In a short preface to The Last Kind Words Saloon, Larry McMurtry’s new novel about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the gunfight at the OK Corral, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove acknowledges that “I had the great director John Ford in mind when I wrote this book; he famously said that when you had to choose between history and legend, print the legend. And so I’ve done.”
Tim Dorsey’s riotous Torpedo Juice (2005), coincidentally the novel I read just before reading McMurtry’s, also included an epigraph attributed to Doc Holliday as his dying words: “Now this is funny.”
Clearly, all the signposts indicated I needed to return “to those golden days of yesteryear” when Earp and Holliday trod the big screen, and where better to start than John Ford’s seminal classic My Darling Clementine (1946), starring Henry Fonda as Wyatt, Victor Mature as Doc, and wily old Walter Brennan (only 52 at the time) as the villainous Clanton patriarch? The most historically inaccurate of all the films, Ford’s black-and-white cinematic poem is one of the best in terms of evoking a legendary past about family ties, heroism and a vanishing frontier. Facts be damned, Ford might have said; this is the way it should have been.
Eleven years later in Gunfight at the OK Corral, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas teamed up as Wyatt and Doc in what should have been a much better film than it was. Playing almost as loosely with the facts as Ford, director John Sturges spends too much time on the ladies in the men’s lives to no real effect except eye-candy. Douglas is quite good as the consumptive Doc, but Lancaster is disappointingly wooden. The villains in this version are just as dull, with the exception of a very young Dennis Hopper as Billy Clanton. Only in the concluding shootout does Sturges’ film ironically come alive.
Ten years on, with Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) and The Magnificent Seven (1960) under his belt, Sturges redeemed himself with Hour of the Gun (1967). Opening with a historically accurate depiction of the famous gunfight, the movie focuses more on its aftermath as Earp (James Garner) and Doc (Jason Robards) battle the surviving Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) and his minions in and out of a court of law. Bolstered by terrific performances from the three leads, Hour of the Gun is a convincing study of the cost of vengeance and the power of friendship. The gunfights in the third film are spare but convincing, and with no female distractions at hand, Hour of the Gun focuses on the complex relationship between the embittered lawman and the consumptive killer.
The ’40s and ’60s are generally considered the Golden Age of the Hollywood Western, but Wyatt and Doc continued to live and fight again in Frank Perry’s Doc (1971) with Stacy Keach as the doomed gambler and Harris Yulin as an utterly demythologized Wyatt. Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer played the lawman and his friend in Tombstone (1994), a real shoot-’em-up, then Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid assayed the same roles in Wyatt Earp (1995).
Which is best? Which is true? Who cares? The legends live on to fight another day.