By Christopher Smith.
After enjoying the recent film “Wyatt Earp’s Revenge” ( 2012) it was natural to have another look at “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” ( 1957) in which of course Earp was the central figure. I’m glad I did, even though it is a film that falls short of greatness.
The acting of the minor characters is sometimes wooden. The production values are by modern standards low. Cattle rustled from Mexico are said to be the economic engine of the plot, however instead of a veritable ocean of cattle there is only measly herd that would disgrace an Irish dairy farmer. Moreover the “Vista Vision” in which the film is shot renders the wide horizons it is intended to capture anaemic and attenuated ( at least on my DVD machine ). But this said these failings are more than made up for by the fine score by Dimitri Tiomkin which reinforces the characters and greatly enhances the power of the film.
This then is not a rival to any of the classics of the western genre. But it is a example of Eisenhower era popular culture at its apogee. You should not assume though that the film’s popularity- and this movie did well at the box office- to be an indication of triviality. This is a well scripted film which both reflects and seeks to mould the culture around it. Those who streamed out of the cinemas in Dublin’s O’Connell Sreet and elsewhere having seen “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral were indeed entertained, but they will also have been challenged in many ways. This is a film which asks us to think seriously about the moral foundations of political order, but in doing this it does not ignore the cultural changes which were to come in the next decade – even if we are a world away from “Easy Rider.” ( 1969)
This then is no revisionist western. Above all it is a film which celebrates order rather than liberty. It reflects the reality that on the Great Plains between 1870 and 1900 the problem was not too much freedom, but too little order. A related point was made five years later by John Ford in his film “The Man who shot Liberty Valence.” ( 1962 ) That film focuses directly on the need for political organisation and specifically statehood; in this it probably reflects the real life events of 1890. In contrast “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” set nine years earlier, explores the moral presuppositions that are needed to create and sustain any such political order.
The intellectual core of this film is the notion, which was well known to both Hebrews and Greeks, that political order- indeed any state of affairs which is not anarchic- cannot be separated from personal and social morality. In this connection it is worth noticing that although the film drew on a range of talent from across the political and religious spectrum, Kirk Douglas ( Earp ), Leon Uris ( who wrote the script ) and Tiomkin all shared a Jewish background. Moreover Rhonda Fleming who played the elegant gambler Miss Denbow, was to become a leading advocate of prayer in American public ( i.e. state ) schools. While the film is no exercise in conservative propaganda- both Kirk and Lancaster ( who for the record came from Irish Protestant stock ) were political liberals- the latter markedly so, there is nevertheless a clear note of moral purpose which gives a strain of only partly secularised prophecy to the movie.
The Wyatt Earp of the film ( as opposed to that of reality ) has about him if not exactly the mantle of the prophet something of the preacher’s robe. Indeed on three occasions Earp ( who always wears black ) is gently criticised for preaching. However these criticisms of his remarks are caste in such a way as to underline his moral stature and to affirm his moral authority to preach. This of course is not to imply that he is personally infallible. Quite the reverse, his moral faults are explicitly delineated, but in such a way as to reinforce the content of his preaching. This then is no crudely didactic film. We are a long way here too from the appealing simplicities of John Wayne. The film’s intriguing strength is that the failings of the good characters- as well as the more obvious faults of the bad – are used intelligently to emphasise its message that the modern political order with its telegrams, files and paperwork (i.e. our world) which Earp represents has to be grounded in a moral order.
In an old fashioned way ( we might be in the court of King Arthur ) both Earp and his crucial ally Doc. Holliday are weakened in their conflict with their opponents by their obvious personal and moral failings. Some of the time Earp behaves as an ideal public servant. On other occasions he acts as if he is unsure whether he is enforcing the law or pursuing a vendetta outside the law. Indeed it is Earp’s exaggerated family pride and his yearning for vengeance ( or is that justice?) which means that he is unable to save young Billy Clanton from the exaggerated loyalty to his brothers which ultimately leads to his death. On the one hand Earp relishes his appointment as a U.S. marshal- “this is all the ammunition I need;” on the other he is prepared to lock Miss Denbow for gambling because she is a women. Flawed though he is, secular redemption does not elude him. At the close of the film he renounces both his revolver and his Marshall’s star and leaves for California with Miss Denbow with whom he has, of course, fallen in love.
Earp’s friend Doc Holliday ( played by Burt Lancaster ) is in some respects a more interesting, and certainly a more ambivalent figure than Douglas’ Earp. For Holliday the challenges of life are all bound up with his exalted “lily white” background in the antebellum South. ( In real life Holliday was born in Georgia in 1851. ) A gentleman, reluctantly turned dentist, then turned gambler, he is one of the fastest gunman on the frontier, but who knows well that he is dying of T.B, and someone, who as a gentleman, feels compelled to repay Earp for saving his life from a lynch mob. But is being a gentleman enough? Can he accept that the world of his youth has gone and marry the lower class Kate? Can he overcome his sinister reputation as a killer? Or will he continue to drift from gunfight to gunfight infecting with his own ruthlessness all those with whom he comes in contact? Dare he accept Earp’s advice? His end is uncertain. His refusal to attend Earp’s wedding is a bad sign. He seems to have learnt enough for remorse, but not enough to change his life.
Since this is a film which does not believe that to understand is to exculpate, it is no surprise that its depiction of its darker characters is at once nuanced and uncompromising. Their end is signalled in the first moments of the film. They are “the killers that died ”. Subtly the film asks why? And seeks to frame its answer within both moral and psychological contexts. Inevitably the conclusions the movie reaches are anything but simple. Evil we learn, is multiform. There are as many forms of evil as there are evil doers. Some are too weak to escape the damage imposed by their past; others are condemned by solely by their own choices. But all are responsible for their actions, and the consequences thereof. Just as Earp and Holiday are real figures driven by credible motives and experiences, so too the various villains in the piece are driven by differing, but equally fatal, impulses. The Clantons are lured to destruction by the easy money to made from stealing cattle in Mexico. The exception here being young Billy who is led to self destruction not by greed, but by teenage angst. Ringo seeks vengeance; and wants to humiliate the aristocratic Holliday. Shanghai Pearce ( a splendid rogue who should really have been given his own show ) is, according to Earp “nice guy who forget to grow up.” Cotton Wilson is driven- if that is the word –as much by exhaustion as by greed. He was once a fine man who has “skidded pretty far” to the point where he has accepted bribes from the Clantons and tries to corrupt Earp.
The death of the killers is not just attributable to Earp’s and Doc Holliday’s well aimed ammunition ( that final gunfight IS quite a ballet !) but to their identifiable moral failings which lead them into making catastrophic choices.The film articulates the notion that while evil lies deep in human nature there is nothing inevitable about it. But despite the film’s emphasis on the need for order it is no apology for the intrusive state. There is nothing here which seeks to undermine the importance of human freedom. But here man’s freedom is not merely a celebration of personal power; it is also a call to resist the temptations that surround us all in the interest of living in a civilised community. Ultimately it was because they could not understand or accept this that the killers ended “in Cold Boot Hill.”