At 3:00 PM on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in the delightfully named hamlet of Tombstone, AZ, occurred one of the most famous incidents of beloved violence in American history. An altercation between the local warring factions culminated in an approximately half-minute display of gunplay that forever defined the Old West. The scene of bloodshed at a dung-heaped corner of the town, known as the O.K. Corral, quickly became hallowed ground. The famous shoot-out soon was being reported across the entire country – and even abroad in Europe and down South America way. To this day, millions are familiar with the legend of gunfight at the O.K. corral (it still remains a major AZ tourist attraction); it weekly filled the pages of penny dreadfuls and was re-enacted by scores of traveling tent shows. It made icons of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and it forever made the name Clanton synonymous with dastardly villainy. The advent of cinema was a natural for the sanguine fable, and no less than hundreds of filmic depictions unspooled in nickelodeons before becoming a B-western staple and, later, the respectable outlet for occasional top-line drama, most prominently John Ford’s 1946’s masterwork My Darling Clementine. Most of these re-tellings were sourced from the largely dubious work Frontier Marshal by Stuart N. Lake (reportedly told to him by Earp himself). All were fugitives from the fact – what Ford’s Liberty Valance would sardonically (and correctly) dub as the “print the legend” alternative.
The biggest, loudest, most colorful and fact-free of all these narratives was 1957’s blockbuster action epic GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, a must for all western fans, now available in a definitive Blu-Ray edition from Warner Home Video and Paramount Home Entertainment.
The background of both the story and the movie are fascinating parallels and thus deserve mentioning. The plot of the picture, after all, is basically described by the not-so-subtle title. Suffice to say that it delivers.
The legend of Tombstone and the O.K. Corral has become the benchmark for white hats vs. black hats – the ultimate fight for truth, justice and the American way. Not quite so. What prompted the Earps and the Clantons was nothing less than the authentic cornerstones of U.S. gumption: money and sex. While lawmen, to be sure, the Earps were businessmen first, always having a cold-steel eye on the almighty buck. Marshaling never paid the amounts the Earps had become accustomed to, and they made up the difference by running a string of brothels across the frontier. The west was a haven for investors with a fast-gun reputation, and when Wyatt smelled a sure thing, his sibs would start turning up for their piece of the pie with great rapidity. By 1881, Tombstone was undergoing a veritable Earpies outbreak. The Clantons, far from the redneck peckerwoods often chronicled on the screen and in the pulps, were likewise ruthless financiers whose fortunes were made in the flourishing cattle industry.
Since the truth was perhaps a bit too sordid for movie-goers (even into the late 1950s), the icy facts were never really told; too bad, they’re so much more intriguing than any of the pap emanating from the clichéd minds of screenwriters.
This can be boiled down to the personal life of Wyatt – a family man in the traditional sense…until he met Josephine Sarah Marcus. A gorgeous showgirl (and possible part-time prostitute), she took the lawman’s breath away. He left his wife and shacked up with Josie; they remained devoted to each other for the next forty-seven years until the celebrated marshal’s death in 1929. Josephine, it should be noted was, prior to the O.K. Corral kerfuffle, the “property” of Johnny Behan, an ally of the Clantons. This, no doubt, led to further friction between the adversaries. Josephine was also Jewish, brought up in an upper middle class home in San Francisco. The revealing of her religion at last ended a decades-long mystery of why Earp’s remains lay buried in a Colma, CA, Jewish cemetery. Wyatt and Josephine made and lost numerous fortunes, investing in houses of ill-repute, prospecting for gold in Alaska, etc. He ended up selling ideas to Hollywood in the late teens into the early 1920s before the aforementioned Lake brokered the publication deal.
Then there was the “heroic” Doc Holliday. A raging psychopath, the hot-tempered, quick-on-the-trigger southerner trained as a dentist, but soon found increasing fame by drilling people in other ways. It’s curious as to the relationship that actually existed between Earp and Holliday – and, again I’m referring to the almost never-mentioned presence of Josie, as Doc was a rabid racist and anti-Semite. His contracting consumption caused his self-banishment to the cleaner air environs offered by the west.
