The Post-Tombstone Truth

The Post-Tombstone Truth

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Aug 29th 2017

The October 26, 1881 Tombstone, Arizona, confrontation between the Earps and the Clantons and each side’s various allies continued to interest John Sturges in the decade after he directed the powerful and popular Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) from Leon Uris’s screenplay. During that time, in Western settings, he explored the dynamics of family loyalty vs. the community good in Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) and the protection of the downtrodden by a brotherhood of professionals in The Magnificent Seven (1960), and both were great successes. Coming back to the genre to depict what became of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton after the legendary clash, he and screenwriter Edward Anhalt researched the post-incident trial transcripts and other documented reportage of the era to capture something truer to stark historical reality than burnished Hollywood hagiography in Hour of the Gun (1967), casting James Garner as Earp, Jason Robards as Holliday and Robert Ryan as Clanton. Per Glenn Lovell’s 2008 biography Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, [The Great Escape co-star] “Garner reteamed with Sturges without hesitation. ‘I trusted John,’ he said. ‘So when my agent called and said he was doing a sequel to O.K. Corral, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ I was happy to play the character because John always knew what he was doing. He could take five, six, seven factions in a story and bring them together. That takes an editing sense….We didn’t get into any great acting discussions. Wasn’t needed.’ Garner, no stranger to playing scoundrels (see The Americanization of Emily), welcomed the idea of Wyatt as murderous antihero in black hat, gloves and vest. ‘I saw him as a vigilante out for revenge,’ said the actor. ‘He was a guy taken with his own power, who nobody could defy. He had no qualms about shooting those boys….I think the movie’s as accurate on that as any that’s been done.’ The location shoot was well organized and Sturges ‘all business,’ recalled Bill Fletcher, who played Sheriff Bryan. He described [the Mexican locale] Torreón as ‘this quiet little agricultural-mining town with a single hotel and bar. On Saturday nights, the mariachis would play in the gazebo on the square, and the boys, in their Sunday best, would circle one way, the girls the other.’ In the evenings, Sturges invited the cast to the Hotel Rio Nazas to screen dailies. ‘Not may directors do that,’ said Fletcher. ‘Sturges [was] a total gentleman.’”

Clanton was portrayed by Ryan as a bitterly cynical, moneyed, political influencer who tries to tighten a legal and public-opinion noose around the maverick Earp. In his 2015 profile The Lives of Robert Ryan, J.R. Jones writes: “‘It’s a very good part, a very interesting part,’ Ryan told a German radio reporter on the set, ‘because [Clanton] pretends to be a very substantial citizen, a very fine man, but actually he’s using all these killers to do his work.’ Anhalt had written a sober, thoughtful script, pondering the issues of civil authority that were implicit in the famous tale. After Earp and Holliday kill Clanton’s 19-year-old brother Billy and two other outlaws, Ike has the corpses displayed for the people of Tombstone in a storefront window and leads a memorial procession through town to protest the killings, glowering at the two lawmen as he passes. Ryan’s interest in the picture must have been stoked by the fact that his wife’s grandfather, George Washington Cheyney, had held a prominent position as superintendent of the Tombstone Mill and Mining Company when the gunfight took place in October 1881.” 

Hour of the Gun did not make much of a box-office or critical impression 50 years ago. The intervening decades have considerably elevated its reputation, and revealed the level of thought and care Sturges, Anhalt and company poured into it. “At 101 minutes, Hour of the Gunwas Sturges’s shortest film in years,” Lovell continued. “It was also a lean, soulfully elegiac coda to Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Last Train from Gun Hill. Today it is rightly hailed as a forerunner of Will Penny (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), Wild Rovers (1971) and other revisionist Westerns fueled by the moral ambiguities of the Nixon-Vietnam years. For the Tombstone Marshal to obtain ‘justice’ for his brother Morgan’s murder, he must throw away his badge, much as Harry Callahan does four years later in Dirty Harry. His hands bloodied, Wyatt has become Doc’s doppelgänger. He is no longer fit to uphold the law. Sturges chalked up the film’s failure to public sentiment. He was interested in reportage, the true story of the O.K. Corral and its aftermath. He saw it as a political allegory with modern-day ramifications: the federal-minded Earps were the Democrats, the anti-government-interference Clantons were the Republicans. This, of course, was lost on Western fans, who proved John Ford’s dictum in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: When the truth becomes legend, print the legend. ‘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.’” Hour of the Gun, shot by Lucien Ballard, edited by Ferris Webster and scored by Jerry Goldsmith – reliable Western veterans all, rides taller now on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray September 19. Preorders open September 6.