective love lives and keep out of each others’ way but fate keeps bringing them back together. However, soon Wyatt’s sheriff brother Virgil needs help ridding his own town, Tombstone, of the Clantons…
Falling between Sturges’ two most iconic films, Bad Day at Black Rock and The Magnificent Seven, this is surprisingly standard fare. In Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven, there is a scene where Denzel Washington enters a bar and in the next three minutes, playfully goes through every western cliche in the book. This does them in 2 hours.
The funny thing with Wyatt Earp is, that I was first aware of him as a bad guy, through both that bizarre episode of Star Trek (note here, Bones himself, DeForest Kelly as Morgan Earp) and a Horrible Histories book about The USA saying something to the effect that the gunfight was murder and the Earps got away with it. I’m sure there is more to it than either the revisionist, ‘all-cowboys-bad’ take or this film’s 1950s, ABC psychology. Here, Burt Lancaster is given little to do other than be rugged and virtuous as the tortured but deified lawman. In the same year he gave us J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success and this is nowhere near as interesting.
Historically, obviously, it’s way out of sync and normally my feeling would be one of indifference but with this, as with the aforementioned historical and cultural depictions of the Earps, the truth is more interesting. This is just giving us the then usual bevy of thin-skinned alpha males, treating their women badly (whether well meaning or otherwise) and asking anyone who even looks at them funny to step outside.
I’m being too negative. It’s not rubbish. With this director and this cast, it’s put together well enough and Lancaster aside, the cast – including Dennis Hopper, Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef – carry the film. Kirk Douglas, in particular, is starry as all Hell playing diseased Doc Holliday. He coughs when required but otherwise is classy and has charisma that most modern stars could only dream of.