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The beginning credits of Hour of the Gun (1967) are accompanied by showdown music, punctuated by solemn kettle drums and the drawn out squeals of violin strings, as two groups of men prepare to converge upon one another. No dialogue is needed to heighten the tension, and the tone is set by the onscreen text at the conclusion of the credits: "This picture is based on fact. This is the way it happened." The stage is set for a no-nonsense Western, with gritty characterizations and tautly constructed gunfights, but the disclaimer also attempts to prepare the viewer for a relentless examination of morals and conscience upon one of the most lionized of all western figures, Wyatt Earp.
Hour of the Gun, released in 1967, is considered to be director John Sturges' finest film. Starring James Garner as Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday, it was released a decade after Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) (also a Sturges film) and is considered the sequel. Indeed, the film opens with the shootout at the corral and builds its story from that event. On the surface, Hour of the Gun appears to be a typical Western--a struggle for power between the forces of evil and good, in this case, a political battle for control of Tombstone. Yet Sturges presents an undercurrent plot more sinister than the typical cowboy fare, a realistic look at the conflict between moral righteousness and the temptation of personal revenge.
Following the explosive opening scene, the action moves to the murder trial of the Earp brothers. We are introduced to the antagonist Ike Clanton, supremely played by Robert Ryan, a character with so little scruples as to sacrifice his son for a firmer political grasp on Tombstone. It quickly becomes evident that Clanton will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, and with the Earps posing as the only obstacles in his path, he sets out to destroy them, first (rather ironically) in a courtroom, then, failing that, anywhere he can exact his revenge on them.
The narrative, set against the stunning backdrops created by the keen eye of cinematographer Lucien Ballard, actually serves as a critique of the Earp legend. The audience becomes witness to the moral crumbling of a man hiding behind a badge and yet succumbing to his bloodletting temptations. Garner, in one of his most challenging roles, portrays Earp as an embittered, paranoid lawman. Jason Robards, on the other hand, infuses Holliday with a sense of humor and an unparalleled sympathy. In fact, Holliday is given the best lines in the film, and Robards consistently steals every scene he is in: as Holliday advances with gun drawn upon Curly Bill Brocious, a bystander shouts out in protest, "He's drunk, Holliday," to which he replies without missing a beat, "So am I."
The action builds to the inevitable meeting of Earp and Ike Clanton, although by this point, the showdown is no longer a clean contest of good versus evil. Earp has emerged from his moral battles scarred and bloody, and must make the final decision to abide by or reject the law.
Hour of the Gun was not well received at the time of its release, but it is not difficult to understand why. The proffering of a fallen king, a hero weakened and ultimately destroyed by desire and revenge, was unprecedented in the sixties Western film genre. Today's audiences are much better suited to this kind of characterization; indeed, we demand it for the sake of realism. Hour of the Gun, therefore, is anointed as a film ahead of its time, a film with an increased potency of social relevance more than thirty years after its creation.
For collectors of trivia, look for Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) in one of his first film roles. And yes, that's screenwriter Edward Anhalt in a cameo role as the medic who tries to keep the tubercular Doc Holliday alive.
Director/Producer: John Sturges
Screenplay: Edward Anhalt
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Editor: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Alfred C. Ybarra
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: James Garner (Wyatt Earp), Jason Robards (Dr. John 'Doc' Holliday), Robert Ryan (Ike Clanton), Albert Salmi (Octavius Roy), Charles Aidman (Horace Sullivan).
by Eleanor Quin