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James Garner as Earp in HOUR OF THE GUN, 1967

If the public learned from WICHITA that there was more to Wyatt Earp’s life than Tombstone, they were about to learn that there was even more, and in their own living rooms. In 1955, The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp premiered on the ABC network. Based on Lake’s book, the series didn’t pretend to be totally factual, as evident from its full title, but it did present a fair amount of authentic material in addition to fictional embellishments. Indeed, the half-hour series was quite remarkable since it was not only based on the life of an actual historical person but followed him along the various stages of his life as they occurred. Thus, the first season depicted his beginnings as a lawman in Ellsworth and Wichita while later seasons took him to Dodge City and Tombstone. In each setting, the pertinent historical characters were featured as regulars. For instance, the Thompson brothers and Dr. Fabrique were regulars in Wichita but disappeared after Wyatt went to Dodge and were replaced by such persons as Jim ‘Dog” Kelley, Bat and Jim Masterson and eventually Doc Holliday, who would remain until the end of the series. And when Wyatt arrived in Tombstone, John Clum, Johnny Behan, the Earp brothers, the Clantons and the McLaureys were among those who became regulars.

While each episode of the series was a story in itself, it was also part of a continuing saga. Characterizations and relationships developed over a period of weeks, even months. Of particular interest was the relationship of Wyatt and Doc Holliday which gradually evolved from initial distrust to devoted friendship. The relationship with the Clantons and McLaureys also gradually and realistically developed from minor skirmishes to increasingly bad blood and eventual gunplay. The O.K. Corral gunfight was depicted over a period of five weeks as Wyatt recounted the story in court. The series ended with Wyatt’s acquittal.

The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp lasted for six years and was very popular, being in the top 20 highest rated shows for four seasons and in the top 10 for two years. Part of the credit for the success of the series has to be given to Hugh O’Brian whose portrayal of Wyatt convincingly depicted the gradual growth of the character from an initially unassuming and reluctant lawman to a living legend. Moreover, it was a different kind of Western hero that he skillfully portrayed. Dressed in a black suit and usually wearing a tie, he rarely engaged in a fistfight or other strenuous action but more often prevented serious trouble by rapping his opponent over the head with the barrel of his gun, as the real Wyatt frequently did. Along with considerable talent, O’Brian projected a likeable screen presence and became a genuine star of the small screen. Providing occasional support, Douglas Fowley colorfully portrayed a cranky and quick-tempered Doc Holliday, except for a brief period when the role was assumed by Myron Healey.

Another reason for the success of the series was the bold approach of the producers to change settings and characters in the midst of the series’ popularity and yet maintain continuity while depicting development of the principle character. Consistency and artistry were maintained for the entire 266 episodes and recognition for this difficult achievement must be given to the chief writer, Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, noted novelist (The Irish Lullabye) and playwright (The Time Of Roses). It is unfortunate that the series couldn’t have continued to depict the events after the O.K. Corral inquest. However, it is unlikely that the most violent part of Wyatt’s life would have made palatable viewing.

Henry Fonda as Earp in WARLOCK, 1959, with Richard Widmark

Two years after the debut of the Wyatt Earp series, Bat Masterson premiered on NBC. Since Bat had been a semi-regular on Wyatt’s series, usually portrayed as an inexperienced apprentice to Wyatt, it was only natural that Wyatt would make an occasional appearance on Bat’s series. In one episode, obviously a swipe at the rival network’s series, Wyatt was portrayed as a likeable grandstander who takes credit for one of Bat’s heroic feats, much to Bat’s amusement. The series ran for four seasons.

