Of all the riffs on this particular episode of American mythology, 1957’s big-budget Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is my favorite. Burt Lancaster is a stoic and statuesque as Wyatt Earp; Kirk Douglas does the heavy lifting as Doc Holiday. More often than not that’s how these things play out—producers bend over backwards to animate Earp, while Holiday, with his cards, his cough, and his Kate, rides into the sunset with the film tucked away in his breast pocket.
Gunfight is straight ahead, humorless, and not especially bothered about the opposite sex. Rhonda Fleming makes the expected Technicolor splash as a renowned lady gambler, but she’s not on screen long enough to be merit third billing. Her purpose is merely to oblige Lancaster to choose between a quiet future as her shopkeeper husband and the family honor—answering his brother’s call to destiny in dusty Tombstone. She won’t have him both ways and makes a hasty exit.
That leaves Jo Van Fleet as Kate Fisher, Holiday’s companion. We can tell that she loves him, but it’s a sans-affection, hate-hate relationship in Gunfight. Van Fleet sparkles as a Western femme fatale, stoking the rivalry between Holiday and Johnny Ringo as she vacillates between the two men, neither of whom actually seems to want her. Oh wait, I get it, it isn’t really about her.
John Ireland turns in a clean-shaven Ringo, perfect for Eisenhower’s America. (Ireland played young Billy Clanton is 1946’s iteration, My Darling Clementine.) In fact, everyone here looks so coiffed and pretty that it can be difficult to tell the good guys from the bad. Perhaps that’s why professional villain caricature Lyle Bettger is Ike Clanton—there’s no mistaking him for a hero.
The climactic gunfight itself is surprisingly short on the bravado that has made this story so irresistible to filmmakers and audiences alike. Damn near every bullet is fired from cover, with combatants hiding in ditches and lurking behind wagons. The finale suffers from not having that expected moment where two enemies stand and face each other, whizzing bullets be damned. It finally winds down with an angst-filled Dennis Hopper cornered in a saloon, a cautionary episode imploring the delinquent teens of the 1950s to steer clear of wasted youth.
In the end, it’s star power (get a load of that poster) and Vistavision that puts this one over. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (who’s 101 years old and hitched 64 years as I write this—keep punchin’ champ) have a rare sort of chemistry that placed them opposite each other in seven films, each of which is somehow remarkable. Lancaster projects moral authority unlike any other actor of his generation (it’s easy to see why he earned an Oscar for upending that in Elmer Gantry) while Douglas’s screen persona is somehow able to flout Lancaster’s gravity and humanize him. Along with John Sturges’s capable direction and the panoramas we expect from a mid-century western, this is well worth your time.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
Directed by John Sturges
Starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, DeForest Kelley, Dennis Hopper, Ted DiCorsia.
Written by Leon Uris
Written by Leon Uris
Released by Paramount Pictures
Running time: 122 minutes
Availability: Airs on TCM, widely available.