Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
When John Sturges directed Gunfight At The O.K. Corral in 1957 it quickly came to be seen as a classic telling of one of the most famous events
in American frontier history. Along with John Ford's earlier staging of the occasion in My Darling Clementine (1946) it's still the version filmgoers
remember best. Given the esteem in which his work held today, it's interesting to note that the director had a relatively low view of the film, seeing it
principally as a job of work for producer Hal B. Wallis. In addition, nagged by some criticisms over Gunfight At The O.K. Corral's historical
inaccuracies and obviously feeling that there was more drama to discover in the Wyatt-Clanton feud, Sturges opted to return to the subject a decade later.
Hour Of The Gun was the result, a loose sequel to the first film, a western dealing with events immediately after the famous shootout.
Sturges originally attempted to cast Hour Of The Gun with some of the same actors with whom he worked back in 1957, ensuring a natural degree of continuity. (Sergio Leone planned the same creative economy two years later by initially casting the famous station opening of Once Upon A Time In The West with a reunited Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood.) Various factors made Sturges' scheme impossible, but leading parts were still secured by some fine actors: James Garner (as Wyatt Earp), Jason Robards (Doc Holliday) and Robert Ryan (Ike Clanton) as well as, way down the cast list, a young Jon Voight. Music was commissioned from Jerry Goldsmith and cinematography was from Lucien Ballard, who contributed so much to several Sam Peckinpah films.
In the event the reception afforded the results was lukewarm. Hour Of The Gun was seen as too cynical and with a bitter tone that, though reflecting changing times, was less welcome in a conservative genre still a couple of years away from the controversies of The Wild Bunch. Audiences who had enjoyed the less complex moralities of such Sturges movies as Bad Day At Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven, or The Law And Jake Wade, and so on, were perturbed by the portrait of a lawman who, in the event as his best friend says could either be seen "as a hero with a badge - or a cold blooded killer." Garner's usually genial screen persona was subsumed in a portrayal of Earp as someone who eventually loses sight of his own guiding principals in an obsessive pursuit of personal vengeance. Adding to the uncertainties was the sight of a Doc Holiday whose own moral trajectory went unexpectedly the other way to such an extent it brings the two pals to blows.
"This picture is based on fact. This is the way it happened," announces Sturges' movie at its start, a complete antithesis to John Ford's often quoted dictum from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) to 'print the legend'. Scriptwriter Edward Anhalt (who has an apt cameo in the picture as Holiday's resigned doctor in the sanatorium) reduced the level of historical inaccuracy noticed in Gunfight At The O.K. Corral even if, as events moved further along from the OK fight and its effects, matters still tended to drift (the elder Clanton, for instance, did not end up shot in Mexico). And ironically, most weaknesses in Hour Of The Gun can be put down to its avowed intentions to stick closer to the twists and turns of history. Whereas Gunfight At The O.K. Corral has a largely simple, arching structure leading to an inevitable climax, its successor is more episodic. A good deal of running time is devoted to the various face-offs of its survivors - in courtrooms, in the townships or on the range, as animosities were carried further. In Sturges' original crack at the legend, Earp defends society and the law and can be more objective in the process, even though it also concerns family; in the new film, in the light of the aftermath, he takes it far more personally. Legalities become ever more precarious until the changed, if still honourable, lawman confesses, "I don't care about the rules anymore. I'm not that much of a hypocrite." The classicism perceived in the earlier film, the moral clarity characteristic of cinema of the times (and demanded by the producer), is replaced by a more baroque narrative, which paints a much darker psychology.
Hour Of The Gun begins with one of the finest of all western openings. The combination of a fine Goldsmith score (its main theme a combination of a reluctant growl and world-weary call to arms), the director's characteristically assured staging of action within the widescreen frame, as well as the tension brought by imminent events, are striking. The long, largely wordless moments as the Earps walk shoulder to shoulder, resolutely facing destiny, derive their power almost entirely from Sturges' powerful mise-en-scène - a sequence which, incidentally, may have inspired Peckinpah when staging the climax of The Wild Bunch. After such a start any narrative would be hard pushed to sustain such tension, and the episodic nature of what follows, as mentioned above, does not always work to the director's advantage. But Garner, Robards and Ryan (who also appeared in Peckinpah's film) are excellent enough to keep matters on track, whilst the turning of various events gives Sturges plenty of chances to stage smaller gunplay between individuals. There is no distracting love interest and the sentimentality brought by the Frankie Laine ballad which echoes through Gunfight At The O.K. Corral - a hangover, perhaps of the singing cowboy tradition - has been discarded.
Today the particular mood of Hour Of The Gun seems better attuned to our cynical times than Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, which glows with a nostalgia not thought of when it was made: the lasting comfort of clean heroes and clean lines of plot. Garner's Earp is not afraid to get his hands dirty in matters of personal revenge even if it means, ultimately, he feels unable to accept promotion to adjutant general, chief lawman of the territory. By setting his later film in the times after a notorious gunfight, Sturges pre-empted such later directors as Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner, who have also been concerned with the consequences of violence in such films as Unforgiven and Open Range. To the extent that Hour Of The Gun is all about the lasting turmoil and personal costs brought by a fatal encounter by a dusty horse lot on 25th October 1881, it has a lot to say that is relevant today.