In 1957, the Paramount-Hal Wallis production of GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL was released. Directed by John Sturges from a screenplay by Leon Uris, the movie is an exciting and dramatic rendition of the story, which focuses more on the relationship of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday than on the infamous battle with the Clantons. Burt Lancaster portrays a somewhat puritanical and rigid lawman whose dedication to the law and to his brothers costs him the woman he loves. Kirk Douglas is the tubercular ex-dentist who tries to escape the shame he brought upon his Southern family by drowning in liquor and killings. The transformation of both men from mutual enmity to respect and friendship is developed in a very believable manner. Although the film contains a liberal dose of speculation, there is some historical basis to many of the events depicted. Wyatt and Doc did meet in Fort Griffin, Texas, although Wyatt was on the trail of outlaws other than the Clantons. Doc’s escape from detention with the help of Kate Fisher is based in fact, although Wyatt was not a participant. Doc’s explosive relationship with Kate Fisher, who was also known as Kate Elder, is by all accounts not exaggerated. Besides the Clantons and McLaureys, other historical characters in the movie are Bat Masterson, Johnny Ringo, Jim Kelley, John Clum, Charlie Bassett and Shanghai Pierce as well as Virgil, Morgan and James Earp.

Most of the film’s first half takes place in Dodge City with the concluding half in Tombstone. After taming Dodge, Wyatt is ready to give up his badge and settle down with Laura Denbow until he is summoned to Tombstone by his brothers. Once again, family duty is more important to Wyatt than personal happiness. Doc accompanies Wyatt westward, which causes concern among his brothers, but by this time the friendship is deep and Wyatt makes it clear that Doc deserves his trust. In this version, Billy Clanton is a troubled youngster whom Wyatt befriends and tries to dissuade from following his outlaw brothers. It is a futile attempt for the Clantons and McLaureys are determined to maintain their control of the territory and when their attempt to kill Wyatt results in the death of James, the stage is set for the climactic battle. When the factions meet at the O.K. Corral, it is as much a personal as a legal showdown. Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan must avenge their brother’s murder while Doc’s loyalty to Wyatt is his only reason for living.

The gunfight itself is largely inaccurate, occurring over several minutes and extending from the corral to a storeroom in town where Doc kills Billy Clanton to save a hesitating Wyatt. Because the film is somewhat episodic, the Clantons don’t appear until relatively late and as a result the gunfight lacks the dramatic impact it should have. The screenplay attempts to provide cohesion by establishing friction between Wyatt and the Clantons in the Fort Griffin prelude as well as between Doc and Ringo in Dodge and having Ringo take part in the shoot-out. It only partially works.

Nevertheless, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL is very entertaining, due in no small part to the splendid performances of Lancaster and Douglas. Excellent support is provided by John Ireland (who was Billy Clanton in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE) as Johnny Ringo, Jo Van Fleet as Kate, Dennis Hopper as Billy, and DeForest Kelley, John Hudson, and Martin Milner as the Earp brothers. Don Castle, who was Johnny Duane in Tombstone, has a small role as a drunken cowboy in this film. John Sturges directs with a sure hand, carefully balancing the human drama with the exciting action scenes. Another asset is a rich and thunderous score by Dimitri Tiomkin, which includes a title song by Frankie Lame that becomes a part of the narrative. The movie was a tremendous commercial success. Since the television series was achieving high ratings during the same period, it appeared that the public couldn’t get enough of Wyatt Earp.

Also in 1957, another variation of the story was released, this one with a sex change for the outlaw chief. FORTY GUNS, written and directed by Samuel Fuller, features Barbara Stanwyck as Jessica Drummond, the leader of an outlaw gang that runs Cochise County in 1880’s Arizona with an iron fist. The forty guns of the title refers to her small army of lawless cowboys, including her trigger happy younger brother, Brock. Since the county sheriff is under Jessica’s control, U.S. Marshal Griff Bonnell, played by Barry Sullivan, and his brothers, Wes and Chico, are assigned to bring an end to the outlaw band. Because of remorse for his past as a gunfighter, Bonnell hopes to do this without gunplay. The issue becomes complicated when Griff and Jessica fall in love. However, when Wes is killed by Brock, Griff discards his principles as well as his feelings for Jessica and goes gunning for vengeance. In the climactic gunfight, Brock holds Jessica in front of him as a shield but Griff without hesitating shoots Jessica and then kills Brock.

