If given the chance to star in a version of the O.K Corral tale I’d like to think an actor would jump all over the Doc Holliday character though they’d have to play second fiddle to whoever gets cast as famed Marshall Wyatt Earp.
Who looks like they are having more fun in other versions? Burt Lancaster or Kirk Douglas? Kevin Costner or Dennis Quaid? Henry Fonda or Victor Mature? How about Kurt Russell or Val Kilmer?
From an acting point of view I think it’s the latter in most cases. Earp has mainly appeared to be stoic and straight forward while Doc is portrayed as the loose cannon, the tortured soul with the “lung disease” to play to the audiences sympathies.
It’s no different in this John Sturges film that sees the normally likable James Garner never cracking a smile as the vengeful Earp. Riding shotgun alongside him for the majority of the film and getting the colorful dialogue is Jason Robards as the dentist turned killer/gambler Doc Holliday.
Unlike Sturges first go around of the Earp vs. Clanton feud in 1957’s Lancaster / Douglas version that reached a fiery climax at the legendary corral, this film begins with the gunfight and for the next 95 minutes tells us of the fallout between the warring families.
“I’d go to hell and back on the word of Wyatt Earp.” says Robards while the courts and judge William Schallert oversee the shooting deaths of those killed in the rather visually dull fight at the corral. Though it may have been historically accurate, it did nothing at erasing from my mind Burt and Kirk taking on the baddies ten years previously.
Slippery Robert Ryan is Ike Clanton. He’s behind the killing and maiming of Earp’s brothers. With money and the desire for power he has his hired killers hunting Garner. Most notable is a super young Jon Voight playing one of Ryan’s gun hands.
There is plenty of killing to come when Garner turns vigilante and uses the badge to hunt down those responsible for the murder of his brother. Robards gets the flashy scenes enlisting a posse of questionable guns that owe him or Earp favors.
Robards will eventually come to play on Garner’s conscience and his distorting of the law for his own gain. “If you’re gonna kill like me, you may as well drink like me.” he challenges Garner. Still if you know the legend he won’t let Garner’s Earp go it alone across the border and they both head off to Mexico and their prey, Robert Ryan.
Filling out the cast are a stable of well known “faces”. Karl Swenson, Albert Salmi, Charles Aidman, Frank Converse, Richard Bull and Monte Markham. Both Swenson and Bull went on to become regulars in Little House on the Prairie.
It’s noticeable that the script allows for not a single female character. That does seem in keeping with the sparseness to the film. Tombstone is a one street town leading me to believe it’s a low budget effort other than the higher priced actors within. John Sturges was somewhat of a man’s director having down The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape previously so his choice of material here is not surprising. Still, I’d rather watch his 1957 version with the big scale budget, cast and flashier actors taking the leads.
It’s hard not to compare Robards to the other actors that have taken on the Holliday role. I recall how many movie goers were enamored with Val Kilmer’s take and rightly so though I as the scholar was quick to point out the Kirk Douglas interpretation at the time. I’ll always lean to Douglas but Robards does his best here with a bit of self deprecating humor to add some flavor to his scenes. And while I’ve always been a James Garner fan I must admit to not liking him all that much without a twinkle in his eye and a wink at the camera. For that reason Robards like many others in the Holliday role steals their shared scenes.
On the trivia side it should be noted that as the western genre was more or less coming to an end, both Ryan and Robards were on the cusp of filming their greatest entry in the genre. Ryan in The Wild Bunch and Robards in Once Upon a Time In the West.