Showing posts with label Wyatt Earp. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wyatt Earp. Show all posts

11 March 2022

The Town Tamer

CC 2011 Bradford Timeline

One of the most tired cliches from Westerns is the town tamer. And you can thank Wyatt Earp for it. In the 1920s, no one had heard of Tombstone, Arizona and the OK Corral. But Earp, who had been a US Marshal in places like Dodge City, Kansas and Peoria, Illinois, still considered frontier land four years after the death of the state's favorite son, Abraham Lincoln.

The OK Corral is an iconic legend of the Old West. But it really didn't enter the public imagination until Earp drifted into Hollywood as what's now called a technical consultant during silent film's heyday. Earp told a screenwriter or a director or possibly even Tom Mix of how he, his brothers, and his consumption-wracked pal Doc Holliday took on a gang of outlaws. Back before Tinsel Town lost the ability to do anything more than remakes or franchises and charge you a second mortgage to see the latest James Bond, they never met a cool story they didn't like.

Nor did a writer named Dashiell Hammett, who decided to adapt the concept for his Continental Op series. The Op, never named, rolls into Personville, Montana, dubbed by the locals as "Poisonville" for its violence and its filthy ground and air from nearby mining. Hammett moves Tombstone north, swaps out the Earp brothers and Holliday for the Op as a solo operator, and uses a recent labor dispute in Butte, Montana (the real-life inspiration for Personville) as a jumping off point.

Thus, the town tamer was born. And it shows up again in the twice-fictionalized tales of Sheriff Buford Pusser (one of Joe Don Baker's surprisingly decent acting turns and a miss for Dwayne Johnson), Jack Reacher's debut (well-adapted for television on Prime), and one of the better latter-day Spenser novels.

What is it about the town tamer that's so intriguing? Earp, after all, was a law man who hired his brothers and deputized the local dentist. Pusser, in the original based-on-a-true-story version of Walking Tall, was a local sheriff.

Source: Amazon Prime Video

The Op and Spenser are professionals brought in to solve a problem. Reacher blunders into a small Georgia town that looks like a gentrified version of The Dukes of Hazzard, minus the idiot sheriff and lovably corrupt county boss. (Ironically, Reacher's casual girlfriend is named "Roscoe." I'll let Lee Child explain that one.) Reacher isn't a professional. He's like the Op, except he doesn't even freelance. He's just there to hear some blues music from the source.

But it's one man taking on the system. And in each of these stories, the system has gotten complacent. Earp may have been taking out a local gang of thugs easily knocked over these days by the likes of The Wire's Stringer Bell or one pissed-off police district (or even a bar brawl that goes horribly awry for them.) The Op took on a mining concern that counted on fear to get its way. Reacher goes after counterfeiters who made the mistake of killing his brother. Spenser knocks over a Mexican gangster who decides he's kingpin from Daredevil (either version. It's the same guy.) Usually, where this happens, someone gets too comfortable with their reign of terror. And one thing that such people forget is that reigns of terror require actual terror. If the one coming at you isn't terrified, the whole thing collapses like a house of cards.

Sometimes that works in real life, but it's a staple of our crime fiction, even scifi and spy thrillers. Someone turns "Boo!" into a superpower, and someone else not really feeling it becomes their kryptonite.

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."