Western RoundUp: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

Gunfight at the OK Corral Poster 1

This month it’s back to Tombstone with a look at Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a first-time watch for me, part of my ongoing series of reviews of Wyatt Earp films. Five years ago I covered a trio of Earp movies, Frontier Marshal (1939), Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die (1942), and Wichita (1955).

I also wrote a 2021 review of Hour of the Gun (1967), starring James Garner as Earp, and in the spring of 2023 I covered Tombstone (1993), with Kurt Russell in the lead.

In Gunfight at the O.K. Corral the upright Wyatt Earp is played by Burt Lancaster, with Kirk Douglas as a sneering, almost feral Doc Holliday.

Gunfight at the OK Corral, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, John Hudson, DeForest Kelley
Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, John Hudson and DeForest Kelley

Wyatt’s brothers appear in this version of the story only briefly, played by John Hudson (Virgil), DeForest Kelley (Morgan), and Martin Milner (James), while Lyle Bettger plays villainous Ike Clanton.

I’ll note at the top that, as with my previous Earp film reviews, I assume that readers are familiar with the general outlines of the story of the Earps and the Clantons. I will necessarily indulge in some spoilers as I critique and compare this film with others.

Those wishing to approach the movie spoiler-free will want to watch it first and then return to this review. I’ll add here that I watched an attractive Blu-ray released by Paramount Pictures in 2017, and I recommend the print.

In this version of the famous story we initially follow Wyatt Earp as he upholds the law in towns like Fort Griffin, Texas, and Dodge City, Kansas. Earp runs into Holliday in each place he travels, and in some cases Holliday travels along with him. Holliday owes Wyatt a debt of honor, though he also claims not to like him very much.

While in Dodge City Wyatt falls in love with gambler Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), but although they plan a future together, she leaves him when he tells her he’s been urgently summoned to help his brother Virgil (Hudson) in Tombstone. She insists that he hang up his guns and is unwilling countenance to Wyatt having “just one more job,” even if it’s to aid his brother.

Wyatt, of course, feels it’s a matter of family honor that he must answer his brother’s call for help. The film then comes to a climax in Tombstone, where Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan, and Doc go up against the Clantons to avenge the death of young James Earp and stop the Clantons’ reign of terror.

Gunfight at the OK Corral poster 2

I would class Gunfight at the O.K. Corral as a “mid-range” Earp film. It was a pleasant enough watch, but while it wasn’t boring, I also didn’t find it particularly compelling. Indeed, while it’s watchable, I found it surprisingly colorless.

My husband opined that the movie’s parts are better than the whole, and I found that apt. Despite being made by top filmmakers, including an excellent extended supporting cast, this version of the story is relatively bland, which I attribute in part to a meandering script by novelist Leon Uris.

The movie struck me as misusing its 122 minutes, moseying along on the way to the O.K. Corral, with time spent on scenes without substantial story and character value.

A good example of this is Earp’s confrontation with Sheriff Cotton Wilson (Frank Faylen) over Wilson not arresting the Clantons, which does little to propel the actual story forward. Wilson later reappears as a Clanton henchman and is generally a thorn in Earp’s side, but the character could be completely excised and the movie wouldn’t miss a beat, especially as many other scenes depict the frustrations and sacrifices of being a lawman.

Similarly, lovely Rhonda Fleming appears in a few scenes as Wyatt’s love interest. The fictional Denbow seems to be a stand-in for Wyatt’s wife, Josephine Marcus, who was played by Dana Delaney in the later Tombstone.

The Wyatt-Laura romance is fairly routine — it’s incredibly obvious Wyatt will kiss her when he takes her for a buggy ride — and curiously much of it takes place offscreen. We fade from a Wyatt-Laura kiss to Wyatt telling Doc they’re getting married. Fleming’s great beauty and spirit enliven the film, but the filmmakers should have either explored the relationship in greater detail or cut it. Fleming simply disappears from the film, with a hopeful throwaway line about her tossed out by Wyatt at the end.

Gunfight at the OK Corral lobby card

Lancaster is fine as Earp, though he perhaps underplays too much — or is it that the role is underwritten? Perhaps both.

Douglas, on the other hand, is the most unlikeable Doc Holliday I’ve ever seen, which was certainly an interesting choice from both Douglas and the screenwriter.

Douglas’s Holliday is a nasty man, downright abusive to his mistress, Kate Fisher (a boring, whiny Jo Van Fleet). Actors in other Earp films have offered wildly contrasting takes on Doc which make clear some of his varied issues while still keeping him relatively likeable and interesting to watch. Douglas is neither.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been much of a Douglas fan, so his performance may be more appreciated by others.

Dennis Hopper shines as young Billy Clanton, who promises his mother (Olive Carey) to reform but ultimately feels that it’s a matter of honor to accompany Ike to the O.K. Corral. It’s a small part, but Hopper is considerably more “alive” and nuanced than most of the movie’s cast, and I really appreciated his short but memorable performance.

I also enjoyed John Ireland, who pops up periodically as hotheaded Johnny Ringo. There’s not much depth to his character, yet I always find Ireland fun to watch. On the other hand, Kenneth Tobey was sadly completely underused as Bat Masterson.

Gunfight at the OK Corral 2

The deep cast includes many other great faces, including Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Earl Holliman, Whit Bissell, Don Castle, and Ted de Corsia. I really enjoyed seeing each of them pop up in turn, even though they weren’t all used to full effect.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was directed by John Sturges, who directed some other Westerns I really like, including Escape From Fort Bravo (1953), Saddle the Wind (1958), The Law and Jake Wade (1958), and, most famously, The Magnificent Seven (1960).

Uris based his script on an article by George Scullin. The movie was filmed by Charles Lang in VistaVision, with Old Tucson standing in for Tombstone.

Other top talents worked on the film, including costumer Edith Head and composer Dimitri Tiomkin. The title song, by Tiomkin and Ned Washington, was sung by Frankie Laine.

In the end, I’d class Gunfight at the O.K. Corral as a “serviceable” entry in the Earp movie canon. There are several stronger versions of this classic Western tale but despite its flaws, it’s reasonably entertaining and worth seeing by Western enthusiasts.

– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

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4 Responses to Western RoundUp: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

  1. I’ve got a lingering fondness for this movie because it was my introduction to Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday when I was a kid, and also my first Burt Lancaster movie. I don’t love it, but I do enjoy it a lot. Can’t argue with any of the flaws you point out here, and yet… I still find it fun! I don’t love it like I do Tombstone and Hour of the Gun, though.

  2. Jerry Entract says:

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this version of the Earp story more than you did, Laura. You make a number of good points about weaknesses in the telling but overall it’s a western I still find stirring and satisfying for the most part.
    I look forward to you getting to Kevin Costner’s epic version at some point. Knowing that Costner loves westerns and makes them well I am anticipating his epic undertaking for 2024 HORIZON: AN AMERICAN SAGA which will show in 2 halves 7 weeks apart.
    By the way, HAPPY NEW YEAR, Laura!

  3. Boppa says:

    Sturges’s later Earp film, Hour of the Gun, might be viewed as his attempt to correct the faults of this movie. And if you want to see a truly unlikeable Doc, check out Dennis Quaid’s performance in Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp. He makes Kirk Douglas’s Doc look positively cuddly by comparison.

  4. Carl Wright says:

    A wonderfully descriptive review. Appreciated your honesty on Douglas in playing the role as Doc Holiday.

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