Monday, 1 September 2008

Film Review: Gunfight At The OK Corral (1957)


Burt Lancaster is lawman Wyatt Earp, Kirk Douglas is gunfighter / gambler / dentist Doc Holliday, and together they forge an unlikely alliance to clean up lawlessness in Tombstone.

Gunfight At The OK Corral is based on true events and real characters, but of course the Hollywood treatment is lathered on in great quantities to create fiction and fact at least in equal doses. In reality the actual Gunfight took a matter of seconds. In the movie, it is a solid 10 minute battle, but no one is questioning the entertainment value of what is on the screen.

Directed by John Sturges, this is a classic western that arrived relatively late in the glory days of the genre. While it mostly adheres to the more old fashioned white hats / black hats western scripts, where good and evil were clearly defined, the film introduces some welcome shadings of moral ambiguity. These mostly revolve around Doc Holliday, by far the most interesting of the main characters and made more so by Douglas' shifty performance. Holliday is a man one step ahead of death, and it's coming at him both from the disease eating away at him, and from the next gunslinger to challenge him. In the meantime he focuses on gambling, drinking, womanizing and finding the thin path that will keep him alive one more day.

In contrast Lancaster's Wyatt Earp is for the most part the prototypical and somewhat boring lawman with a strong moral compass who believes in the righteousness of his actions, and is presented in the film as representative of the type of leader who transitioned the West from rampant lawlessness to a more civilized era.

That Earp forges some sort of friendship with Holliday morally weakens the lawman but strengthens his firepower. And when the bullets start flying in the excellent but historically inaccurate final showdown, firepower is definitely the way to go.

To the film's credit, Earp also has to make a decision to transform the dispute with the cattle rustlers into a personal family feud rather than follow due legal process. This is as far as a 1950's film will go towards sullying the hero. In reality, after the OK Corral showdown, Earp became an uncontrollable law unto himself, and embarked on an almost mythical quest to clean up the West without concerning himself too much with the nuances of the law, events that are more fully explored in the movie Tombstone (1993).

Sturges does a fine job steering the film to its climax, introducing more characters, events, and locations than the typical western of the era. At just over two hours in length, the events and characters are given relaxed room to breathe and develop, but in general, the action stays within the relatively strict boundaries of the 1950's western.

A final word about the music by Dimitri Tiomkin: while conforming to the expectations of the genre at the time, it introduces definite stylistic echoes that can be found in Ennio Morricone's classic Spaghetti Western themes that started to emerge within five years.



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