Henry Fonda as Earp in WARLOCK, 1959, with Dorothy Malone

FORTY GUNS has been praised in Europe as a masterpiece and condemned in this country as dehumanizing trash. It is neither, but it is fascinating in spots, though annoying in others. While the narrative is straightforward on the surface, it is marred by the director’s overuse of huge closeups, bizarre angle shots and rapid cutting which tend to distract from the sound characterizations and engrossing plot. The performances of the two leads are very effective and they are given fine support, particularly by Gene Barry as Wes and John Ericson as Brock. The film is more than worthwhile, if only for Sullivan’s classic last line.

In 1958, George Montgomery once again got some assistance from Wyatt in BADMAN’S COUNTRY. It is another low budget effort with Montgomery as Pat Garrett aided by Buster Crabbe as Wyatt in tracking down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Besides being historically erroneous, it’s also boring.

In 1959, ALIAS JESSE JAMES featured Bob Hope as an insurance salesman who sells a life policy to the infamous outlaw. The climax has Hope aided by a dozen television heroes, including Hugh O’Brian as Wyatt Earp.

In 1964, John Ford interrupted his somber CHEYENNE AUTUMN with a brief comic interlude in which James Stewart as Wyatt and Arthur Kennedy as Doc Holliday try to conduct a poker game in Dodge City despite the abusive treatment of the Indians in the surrounding territory. Unlike the idealist in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, this Wyatt appears to be a self-centered cynic. Ford’s last Western is not one of his classics.

Also in 1964, a movie entitled Gunmen OF THE RIO GRANDE was released with ads proclaiming Guy Madison as Wyatt Earp. This was actually an Italian-Spanish-French co-production originally entitled JENNIE LEES HA UNA NUOVA PISTOLA and also known as EL SHERIFF DEL O.K. CORRAL. At the beginning of the movie, Madison states in dubbed English that he is the famed marshal traveling incognito in Mexico in response to a plea from a woman who needs help keeping her mine from being stolen by a crooked land baron. The standard plot suggests that the producers may have hoped to attract audiences who would normally avoid European Westerns by substituting the name of Wyatt for an otherwise anonymous hero. The movie is indistinguishable from the dozens of other foreign Westerns that were flooding the market at the time.

In 1965, the Three Stooges went West to stop the slaughter of buffalo in THE OUTLAWS IS COMING and met several famous and infamous legends of the Old West, including Bill Camfield as Wyatt Earp.

In 1967, ten years after GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, director John Sturges returned to the saga with HOUR OF THE GUN. This United Artists release is a sequel to the 1957 film in that it begins with another version of the gunfight that ended the earlier film. But otherwise, the films are completely different, this one being more of a character study of Wyatt than an adventure film. Edward Anhalt’s screenplay concentrates on the bloody aftermath of the shoot-out and the effect it has upon Wyatt as well as his friendship with Doc. The staging of the gunfight is the most accurate yet, taking as much time as the actual fight with-for the first time on the screen -the participants as well as the outcome based on historical accounts. The inquest that follows, which includes some actual court testimony, clearly establishes Wyatt as being on the side of justice, though perhaps not the paragon previously pictured. The political aspects of the feud are also presented for the first time and Wyatt is shown to be basically honest but pragmatic as well. The acquittal of Wyatt and Doc is followed by the murder of Morgan and the attempted murder of Virgil which precedes Wyatt’s sustained vengeance against the Clanton gang.

James Garner’s Wyatt Earp is a tragic character whose grief for his brothers causes his moral decline. Jason Robards’ consumptive Doc Holliday, though filled with self-contempt, in contrast functions as Wyatt’s conscience, regretfully watching as Wyatt lies to himself and to his friends while pursuing his quest for vengeance. Doc’s futile attempts to save his only friend slowly give way to the painful acceptance that the man he worships has become a mirror image of himself.

