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    John, Bill and Their Abiding Concerns

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    For two names in cinematic history sharing today as a birthday, stories they portrayed to popular effect made a sufficiently profound impact that compelled both to revisit them, one on screen, the other both on screen and in life. A consummate director of action and people in crisis, director John Sturges (1910-1992) made one of the most enduring Western classics inspired by the events of October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, AZ. His 1957 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral utilized a screenplay adaptation by Leon Uris (whose only other screen writing credit was the film translation of his earlier Battle Cry in 1955) of a George Scullin story to make what became – alongside John Ford’s 1946 My Darling Clementine – the most beloved depiction of the historic shootout. (Later generations would also champion Tombstone (1993, directed by George P. Cosmatos) and Wyatt Earp (1994, directed and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan.) With Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp, Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday and a strong ensemble (Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Earl Holliman, Dennis Hopper, DeForest Kelley and Martin Milner) in support, the 1957 VistaVision opus was a suspenseful Technicolor dramatization that, like the masterful High Noon five years earlier, benefitted not only from the personal charisma of its two leads but also from a Dimitri Tiomkin score and a hugely popular song penned by Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington. The events concerning the adversarial Earp and Clanton clans continued to exert a strong pull on Sturges, and a decade later, the filmmaker would work with screenwriter Edward Anhalt to develop Hour of the Gun (1967), which opens with the fateful battle and continues the drama of its aftermath, utilizing Douglas D. Martin’s 1958 Tombstone’s Epitaph as a starting point as well as the post-incident trial transcripts and other documented reportage of the era to create a grittier and truer-to-reality Western that also commented on its turbulent mid-1960s Vietnam era when authority figures came under scrutiny for corrupt, law-bending practices. He enlisted a formidable cast: his The Great Escape star James Garner as a harder, more justice-obsessed Earp, Jason Robards as a more dissolute and consumptive Holliday and Robert Ryan as surviving patriarch Ike Clanton, portrayed as a cynical, moneyed, political influencer attempting to tighten a legal and public-opinion noose around the maverick Earp. It builds a quiet strength from its accumulation of character detail rather than an excess of gunplay, yet preserves the reliable verities of the great Westerns, thanks to the contributions of cinematographer Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch), editor Ferris Webster (Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven) and composer Jerry Goldsmith (The Sand Pebbles). It was a box-office disappointment at the time, and Sturges would later reflect: “My mistake was that I thought people would be fascinated by the real story about the quarrel between the Earps and the Clantons. You didn’t just shoot people, there were trials, lawyers, citizens’ committees. I though the reality of the thing would catch people, who would say, ‘Gee, that’s the way it was? That’s fascinating.’ Not so. I got [preview] cards that said of all the stories told about Earp and Holliday, this was the dullest. They considered them fictional characters. They couldn’t have cared less that that’s the way it really was.” But the four intervening decades have brought an appreciative reevaluation of the film that might have heartened Sturges. 

    When he and wife Virginia McKenna were cast as wildlife conservationists Joy and George Adamson in the film version of Joy’s beloved 1960 chronicle of Elsa the African lioness and her offspring, Born Free (1966), handsome and hardy British favorite and decorated World War II veteran Bill Travers (1922-1994) likely could not foresee that this acting assignment would herald a life reinvention that shaped the last quarter-century of his life. Mr. and Mrs. Travers got to know Mr. and Mrs. Adamson in the course of making director James Hill’s audience-pleasing film, and were both inspired to pursue the causes of protecting animals in their natural habitat, rescuing animals from abuse in captivity, and improving zoo conditions worldwide. Travers and McKenna avidly recalled their Born Free shooting experience in their jointly authored book On Playing with Lions, and would co-star in another animal-themed family movie, Ring of Bright Water (1969), adapting Gavin Maxwell’s autobiography about a man’s companionship with a pet otter in the Scottish Highlands. Also in 1969, the documentary The Lions Are Free teamed Travers and McKenna on screen with George Adamson and off-screen with director Hill to investigate what became of the seven lions who appeared in the original 1966 double Oscar® winner (for John Barry’s score and the indelible title song); the following year, An Elephant Called Slowly (1970) brought the same principals together with friendly Kenyan pachyderms in the spotlight. Founded in 1984, Travers’ and McKenna’s Born Free Foundation, now headed by the couple’s son Will, continues the work of safeguarding endangered animal species and wildlife sanctuaries. In the spirit of the 1966 movie that focused on the plight of a domesticated orphaned lioness being carefully, gradually and painstakingly reintegrated into her original habitat, the charity, as its mantra states, “never forgets the individual. Every animal counts.” For birthday honorees Sturges and Travers, the tales of sturdy, flawed frontiersmen and resilient, remarkable animals counted on more than one occasion across long and impressive careers. Experience the enduring products of their abiding concerns via Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-rays of Born Free and Hour of the Gun.