Review: Gunfight at the OK Corral

Rigid lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) saves the life of Doc Holliday, a tubercular gunslinger/gambler/dentist and the two subsequently form an uneasy bond. They both end up in Tombstone, Arizona, with Wyatt leaving behind pretty gambler Laura (Rhonda Fleming), much to her chagrin, after a short romance and a promise that Wyatt would settle down and retire. Wyatt has ventured to Tombstone in order to help his town marshal brother Virgil (John Hudson) and brothers Morgan (DeForest Kelley) and James (Martin Milner) take down the Clantons and McLowerys (the latter including cockeyed Jack Elam), a gang headed by Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) and including wily gunslinger Johnny Ringo (John Ireland), who has taken up with Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), Holliday’s occasional lover and more than occasional sparring partner (it’s a volatile relationship to say the least). Meanwhile, Doc’s health continues to deteriorate. Ted de Corsia plays nasty cattle baron Shanghai Pierce, Frank Faylen is the weak-willed and corrupt sheriff Cotton Wilson, Earl Holliman plays Wyatt’s deputy Charlie, Lee Van Cleef is disgruntled gunman Ed Bailey, Whit Bissell plays Mayor Clum, and Dennis Hopper plays young Billy Clanton, whom Wyatt tries to dissuade from turning out like his kin.

Not quite on the level of John Sturges’ other masterpieces “The Great Escape” and “The Magnificent Seven”, this 1957 western is nonetheless a highly enjoyable and persuasive rendition of the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday story. Burt Lancaster is spot-on and stoic as the unbending lawman, whilst an edgy and volatile Kirk Douglas steals the show as the tubercular gunslinger and the two frequent co-stars have an undeniable chemistry on screen. The opening scenes in particular are wonderfully tense and exciting, as is the title gunfight. The film also has something to be said about the dangers of a life of gun-slinging for the young and inexperienced. It’s a time and place where even the ‘fastest gun in the west’ is likely to eventually run into the one guy faster than them on the draw. A young Dennis Hopper makes a memorable early appearance as one such dumb young kid whom Wyatt tries to steer onto the right path.

Terrific supporting turns by Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, and especially Earl Holliman, and lots of other memorable faces too (DeForest ‘Damnit, Jim!’ Kelley, Jack Elam, Ted de Corsia, Lee Van Cleef, etc). Outstanding cinematography by Charles B. Lang (“The Big Heat”, “Some Like it Hot”, “How the West Was Won”, “Last Train From Gun Hill”) is a definite asset, with the film shot on location in Arizona, including Tombstone.

The two chief drawbacks are the lack of a memorable lead villain (Ike Clanton is the lead villain here, played unmemorably by Lyle Bettger), and the godawful, repetitive songs by Frankie Laine, who would later seemingly lampoon this work in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”. These drawbacks could’ve almost dragged the film down to a B-level, but not quite. It’s a durable story well-told by a highly underrated director of great entertainments. Sturges would have another crack at the story a decade later with “Hour of the Gun”, and whilst not as exciting as this, it’s a thoughtful and interesting film in its own right (And one that the director himself preferred over “Gunfight”, actually).

An absolute must for fans of classic westerns, not to mention the two stars. The screenplay by Leon Uris (“The Angry Hills”, Hitchcock’s “Topaz”) was based on a magazine article by George Scullin.

Rating: A-


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