|Directed by||John Sturges|
In Fort Griffin, Texas, Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef) comes looking to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of gunslinger John H. “Doc” Holliday (Kirk Douglas). Seeing him in a bar, Holliday’s girl, Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), returns to Holliday’s room, where the two argue—while Holliday throws knives at the wall—once she brings up Holliday’s once-prominent family. At the same time, well-known marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) arrives in Fort Griffin thinking he will take outlaws Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) and Johnny Ringo (John Ireland) into custody, but instead finds out that the local sheriff, Cotton Wilson (Frank Faylen), released them despite the outstanding warrants for their arrest. Holliday refuses to help the lawman, holding a grudge against Wyatt’s brother, Morgan. Holliday kills Bailey with a knife-throw when Bailey attempts to shoot him in the back. Holliday is arrested for murder, though Wyatt and Kate allow him to escape from a lynch mob.
In Dodge City, Kansas, Wyatt finds out that Holliday and Kate are in town. Holliday tells him he has no money, so Wyatt allows him to stay if he promises to not fight while he is in town. Meanwhile, gorgeous gambler Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming) is arrested for playing cards since women are not allowed to gamble. She is released and allowed to play in the side rooms of the saloon. Wyatt is forced to deputize Holliday because a bank robber kills a cashier and Wyatt’s other deputies are out in a posse catching another outlaw. The bank robbers attempt to ambush Wyatt outside of town, but are instead killed by Wyatt and Holliday.
Back in Dodge City, Holliday learns Kate has left him for Ringo, who taunts Holliday to a shootout and throws liquor on him. Holliday steadfastly refuses to fight him. Shanghai Pierce (Ted de Corsia) and his henchmen ride into town, wound deputy Charlie Bassett (Earl Holliman) and attack a dancehall, but Wyatt and Holliday hold the men and defuse the situation. As Ringo attempts to intervene, Holliday shoots him in the arm. Holliday returns to his room and Kate is waiting for him, but he refuses to take her back. She swears she will see him dead. By now, Wyatt and Laura have fallen in love, but when he receives a letter from his brother, Virgil, asking him to come clean up Tombstone, Arizona, she refuses to go with him unless he changes. Holliday catches up to Wyatt on the trail and both head to Tombstone.
In Tombstone, Wyatt finds out that Ike Clanton is trying to herd thousands of heads of Mexican cattle but cannot as long as the Earps control Tombstone’s railway station. Morgan Earp (DeForest Kelley) criticizes his brother’s association with Holliday, but Wyatt insists the gunslinger is welcome in Tombstone as long as he stays out of trouble. Cotton, the cowardly county sheriff from Fort Griffin, offers Wyatt a $20,000 bribe (about $490,000 today) if he allows the stolen cattle to be shipped, but Wyatt refuses. He rides out to the Clanton ranch, returning young Billy Clanton (Dennis Hopper) to his mother after finding Billy drunk. Wyatt informs Ike that he has been made a U.S. Marshal and has legal authority in every county in the United States. Finding no recourse, the Clantons decide to ambush Wyatt as he makes his nightly rounds, but kill his younger brother James Earp (Martin Milner) by mistake.
The next morning, Ike and five of his henchman go to Tombstone to face off against the Earps at the O.K. Corral. Holliday, who is sick from tuberculosis, joins them. Though Virgil and Morgan are wounded in the gunfight, all six in Clanton’s gang are killed, including Billy, who is given a chance to surrender but refuses. After the fight is over, Wyatt joins Holliday for a final drink before heading off to California to meet Laura, as promised.
The film was a big hit and earned $4.7 million on its first run and $6 million on re-release. Its Dimitri Tiomkin score, featuring the song “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, with lyrics by Ned Washington, sung by Frankie Laine, pushes the movie’s momentum relentlessly throughout.
Members of the Western Writers of America chose the song “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.
Sturges revisited the same material a decade later when he directed a more historically accurate sequel of sorts, Hour of the Gun, starring James Garner as Wyatt Earp, Jason Robards as Doc Holliday, and Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton. That film begins with a more accurate version of the O.K. Corral gun battle, then moves forward into the aftermath for the balance of the movie.
Burt and Kirk Take on the Clantons!
‘Gunfight at O.K. Corral’ is one of the many films that have told the tale of the famous showdown between the Earps and the Clantons, but setting this version apart is the ideal casting of Burt Lancaster as the straight-shooting Marshal Wyatt Earp, and Kirk Douglas as the sardonic, dying gambler, Doc Holliday. As in all their pairings, there is a chemistry between them that makes even mundane scripts seem magical!
Lancaster, continuing his rule of alternating between heavy drama and action films, researched the historic Earp extensively, speaking to many who knew him, and his performance is restrained and assured. Douglas, on the other hand, fresh from playing Vincent Van Gogh in ‘Lust for Life’, knew he needed a splashy hit film, and played Doc Holliday as larger than life, swaggering, diseased, and charismatic. His portrayal is far closer in spirit to the interpretations of Holliday by Val Kilmer, in ‘Tombstone’, and Dennis Quaid, in ‘Wyatt Earp’, than Victor Mature, in John Ford’s ‘My Darling Clementine’.
The film, co-written by Leon Uris, author of ‘Exodus’, is a historically fanciful but very entertaining exploration of the friendship between Earp and Holliday, as the lawman moves from Dodge City to Tombstone, followed by the gambler, covering a ‘blood debt’, after Earp saves his life. The climax is, naturally, the infamous gun battle between the Earps (with Holliday) versus the Clanton family and their allies. While purists will quickly note that the shoot-’em-up presented is totally fabricated (watch ‘Wyatt Earp’ or ‘Tombstone’ if you want accuracy), it certainly is rousing!
Other aspects of the film to enjoy…Dimitri Tiompkin’s magnificent musical score, highlighted by Frankie Laine’s unforgettable performance of the title tune, throughout the film…Excellent supporting players, including Jo Van Fleet as Holliday’s mistress, John Ireland as evil Johnny Ringo, a young Dennis Hopper as Billy Clanton, and Rhonda Fleming as the gambler girlfriend of Wyatt (based on Earp’s actual wife, Josie)…Cameos by Kenneth Tobey as Bat Masterson, DeForest Kelley as Morgan Earp, Martin Milner as James Earp, and Frank Faylen as the corrupt sheriff.
The director, John Sturges, revisited the Earp saga some years later in ‘Hour of the Gun’, with James Garner as Earp, and Jason Robards as Holliday, but while the later film may be more correct, historically, ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ is a far more enjoyable film.
I strongly recommend it to any western fan!