Starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas
I love a good blokey movie sometimes. This one starts great. Frankie Laine sings the theme song to Dimitri Tiomkin’s bombastic score as three cowboys ride across a prairie and the titles come up. Lots of good character actors here. Frank Faylen, Earl Holliman, Dennis Hopper, Whit Bissell…DeForest Kelley! Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam. Wow. Leon Uris (the guy who wrote Exodus) penned the script and John Sturges directed. The horsemen ride past Boot Hill, which is a recurring motif in the movie.
The trio, lead by Van Cleef, enter a bar and ask the owner where Doc Holliday is. The barman has them check their guns in and we cut to an ageing dance hall girl Kate (Jo Van Fleet who’d just won a supporting actress Oscar for East of Eden) sitting in a hotel room with Holliday (Douglas) who is drunk and throwing knives into the door of the room. They argue until she tells him that he’s no better than her since the Civil War wiped out his family fortune. He throws a knife into the wall beside her head, she grabs it and tries to stab him… which she doesn’t as he grabs her by the head and tells her not to mention her family again. They kiss and make up. She wants to go to Laramie until his tubercular cough clears up, but he’s going to meet the three gunmen instead. This is Douglas at his melodramatic best. He was doing treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen before there was a name for it.
After dropping in to see the ageing sheriff of the town (Frank Fayden), Wyatt Earp (Lancaster) goes into the bar to get information on the Clanton Gang who passed through town recently. He sees the three and heads back to talk with Holliday to tell him that Van Cleef has a derringer in his left boot. Holliday has a chip on his shoulder the size of a redwood and refuses to answer when Earp asks him where Clanton was going. In the bar, Holliday kills the gunman by pulling a knife from inside the back of his shirt collar and nailing him with it before he can get to the derringer. Sturges uses this trick again in the Magnificent Seven where Britt (James Coburn) is called by a cowhand.
Earp helps Holliday escape from a lynch mob and they meet up again in Dodge City. Doc gets Earp to stake him for a poker game. Their friendship grows as they track down bank robbers and get involved with a female poker player (Rhonda Fleming). All this leads up to the titular gunfight with the Clantons.
For a guy who’s supposed to be tubercular, Kirk Douglas makes a pretty active Doc Holliday. He can’t seem to rein-in his natural athleticism. It’s as if he’s trying to compete with Lancaster, who with Nick Cravat was a professional acrobat. When he confronts Ringo (John Ireland), Kate’s new boyfriend, the repressed energy is palpable. Holliday has promised Earp he wouldn’t start a fight, and so he backs down on the confrontation. It’s hard to think of a modern actor who does rage better than Kirk Douglas. Tom Cruise does intensity, but there’s always an undercurrent of frat-boy whininess to him. He acts as if the World is being mean and it shouldn’t. Douglas’ anger is combined with a physical confidence and a worldliness that makes him unique in cinema. His son Michael is at least as good an actor, but his cinematic persona is a different one. Like Kirk, he plays bad and flawed characters very well, but he could never carry off a movie like this one. You need actors who are larger than life to play iconic heroes. That’s why Troy never worked as a movie. The actors playing Greek heroes were, in spite of the script’s attempts to pump them up, no more than human sized. The new movie 300 has the right idea, play them big and intense and don’t be scared to go over the top.
This iconic largeness is helped by the motif of having Frankie Laine sing during the transitions from one place and another. A balladeer doesn’t croon about ordinary people. Earp and Holliday go to Tombstone, where one if his brothers, Morgan is played by DeForrest Kelley. Kelley had a good character actor career in the 40s and 50s. He did westerns and film noir until fate hit him with a phaser and everyone started thinking that his career started in 1966 with Shatner and Nimoy.
Lancaster’s Earp is a solid, stolid presence. His intensity is pulled in, encased, until violence breaks out. “Next time you ride in armed, you ride out feet first!” is the kind of line only an actor like Lancaster can say without sounding ridiculous. Where Douglas’ Holliday is cracked wide with flaws and illnesses, Lancaster’s Earp is a coiled spring. He picks up Dennis Hopper, playing the youngest Clanton and slings him over his shoulder as he would an overcoat. That man was strong.
The original gunfight on the 29th of October 1881 took thirty seconds with 34 shots fired and three men dead. In the movie it took them four days to shoot and five minutes of screen time. It still makes exciting cinema. Sturges uses the dust, the fence rails, wagons, adobe walls, gullies and rough footbridges to give the action a good physical structure. He elaborated on this approach with The Magnificent Seven, but you can see it developing here. There’s a great moment when Burt Lancaster runs at full pelt, then does a shoulder roll into cover.
The historical accuracy of the movie is a little shaky, but this is 1950s Hollywood we are talking about. Entertainment was the name of the game and this one delivers. A little psychodrama but not too much, fight scenes at regular intervals and some good acting. (I think the Rhonda Fleming character is just there to make Earp look heterosexual.) Just the film for a blokey night of barbecuing and beer.
Producer Hal Wallis originally wanted Humphrey Bogart to play Doc Holliday. Unfortunately, Bogie was dying of lung cancer at the time. Yeah, it might have added versimilitude to the role but it didn’t happen.
According to Douglas in his autobiography “The Ragman’s Son” Jo Van Fleet insisted that he slap her quite hard and repeatedly before takes of their climactic confrontation that triggers a severe tubercular attack in Holliday.
Twenty years later, here’s what Burt Lancaster said about the movie: “ I didn’t want to do the picture at first. It was too much of a talkie! Too much dialogue in the script. The picture is about two men of action, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Men of few words, men who wouldn’t have gone around intellectuallizing about their lives.”
But it’s a western that delivers.