The surprise of the film is the performance of James Garner, who plays Wyatt Earp straight, without the actor’s usual wry irony. Opposite him as Doc Holliday is Jason Robards, who gets all the irony and gives a memorable portrayal of the consumptive gambler and killer who befriended Wyatt.
Smooth and surly Robert Ryan plays Ike Clanton, a little old for the part at 58. Ike was in his mid-30s then and didn’t live past 40. Robards at 45 was fifteen years older than Doc Holliday, who was only 30 that day in 1881. A film with three actors in their 30s would be closer to history—and also a different kind of western.
Story vs history. The film tries to represent the complicated political situation in Tombstone, with a sheriff more or less on the payroll of the Clantons. No model family, their income came from smuggling and reselling cattle out of Mexico. Virgil Earp was city marshal and his brothers his deputies. Residents of the growing town of Tombstone supported the Earps, while the Clantons with their gang of “cowboys” fought the interference of the law.
There are trials, elections, and competing agencies of the law, with a large cast of characters. Anyone without some previous knowledge could be excused for getting confused by the details of the plot. But there’s a strong central thread holding the film together, as one by one Wyatt hunts down the men responsible for the death of Morgan and the crippling of Virgil. That thread wraps up with the biggest departure from historical fact in the movie—Wyatt’s shooting of Ike Clanton.
Ike died a violent death, all right, while actively rustling cattle out of Mexico, but it wasn’t Wyatt who killed him. I don’t know, but I also doubt that Wyatt visited the dying Doc in his Denver sanatorium before parting company for the last time, as the film would have us believe. What is true in his last scene is that Wyatt was done with being a lawman.
Earp biographer Casey Tefertiller says Hour of the Gun was a debunking of the heroic figure handed down to us in legend. I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment. It suggests that Earp deserves better, though given what we know of his life, the film actually goes out of its way to justify his actions.
|Ike Clanton, 1881|
Wrapping up. Director John Sturges had also directed the earlier Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, plus Rhonda Fleming and Jo Van Fleet for romantic interest. This film has no women characters. The 25 roles listed at imdb.com are all male, which makes it almost a one-of-a-kind western.
The film begins with a re-enactment of the 1881 gunfight, this time rather closer to fact than the protracted firefight we get at the end of the earlier movie. One error is that the three men mortally wounded—the McLaurys and Billy Clanton—are standing inside the corral rather than in the open lot near it, where the actual exchange of gunfire took place. The film was shot entirely in Mexico, where the raw landscape suggests more than most westerns the isolation and inhospitable terrain of the desert Southwest.
Writer Edward Anhalt has a long list of screenwriting credits, including the script for Jeremiah Johnson (1972). James Garner portrayed Wyatt Earp again in Blake Edwards’ comedy Sunset (1988) opposite Bruce Willis as Tom Mix. Soon to be known for his role in Midnight Cowboy (1969), Jon Voight appears in this film as Curly Bill Brocius.
Hour of the Gun is currently available at netflix and amazon, where it is also streamable. Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies is the much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest (1901)