Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

Directed by John Sturges


Alright, so westerns, pretty dope huh?  They are, but they take a bit of getting used to.  Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is one of those westerns with good versus evil, something that Sergio Leone’s later Spaghetti Westerns worked to undermine.  And while I enjoy nuance and shades of gray within a movie, there’s something appealing about a solid good versus evil story, especially one with Kirk Douglas who finds a way to bring complexity to every character he plays.

The title of this movie alludes to a battle that takes place in the final 11 minutes of a two hour film.  It’s a good spectacle, an entertaining, slightly unpredictable shootout, and it’s certainly the most exciting part of the film, but most of the story works to set up the two good guys: local marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and former dentist turned gunslinger Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas).

Earp is the conventional good guy.  He’s nothing but reassuring advice, a calm head and a soothing yet gravelly voice.  The heart of the movie is depicts the kindness Earp shows young Billy (a 19 year old character played by– holy sh*t, Dennis Hopper.  And he was only 20.  Hot damn, Billy looked like he was 35, but he was a 20 year old Dennis Hopper, well I’ll be…) the youngest of a family of brothers who soon become the antagonists that Earp and Doc will face in the final showdown.

Okay, so this is actually a simple story, but a lot goes into setting up these two characters. Doc is a mess, a gunslinger who is never quite safe because of all the enemies he has made.  He’s quite unlike Wyatt Earp, and the theme lies in the gap between their two characters.

Doc is that cowboy image you have in your head.  He’s cool and confident, witty and sardonic.  He’ll goad you into pulling a gun just so he can shoot you down.  Doc plays with fire, but he knows his luck will someday run out.  Wyatt, on the other hand, is all about playing it safe.  He’s the local marshal, but he’ll only use his gun when absolutely necessary.  In one scene, Doc and Wyatt discuss their respective views.  Doc wants to die like a gunfighter, shot down and dead within a split-second, no time to really comprehend his death.  He lives hard, and he plans to die that way too.

Wyatt is a preacher of nonviolence.  He’ll tell Billy that it’s foolish to want to die like your older brothers.  Gunfighting is reckless and deadly, and though it’s to some degree a way of life, there’s no reason to blindly run into battle and an untimely death.  He might as well be telling someone to hang up the pads and quit playing (American) football.

So, again, a lot happens in the first hundred or so minutes of the movie, but it all serves to place Wyatt and Doc together on the same side.  A series of personal grievances work to get Wyatt’s brother killed, shot down by the Clantons, the family of which Billy is the youngest member.

Distraught, Wyatt decides he has no choice but to fight the men, making a hypocrite of himself and his brand.  He recruits Doc to join him, but the gunslinger is sickly and refuses… until he decides to join him at the last minute, of course, and you’re smitten because these two unlikely friends have each other’s back.  It’s quite heartwarming.

So they go into battle with a few others, and Billy joins in on the fighting despite Wyatt’s insistence that he stay out of this.  The final moment finds Wyatt with a gun to Billy but reluctant to shoot, even as Billy raises his own weapon.  Doc walks in on them, sees Billy’s gun and does what Wyatt can’t, killing Billy.

The movie then ends with Wyatt riding off into a midday sunset while Doc, still incredibly ill, remains behind to play poker and drink.

Kirk Douglas only seems to play these kinds of antiheroes before they were ever common.  He’s certainly a “good guy,” but he’s a drunk, violent, cocky, and he’s unafraid to raise a hand against the woman he may or may not love.  He’s the type of guy who, with his slick blond hair and calculated demeanor, looks like he might always be up to something.

In The Bad and the BeautifulAce in the Hole and even his first film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Douglas is a haunted man who’s up to something and willing to throw others under the bus.  He’s never quite the bad guy, but he’s also never as pure as someone like a James Stewart or a Cary Grant, maybe, or a, who are some other stars from the same time?

The point is, he’s got some real darkness.  His character usually lives by his own rules, even as cliche as that is to say, and he has his own objective which rarely vibes with the goals of those around him.  So Gunfight at the O.K. Corral takes this character, emphasizes that he is as dark as you might expect, and then flips it around to show his compassionate side.  He becomes the traditional cowboy hero that you expect in a western.

Wyatt Earp is much more of the traditional hero we normally get in these movies, but he’s much too kind and docile for this genre.  The cowboy hero is fast with a gun and unafraid to let loose.  He is Doc Holliday in skill and Wyatt Earp in temperament.  That’s why it’s important that these men work together.  In the end, the emotional climax of the film, the collective Doc/Wyatt shoot and kill a young would-be gunslinger ONLY because they have to.  There is no honor in this way of life, but they have a duty, and they carry it out.

So the story is pretty awesome, now that I think about it.  It’s two men unprepared for what this life requires who come together to become the traditional cowboy, gunslinging hero, accomplish a goal and then move on with their lives, going their own way.  Wyatt might live a quiet life as he hopes, but we don’t know that the violence won’t follow him.  Doc, meanwhile, shows no signs that he will bounce back from this illness.  He’ll probably just continue walking towards death, but he’ll do it his way.

Up Next: International House (1933), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Sabrina (1954)

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