"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gunfight at the OK Corral (Paramount, 1957)


A solid, workmanlike Western.

The big 1950s version of the Wyatt Earp tale was Paramount’s Gunfight at the OK Corral, directed by John Sturges. It has been an enormously popular film and remains high in public awareness of Westerns as well as DVD sales but it is by no means the greatest telling, nor even, perhaps, a particularly good one.

The story is episodic, starting in Fort Griffin and moving to Dodge and Tombstone, trying to tie them all together with a Doc Holliday/Clanton clan plot. ‘Kate Fisher’ (Jo van Fleet) is Doc’s woman and Wyatt falls for Rhonda Fleming, a lady gambler (rather as Marshal Wayne was to do two years later in Rio Bravo) so that has to be woven in too. The result is a two-hour movie that doesn’t exactly drag but is about as far away from the classical unities of time, place and action as you could get.

Despite the Leon Uris credit, the dialogue is a bit ‘B’. There’s even a line, “There’s a stage for Abilene in the morning. I want you to be on it.” The support acting is iffy too. There was always a temptation, when you had a big star as Wyatt, to feature nonentities as his brothers, presumably so as not to overshadow the hero. Virgil, Morgan and James (again, oddly made into the 18-year-old youngest) are very forgettable (I can’t remember their names; you can look them up if you want) and even key parts like Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo (killed by Doc at the OK Corral) are unmemorable and bland. Only young Dennis Hopper as Billy Clanton is good.

Kirk Douglas, however, made a strong Doc and the Lancaster/Douglas pairing is perfectly respectable by cinematic Wyatt/Doc standards, holding its head up with Garner/Robards, Russell/Kilmer and Costner/Quaid, though not up to Fonda/Mature.

The music is nice. High Noon-style (and of course there are similarities of plot), it is orchestral variations on a cheesy title song again (Frankie Laine this time) but well done, even haunting (Dimitri Tiomkin). There are some nice California (‘Kansas’) and Arizona locations, well photographed by Charles B Lang Jr.

The movie starts with Lee van Cleef and two other baddies riding down a hill to the tune of the ballad. Wyatt throws his badge down at the end before leaving town for good. I wonder where the director got those ideas for starting and ending a Western? I can't imagine. Must have been original.

It’s Sturges so it’s a solid, workmanlike Western and it has its merits. But that’s it.


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