13 November 2013

Hour of the Gun

by David Edgerley Gates

John Sturges made a fair number of pictures in the course of a thirty-year career as a director. Some of them are pretty good, and some of them are dogs. The best-known are probably BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and THE GREAT ESCAPE. He made Westerns, and war stories, and thrillers. He wasn't celebrated for a light touch, and didn't have much luck with the occasional comedy. His full list of credits is here: 


In 1967, he made HOUR OF THE GUN, a sequel to GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, ten years earlier. He uses a different cast, and the tone is more somber, the biggest change being character. The manic Doc Holliday played by Kirk Douglas is taken over by a saturnine Jason Robards, and the upright Burt Lancaster as Earp is instead imagined by James Garner as far more morally ambiguous. They're still, of course, the heroes, and the Clanton gang the villains, but the movie comes a lot closer to the actual events in Tombstone, in October of 1881.

The real story is about politics, and business rivalries. Wyatt and his brothers were town-tamers, but in return they got a major piece of the action, primarily gambling. They were opportunists, and if not criminal, they were certainly corrupt, and in it for the money. (The best source I've come across is
AND DIE IN THE WEST, University of Oklahoma, 1989, by Paul Mitchell Marks.)

In the movies, though, the Earps are never shown this way. Wyatt himself helped shape his legend, in later years, with Stuart Lake's hagiographic FRONTIER MARSHAL, and John Ford claimed to have gotten the details of the gunfight straight from the horse's mouth. Wyatt was a blowhard and a bully, and a shameless self-promoter, and most of what he told people was snake oil, but you don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts. The end result is that you get Henry Fonda or Burt Lancaster or Hugh O'Brian, to name a few, and almost invariably they're pushed reluctantly to act, moved beyond patience by the evil Walter Brennan or his ilk. The less said about Earp as a cold-blooded killer, the better.

This is where HOUR OF THE GUN gets interesting. The arc of the story, yes, is similar to others, and after Morgan and Virgil are backshot, Morgan dead and Virgil crippled, Wyatt has good reason to go after the guys who did it. But in this telling, Wyatt gives only lip service to making formal arrests. He simply guns the men down.

The best example of this is the death of Andy Warshaw. Earp and his small posse find Warshaw in a back corner of the Clanton spread. Wyatt sits his horse, Warshaw with his back to him, straddling a split-rail fence, smoking.

How much did Clanton pay you? Wyatt asks.
Warshaw, head down, tells him it was fifty dollars.
Fifty dollars. To see a man shot.
I only watched, Warshaw says. I wasn't with the guns.
Wyatt gets off his horse. I'm going to give you the chance to earn another fifty dollars, he says.
I don't want such a chance, Warshaw says.
I'll count to three, Wyatt says. You can draw on two, I'll wait until three.
Warshaw climbs down off the fence and drops his cigarette.
An empty moment.
Warshaw draws on him.

Two things about the scene. First, you feel Warshaw's fear. He's facing a known man-killer. In fact, your sympathy is with Andy, because the outcome is foregone. He feels a grievance. He wasn't with the guns. He only watched. The second thing, Wyatt's thrown away the badge. He's become the kind of man he hunts, a man without remorse, beyond the law.

Doc Holliday hands Wyatt a flask. "Here," Doc tells him. "Have a drink. You need it to make this morning stay down, same as I do."


  1. My favorite Earp movie is still "Tombstone" - mainly because of Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday, who I think is closer to that alcoholic, gambling, consumptive, cold-blooded reckless sob than any other I've ever seen. But even there, the hagiography of the Earp boys (Sam Elliott almost has a halo as Vergil) is all over the place. Yes, they run a gambling saloon (which undoubtedly had whores upstairs, so they were pimps as well as professional gamblers), but other than that, they're such nice, upstanding guys! Hard to kill a legend.

  2. David, I wanted to comment yeasterday, but I googled Sturges and found a film he made about the P-47D Thunderbolt (WWII fighter). Since that's one of my favorites, I started watching an online version of the film, but it froze up my computer. LOL Got things working today, and wanted to say thanks, because I hadn't realized how many of my favorite films he made.



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