The movie invents a final confrontation between Wyatt and Ike Clanton (although Ike was eventually killed while rustling as shown, it was not by Wyatt) but otherwise accurately depicts events that followed the gunfight, including the manipulation of the law by Clanton and the sheriff to make Wyatt a fugitive. The subsequent political machinations may not be dramatically exciting-John Clum and the town elders get rid of Clanton’s hired law by paying them off-but are probably historically correct. The public display of the bodies of Billy Clanton and the McLaureys also actually occurred as Clanton tried to drum up public support against the Earps and Holliday. The funeral parade down the main street of Tombstone is another example of the film’s historical accuracy.

James Garner as Earp with Jason Robards in HOUR OF THE GUN, 1967

Wyatt’s three controversial killings are based on written accounts and are each suspensefully staged. Only the expression on Wyatt’s face and the tone of his voice give any indication as to whether he is defending himself or executing the men. It is after the third killing that Doc finally confronts Wyatt and angrily forces him to admit the truth, though not till after Wyatt violently strikes out at him. It is a powerful scene, not only because of the legendary aspects of the friendship but also because of the realization that a folk hero’s fallibility is being mercilessly exposed.

The movie ends with Wyatt realizing that he has violated his own principles and giving up the law as well as the political future that his friends were helping him to achieve. As Doc sits on the porch of the Colorado sanitarium and takes a swig of the liquor he knows will hasten his death, he glances sadly at Wyatt riding away for the last time. And Wyatt, his face emotionless and drained after having curtly brushed off John Clum, rides away from his friends and his past, a barren future ahead of him. It is a bitter, downbeat ending that almost suggests an elegy for the ignoble end of a once heroic figure.

Perhaps because of the absence of any romantic entanglements-the first version since LAW AND ORDER without a love interest-as well as the bleakness of the film, HOUR OF THE GUN was disappointing at the box office. But it is a very underrated movie, directed solidly and efficiently by Sturges without any of the romanticism of his earlier film. Balancing known facts with speculation, Anhalt’s taut script creates a very believable Wyatt Earp who is neither heroic nor villainous but simply human. Sturges and Anhalt masterfully balance scenes of action with scenes of tension, all the while gradually delineating the character of Wyatt Earp. There is a sense of the real American West throughout the entire film, from the grittiness of the outdoor scenes to the raw realism of the streets, courtrooms and poolhalls of Tombstone.

Each of the supporting characters, major and minor, is carefully etched and there are wonderful throwaway touches that add authenticity, such as the offended bartender who doesn’t recognize Doc or the pained expression on Sherm McMaster’s face when Wyatt unintentionally insults him.

Garner’s performance is one of his finest and most unappreciated. Because Wyatt’s motivations are obscure for much of the film, Garner has to project his inner torment in subtle ways, through his eyes and voice and by conveying just a hint of the suppressed anger that lies beneath the calm exterior. He does this so expertly that only repeated viewings, with the knowledge of what is actually occurring within the character, can reveal the depth of the actor’s portrayal.

Jason Robards is also excellent as Doc. His coughing spasms, so familiar to moviegoers by this time, could easily have become a cliche but instead actually seem to tear his body apart from the inside, particularly the one that occurs at the emotional climax of the film. Excellent supporting roles are provided by Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton, Larry Gates as John Clum, and John Voight as Curly Bill Brocius. Frank Converse and Sam Melville as Virgil and Morgan Earp and Steve Ihnat and Michael Tolan as Clanton gang members also register strongly. Also adding to the overall excellence of the film is an exceptionally fine score by Jerry Goldsmith, which not only perfectly captures the tone and flavor of the drama but actually expands the range of the film and its characterizations.

The one fault of the movie is due to the cutting of integral explanatory scenes by the production company prior to release. The elimination of scenes of Wyatt’s introspection and soul searching damages the essence of the film that Sturges and Anhalt so carefully developed. Nevertheless, HOUR OF THE GUN still emerges as a superior Western and deserves a much better fate than it has so far received.

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  1. “good post”

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