Stream On: Duelling gunfights at the OK Corral

By on December 9, 2021

On October 26, 1881, Virgil Earp, the town marshal of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, and his brothers, bank security officer Wyatt, Morgan, and their friend, gambler John Holliday, spotted the five members of the Clanton-McLaury gang in a vacant lot behind the O.K. Corral, at the end of Fremont Street. The famous gunfight that ensued lasted all of 30 seconds, and around 30 shots were fired.

The brevity of the shootout didn’t prevent this half-minute of American history from being the focus of several books and at least five films.


/Amazon.com /Prime Video /Streaming /Trailer /1946 /TVPG

Though it’s still debated who fired the first shot, most reports say that the shootout began when Virgil Earp pulled out his revolver and shot Billy Clanton point-blank in the chest, while Doc Holliday fired a shotgun blast at Tom McLaury’s chest.

Director John Ford said that when he was a prop boy in the early days of silent pictures, Wyatt Earp would visit pals he knew from his Tombstone days on the sets. “I used to give him a chair and a cup of coffee, and he told me about the fight at the O.K. Corral.”[^]

Ford took as his sources for My Darling Clementine Stuart Lake’s 1931 biography (published two years after Earp’s death) and his 1946 book of the same name; while both books have been subsequently found to be largely fiction, they popularized the shootout among the general public. With Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and a surprisingly hardy Victor Mature as consumptive Doc Holliday, My Darling Clementine inhabits the same space in the American psyche as does Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda as Jesse and Frank James. More for students of cinema history than American history.


/Amazon.com /Prime Video /Streaming /Trailer /1957 /TVPG

Though Wyatt Earp wounded Frank McLaury with a shot in the stomach, Frank managed to get off a few shots before collapsing, as did Billy Clanton.

The firefight came to symbolize the rocky ascent of organized law over the unregulated element that first populated the frontier. John Sturges took a shot at it with this film, which ingrained it into popular American mythology, throwing at it VistaVision, a script by Leon Uris and music by Dimitri Tiomkin, sung by Frankie Laine, no less. The news here is Kirk Douglas stealing the film as Doc Holliday, with Burt Lancaster playing Wyatt Earp, while Frankie Laine’s singing remains annoyingly grating in the context.


/Amazon.com /Prime Video /Streaming /Trailer /1967 /Unrated

John Sturges apparently took enough historical criticism of Gunfight to display in large caps “THIS IS THE WAY IT HAPPENED” before his second movie about the event. It begins with the shootout, over in a flash, rather than with the elaborate choreography of our first two films, and covers the murder charges filed by Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) against Wyatt Earp (James Garner) and Doc Holliday (Jason Robards), the subsequent murder of Morgan Earp, until now neglected in the legends, and the final score-settling. Faithful, but James Garner, bless his heart, is about as menacing as Jim Rockford.

The politics of the day, viz., Washington gradually encroaching on the territories, threaten to impart the stink of verisimilitude to the film, as does the subtext of the possible criminality of the Earp brothers.

But in the last days of the man in the grey flannel suit, the cast all had nice haircuts and spotless, well-fitting outfits, the men with new moustaches and the ladies starched in modern makeup. One almost expected Rock Hudson and Doris Day to show themselves.


/Amazon.com /Prime Video /Streaming /Trailer /1993 /R

The legends of the gunfight eclipsed the reality, and Tombstone was little better historically than this week’s other films. The bare facts of the 30-second fracas will hold only so much water.[^] Kurt Russell resembles photos of the historical Wyatt Earp, Sam Elliott, with his epic mustache, plays brother Virgil (you can’t go wrong with Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp) but Val Kilmer stole the show as the ailing and playful but deadly Doc Holliday, in the same year that he starred with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in one of the best modern crime films ever, Heat.

Most call Tombstone the victor of the O.K. Corral shootout, usually mentioning Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. It features a succinct while inventive plot and great performances by a stellar cast including Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe (Deadwood), Dana Delaney, and an early turn by Billy Bob Thornton (Fargo season one), three years before he shocked the world with his own Sling Blade. A highlight has Doc Holliday exchanging curses with gunslinger Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) in Latin.


/Amazon.com /Prime Video /Streaming /Trailer /1994 /TVPG

When the dust cleared, Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers were dead, and Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded. Ike Clanton and Claiborne had run for the hills.*

Kevin Costner (Open Range, Yellowstone, No Way Out) was originally involved with Tombstone, but disagreed with writer Kevin Jarre over the focus of the film and left the project, teaming up with director Lawrence Kasdan to produce his own Wyatt Earp project. Costner then used his considerable clout to convince most of the major studios to refuse to distribute the competing film, which affected casting on the rival project.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 2 out of 4 stars, saying “Wyatt Earp plays as if they took Tombstone and pumped it full of hot air,”[^] but I beg to differ. Where some elements of Tombstone appear consolidated and stylized, Wyatt Earp feels like history. In fact, many of the most minute historical facts about Earp’s life are touched on, if only through some lines of exposition, but they match the complicated record, beginning from Earp’s childhood.

Earp had assisted Stuart Lake on his biography, which helped establish Earp as a legend, though many of his claims were later revealed to be exaggerated or untrue. In the film, a stranger recounts a story about him to Earp and his wife. Wyatt says to her, “Some people say it didn’t happen that way,” to which she responds, “Never mind them, Wyatt. It happened that way.”

Wyatt Earp is a long and sometimes dreary biography that takes its time arriving in Tombstone. A hunched Costner was more the dour Devil Anse of Hatfields and McCoys than the fresh-faced John Dunbar of Dances with Wolves. Costner’s Earp reminded me of how Tim Olyphant played Seth Bullock in Deadwood–not really comfortable under the weight of his obligations. Still, for the patient, this three-hour and ten-minute film holds considerable rewards (and has the best poster of the bunch).


(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers

Comments are closed.