The most accurate Earp movie is by GUNFIGHT‘s John Sturges, 1967’s Hour of the Gun, featuring a humorless James Garner as Wyatt and Robert Ryan as Clanton. It takes place AFTER the famed shoot-out. It was the first to relate the details of Earp’s post-O.K. Corral vengeance ride, wherein he methodically hunted down surviving participants involved in the lethal proceedings. Whether or not Earp legally had the right to do so (even extracting revenge across the border) was never brought to light. Not that it would have mattered to Earp anyway. That’s about as close to the truth as you’re gonna get (and, once more, no mention of Josephine), and, as far a movie entertainment goes, who the hell cares? It’s likely that surviving Earps would have prevented the real stuff from the damaging the reel versions anyway. And by 1957, thanks to the advent of the super Western (first ignited by High Noon, then from the likes of The Searchers and others), this was going to be the biggest adventure (and lie) of ’em all. And it was, gloriously so.
Producer Hal Wallis early-on wanted to pull out all the stops in telling this oft-told tale. He had been putting this project together for years – when he still had Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas under personal contract (Wallis was known as a starmaker, not only signing the above pair, but also Martin & Lewis and Elvis Presley to exclusive non-exclusive servitude). GUNFIGHT had taken so long to put together that both Lancaster’s and Douglas’ tenure with Wallis had expired. Both were now independent, producing their own movies. Wallis had designed GUNFIGHT for the two stars, and couldn’t see anyone else playing the roles. He approached them, asking if they’d agree to do it. Each acquiesced, but at a ga-zillion times the price they were making when under the producer’s thumb (Lancaster initially stated that he’d only consider Wyatt if Wallis gave him Starbuck in The Rainmaker; even then, Burt demanded that he be able to re-write his dialog; Kirk likewise wanted artistic control). Wallis freaked, but paid; he needn’t have worried. The picture was a smash from Day One, rivaling such other 1957 champs as Bridge on the River Kwai and Sayonara.
“Super” was the preferred word when putting together GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, and that meant every aspect of the production. Wallis obtained the services of John Sturges (a top A-lister ever since 1954’s critically acclaimed Bad Day at Black Rock) and hot author Leon Uris (whose novel and subsequent movie adaptation Battle Cry had gone through the roof) to pen the screenplay (suggested by an article by George Scullin). Sturges stages the bravura action sequences spectacularly, thereby elevating the Republic Pictures plotline into full throttle sub-genre filmmaking, then dubbed the Adult Western. The cast, the music, the photography would all be ultra-plush – the last word in Hollywood extravagance. There is virtually no scene in the movie that doesn’t contain a plethora of incredible performers. It’s star-gazing at its zenith; aside from the against-type appearance of Jo Van Fleet (as Doc’s live-in whore, Kate Fisher), there are such genre favorites as John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, DeForrest Kelley, Martin Milner, Olive Carey, Frank Faylen, Lee Van Cleef, George Mathews, Whit Bissell, Earl Holliman, Kenneth Tobey, Jack Elam, Ted de Corsia, and, in the first of his sidebar career oater turns as the weakling son/brother of the baddies, Dennis Hopper.
For all of Uris’ renowned realism, the script is pretty much twaddle – a barrage of made-up clichés that even undemanding sagebrush supporters are apt to gawk at. The worst offender in the scenario is the 110% fictitious creation of Laura Denbow, the WASPy white girl love interest for the stalwart goody-goody Earp. Denbow is enacted by the beauteous Rhonda Fleming; she’s a lady gambler, arrested by the marshal for apparently no other reason save her sex. As unreal as the interior exterior sets they ride onto (during romantic interplay), Fleming is the typical wait-at-the-fort human decoration. A testament to the popularity of this picture is what Howard Hawks did with this identical situation two years later in Rio Bravo (a splendid and emotional redux in the personages of John Wayne and Angie Dickinson).
The lust in the dust byplay between Douglas and Van Fleet is a bit livelier, but, on its own level, equally grating. Wanna learn how to play Doc Holliday, announced Douglas to an interviewer? “Get a good cough.” This Douglas adhered to with overdone enthusiasm, enough to justifiably prompt violent outbursts from the audience. Obviously never hearing of the phrase “less is more,” the actor practically prefaces every line of dialog with enough phlegm to suspect that he’s a shill for the Smith Brothers. By the time Van Fleet graduates from throwing crockery at him to an attempted knifing, it comes off as a perfectly understandable solution. Truly, had Dietrich played Camille instead of Garbo, I would dutifully expect her to pop up and shout, “Enough aweddy with that Goddamn coughing!”
