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John Sturges' Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) was hardly the first, and wouldn't be the last, film to cover the legendary shootout involving Wyatt Earp, "Doc" Holiday, and those ornery Clanton Boys (see John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) for the heavyweight champ of this particular story.) But Gunfight at the O.K. Corral features one of the more thrilling shootouts ever filmed. Although Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (as Earp and Holliday, respectively) deliver the goods, the thing people remember most about Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is...that gunfight. Everything else is really just a well-crafted prelude to the blazing six-guns.
You probably have a passing familiarity with the basic storyline. It's 1881. Earp and Holliday are gun-slinging compatriots in the town of Dodge City, where Earp is also the marshal. Earp is ready to hang up his guns and settle down with a beautiful gambler named Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming) when he's contacted by his brother Virgil (John Hudson), the marshal of the aptly named burg of Tombstone, Arizona. Virgil needs help controlling the Clanton-Ringo gang, whose members are mercilessly terrorizing the locals. Earp and Holliday, living, as they do, by a code of honor, take it upon themselves to ride out to Tombstone and try to make peace. Eventually, things come to a head at the O.K. Corral, where everyone starts shootin' and hollerin' and dyin'.
In 1962, Sturges wrote an article in Films and Filming magazine that clearly delineates the ground rules for making this type of picture. In that piece, he maintains that "people's minds like discipline, so, like the ballet, westerns are always done the same way. If you go hear Beethoven, you don't complain that it was played exactly like the last time. It's not supposed to be different. And a western is a controlled, disciplined, formal kind of entertainment." That discipline certainly extends to the titular gunfight, which ran a mere 30 seconds and contained 34 shots in real life, but is stretched out to a violent five minutes in the picture. Apparently, there's discipline, and then there's disciplined excitement. The sequence took a full four days to film.
Lancaster, who basically falls into his silent-and-stoic routine (and looks great in a cowboy hat), is never less than serviceable in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Douglas, on the other hand, progressively coughs himself to death as the consumptive Holliday, which wasn't as easy as it might seem, given that movies are shot out of sequence. The actor plotted out exactly how hard he would cough, and exactly when he would do it, in order to create the illusion that Holliday is on his way out, regardless of whether or not he takes a bullet from the Clantons.
Douglas and Lancaster had previously worked together in I Walk Alone (1948), and often saw each other at various Hollywood functions. But, as Douglas recounts in his entertaining autobiography, The Ragman's Son, they didn't become friends until Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which lead to some pretty loose-and-easy moments on the set. For instance, they couldn't focus during a scene in which an unarmed Lancaster is surrounded by several men in a saloon, only to be rescued by Douglas, who steals another man's gun and tosses it to Lancaster. "We go out on the porch," Douglas wrote, "and Burt says to me, 'Thanks, Doc.' I was supposed to say, 'Forget it.' When I came to 'Forget it,' the ridiculousness of the scene - our great bravery, our machismo - made us howl. We did the scene over and over. It just made us laugh harder." They were finally laughing so much, an angry Sturges had to send them home for the day."
Regardless of that moment of giggling harmony, Douglas and Lancaster, who both were famously stubborn men, often disagreed with each other. When the American Academy of Dramatic Arts paid tribute to Douglas on April 6, 1987, Lancaster made a speech about his old friend, in which he noted, "Kirk would be the first person to tell you he's a very difficult man. And I would be the second."
Director: John Sturges
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: Leon Uris (based on the magazine article, The Killer, by George Scullin)
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Editing: Warren Low
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Art Design: Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Special Effects: John P. Fulton
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Wyatt Earp), Kirk Douglas (John H. "Doc" Holliday), Rhonda Fleming (Laura Denbow), Jo Van Fleet (Kate Fisher), John Ireland (Johnny Ringo), Lyle Bettger (Ike Clanton), Frank Faylen (Cotton Wilson), Earl Holliman (Charles Bassett), Ted de Corsia (Abel Head), Dennis Hopper (Billy Clanton), Whit Bissel (John P. Clum), George Mathews (John Shanssey), John Hudson (Virgil Earp), DeForest Kelley (Morgan Earp).
by Paul Tatara