The story is as old as the mythology of the West. You cannot avoid tales of Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881 and the famed Gunfight at The O.K. Corral. John Ford covered the events most famously in My Darling Clementine headlined by Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, and Walter Brennan in the title roles.
A generation later, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas teamed up to do their version. And the lineage runs a lot wider and deeper than this. It leaves one to wonder how many ways you can retell the same story with the same central characters.
Director John Sturges answers the question almost immediately by doing away with the one scene that this whole mythology effectively hinges on. The movie opens with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which feels more like a glorified street fight, done in seconds, with Clanton standing by and unharmed by the events at hand. Whether it plays more to the timber of actual history or not, it sets a precedent and recontextualizes everything we must relearn about these legendary figures of the West.
The men who play them are more than up to the task because of what they bring to the characterizations. Their names should be familiar. James Garner. Jason Robards. Robert Ryan. They are featured prominently in the title credits like figures on the marquee.
There might be some questions of where the movie might possibly go from here because it quickly disposes of its most “climactic moment,” underwhelming or not. Still, there manages to be a story built off the foundations of this inciting incident.
It becomes part courtroom drama momentarily, then it’s a town-wide conspiracy against the Earp brothers, and it finally turns deadly when they are ambushed with shotguns in the dead of night. The bloody gunfights and surreptitious ambushes are quickly deliberated over in the very same courtroom. There’s a kind of legal impasse.
Ryan always managed to be a fine villain, and it’s no different here. He plays Clanton as a shrewd businessman with most of the town on his payroll including sheriffs, public prosecutors, and a bevy of wanted gunmen (including a young Jon Voight). Though he never pulls the trigger himself, he has many minions in his pocket prepared to do his bidding. It’s a lot more convenient since he has the money to spend.
Hour of the Gun also feels like a western straddling two generations. Garner and Robards represent it well. Garner’s Maverick and to some extent his Local Sheriff put a different spin on the western genre as a kind of anti-western star, at least compared to the James Arness or Chuck Connors archetypes.
And Jason Robards, who only a year later would find his way into Sergio Leone’s epic spaghetti opera Once Upon a Time in The West, is equally adept in such an environment. He can be rugged and tough but not without a kind of wry sense of humor and intuition. We like them both for who they are. First, as performers and then as two of the West’s most prominent figures: Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday respectively.
Lucien Ballard was a Hollywood veteran with saddlebags full of movie credits including many entries shooting his wife and leading lady Merle Oberon. Jerry Goldsmith takes on scoring duties with work that observes the purview of the West while reminding us of his crucial role in future New Hollywood and blockbuster hits.
It’s curious how the movie hews closer to history, and it looks to dispel myth and tell a version of the tale that feels more like a procedural. In some ways, it is a more modern expression of the western, though John Sturges is not in the Eastwood, Peckinpah, or even Leone school.
He was actually the very same man who helmed The Gunfight at The O.K. Corral with Lancaster and Douglas. But this is hardly a reworking in the way Howard Hawks remade Rio Bravo multiple times. Rather it feels like Sturges is intent on telling the tale with different terms more to his liking.
Initially, it builds off the legacy of The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape where there’s something honest and sure about its telling, but it’s not gun shy. There’s still a sense of violence and ambiguity in other ways. Because hypocrisy exists in a world where as long as men have warrants and badges or they are fighting wars, killing is legalized. In all other contexts, it’s not permissible.
It becomes so easy to bend the rules either in service of good and often in the service of evil. Hour of The Gun ultimately is quick to distance itself from the comfortable morality of earlier westerns. This too is a bridge to its future brethren in the genre.
Doc is the man who ultimately assembles the troops; it’s a sequence we know well and somehow Sturges’s best films always captured this brand of male camaraderie — the kind of scenes that little boys of a certain generation aspired to. Getting together with their friends to fight the baddies. There’s still a sense of good fun and the kind of innocent naivete the western used to breed. Though it never amounts to anything.
It all comes down to Wyatt Earp and his personal vendettas. Garner shows a ferocity and a simmering rage that’s rare in him or at least he hides it well often through down-home charm or a coward’s prerogative. Here he’s driven by a sense of justice for the deaths of his brothers. He’s not squeamish when it comes to searching it out either.
The ending could not be a further departure from its predecessors. It feels like the dilapidated, windswept ruins and facades in pictures like Vera Cruz or Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid where the classic western modality goes to die in some sense.
Wyatt finally completes his search for Clayton and comes face-to-face with the man who was so very hard to find. Doc and some bandits stand by testily as Earp flips his badge to his friend, signaling this is a personal action not enacted under the letter of the law.
It’s a quick, unsentimental climax, but it stays true to the opening depiction of the O.K. Corral. I would not hasten to say it’s realistic as much as it gives a more murky and unembellished version of the story. Still, whether he meant to or not, Sturges effectively revises one of the most quoted American myths adding yet another complicating footnote to how we come to understand it. All other things considered, from the imagery to this commitment to a raw account of history, Garner and Robards are still the ones who make the picture.