On-location, Douglas and Lancaster often were at odds with one another. While Burt termed the picture as “crock of shit,” and spoke his vapid lines with his eyes on a huge paycheck, Kirk felt obligated to show off his twirling fast draw ability at the drop of a Stetson (a feat he learned from his appearance in King Vidor’s wonderful 1955 western Man Without a Star). After the umpteenth time, in front of gaping autograph seekers, Lancaster curtailed his costar with a brisk snub about his height – at which point Douglas halted and skulked away. Seemingly following Lancaster’s footsteps as a producer/star, journalists inquired if Douglas’ goal was to become Burt Lancaster. “I have enough trouble trying to be Kirk Douglas,” wryly replied the actor born Issur Danielovitch Demsky.
The music, like everything else in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, is larger than life. And by that I mean a boisterous, rousing score by Dimitri Tiomkin – with on-going balladeer crooning by the formidable pipes of Frankie Laine. By this time, it was almost a prerequisite to have Laine warble the title tune to a major studio western. His previous endeavors (Saddle Tramp, Blowing Wild, Man Without a Star, 3:10 to Yuma) helped fill dream factory coffers to their brim, as soundtrack albums/singles increasingly became an ancillary necessity to a movie’s success. Mel Brooks saw the connection brilliantly, and, in 1974’s Blazing Saddles, had Laine do a superb satire of big-budget western movie singing. I mention this because for sheer parody not even Brooks’ lyrics can compare to some of those in GUNFIGHT (written by the prolific Ned Washington). This is specifically notable during a segment when Earp and Holliday ride past a graveyard. “Boot Hill, Boot Hill,” begins Laine. “So cold,” he continues as a fawning chorus chimes in “mighty cold, mighty cold.” “So still,” the singer finishes as the accompaniment whispers “mighty still, mighty still.” It’s hilarious…and fantastic.
Following Wallis’ kitchen sink memo, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL’s look is of behemoth proportions. The mammoth “feel” of the picture is due to the amazing artistry of the terrific d.p. Charles Lang. His Technicolor work in this movie may be the best of his career (and that’s saying a mouthful).
Lang’s achievements here are partnered by his association with the Paramount’s VistaVision, my bid for the best process of all time. In very layman’s terms, what VistaVision was able to do was to accentuate detail to the nth degree – focus as never before possible. This was done by having the film run through the camera horizontally rather than vertically (what became known in the industry as the “lazy 8” system). Unlike CinemaScope, VistaVision’s claim to fame wasn’t shape, but sheer size. By exposing twice the amount of space normally allotted to a 35MM frame, the near-surreal you-are-there result was mind-boggling when witnessed in one of the handful of VistaVision theatres across the country. This wasn’t to slight the regular unfurling in standard nabes and drive-ins (where most folks saw these extraordinary pics); one was essentially seeing 70MM quality in each 35MM frame. The genius cameraman William Daniels once remarked that he mourned the day they discontinued VistaVision (an astounding statement, since he never personally worked in the process).
In many ways, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL may be the finest example of VistaVision ever lensed. Every landscape composition is there to awe its viewers. Every speck of sand in the desert is clear as crystal. Every prick (both of the cacti and outlaw variety) is in your face. Even the pockmarks on Lancaster’s punim are severely evident. It can be stated here that Blu-Ray is the best friend VistaVision can ever hope for (and vice versa). Every pic ever shot in this process should be re-mastered in 1080p and released in the B-D format. A re-mixed 5.1 stereo track is a nifty compliment (the original release was in Perspecta, an embryonic forerunner of Dolby)
Back in the 1980s, I was first in line to grab the then-high-end home entertainment laserdisc of GUNFIGHT. It was, to say the least, one of the biggest disappointments of my movie collecting life, being the worst of all worlds. Full-frame, soft, time-compressed and with awful color – I watched the platter once, then stored it away to never be seen again. The 2003 DVD remedied some of the problems, restoring the correct aspect ratio, and, to some extent, the color. Like the earlier LV, it has now been consigned to home vid boot hill.
This is all irrelevant now, as the new Warner/Paramount Blu-Ray takes the format and this movie to a stunning new level. The vivid Technicolor, the immaculate detail, nearing 3-D proportions, is outstanding. Long story short, I always liked GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL; in Blu-Ray, I love it!
GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL. Color. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]. 5.1 DTS-HD MA. CAT # 1000408412. Warner Home Entertainment and Paramount Pictures. SRP: $19.98.