It’s hard to come up with a better vehicle to showcase the on screen chemistry of cinema icons Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas than the tale of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday during the actor’s years as top box office draws. Add in a first rate cast of western heavies and veterans under the gifted guidance of director John Sturges and you find yourself watching a western classic that never gets mentioned in the top ten or so oaters of cinema history but for my money should be easily found in the top twenty.
But then to be honest I’m a huge fan of both Burt and Kirk, buying into pretty much any film they’ve ever done which includes attending the opening night showing of their final film together, Tough Guys in 1986 where Charles Durning let’s loose with, “What is this! The gunfight at the O.K. Corral?” at a key shootout in the film. It’s an in joke I always wonder how many people catch upon it’s delivery.
To the sound of Frankie Laine singing the title track comes Lee Van Cleef and two others riding into a hole in the wall town, past boot hill on his way to seeking revenge against Kirk Douglas’ Doc Holiday for killing his brother. And so begins our “true story” of Wyatt and Doc. It’s here that Burt will ride in shortly afterwards on the hunt for his own outlaw gang, the Clanton’s led by Lyle Bettger who will come on scene further into the film. Burt wants to do a little horse trading with Kirk and offers up some valuable information concerning Lee Van that will eventually leave Kirk somewhat indebted to a lawman. Something he isn’t fond of.
From here it’s off to Dodge City where Burt is employed as the local sheriff. Kirk himself winds up in town to play the tables and as long as there is, “No knives, no guns and no killings.” he’s welcome to stay put. Coming along with Douglas is his part time lover played by Jo Van Fleet. It’s a volatile relationship. One of the can’t live with him/her, can’t live without him/her types. A large part of the story will circle around the pair and a third party played by John Ireland as Johnny Ringo. When Van Fleet is kicked to the curb by Kirk, she takes up with Ireland. It doesn’t sit well with Kirk and the pair will spar continually till the famed shootout.
Considering this western is chock full of well known faces, I’d like to point out Earl Holliman appears at this point in the story as Burt’s deputy in Dodge. Earl is one those character players I’ve known from an early age thanks to westerns including Sons of Katie Elder, O.K. Corral and his time spent on Police Woman which played weekly in our house during my early years. Earl has some fun scenes with Douglas in this segment of the film including a comical bit of blackjack where he wonders if Kirk might be cheating him. Quick, go for your gun!
It’s also here in Dodge that Ted de Corsia will ride in fronting a gang of rowdies including Ireland that sees Kirk and Burt standing tall in the face of death. Needing a leading lady for Burt the film casts gorgeous Rhonda Fleming in Edith Head gowns as his romantic interest that at first starts them out on two opposing sides of the law. She’s a gambler and Burt won’t have a woman gambling in the saloons. It’s bound to cause trouble. Such is the cowboy way of life. Fleming is striking as always in color features and look no further than her role opposite Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court for proof.
Things don’t quite work out for the pair of lovers and Burt and Kirk are off to Tombstone, Arizona for their date with destiny and an enlarged roster of actors including Jack Elam, Dennis Hopper, Olive Carey, De Forest Kelly, Kenneth Tobey, Martin Milner and Whit Bissell.
It’s here in Tombstone that the newly appointed United States Marshall, Burt Lancaster will see the tension rise between himself and opposing forces led by Bettger that will result in the climatic gunfight. Is it accurate in it’s depiction? Not even close according to history but is it rip roaring entertainment? Damned straight it is.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen this film throughout the years from TV as a kid to weekend VHS rentals on to DVD and finally my recently acquired blu ray version of the film. I’ve always enjoyed the film and see it as one of Kirk’s best roles of the period. After all, the Doc Holiday role has always been the flashiest of the two iconic names in western history. Douglas has the storied affliction of TB associated with the character that sees him barely able to survive at key points in the film while exploding as only Kirk Douglas can on camera when called to cut loose.
Lancaster plays it tall and stoic and though it’s easier to fall for the Douglas portrayal, Burt still essays the tower of strength that he is most often associated with in his action heroes on camera. A must see with more connections than I can count. Meaning Kirk and Burt appearing in a number of films together, Earl Holliman and Dennis Hopper turning up in Sons of Katie Elder a few years down the road and Dennis still playing pretty much the same role. Olive Carey from the Ford company, Van Cleef just a few years away from immortality in the Leone films etc.
For a piece of trivia, how about DeForest “Bones” Kelley reenacting the OK Corral gunfight one more time in the Star Trek episode, Spectre of the Gun.
Director Sturges would himself revisit the story with the 1967 production, Hour of the Gun with James Garner and Jason Robards stepping into the roles of Wyatt and Doc. A film I’ve never overly liked when comparing it to this Hal Wallis production.
What prompted this umpteenth viewing? Easy! Number 2 son Kirk (I’ve threatened to give him a cleft chin on many occasion) is on a western kick and chose it from a pile of select titles. Works for me. See it if you’ve never partaken in this version of the story and if you have, then like me you might be ready for a revisit to Tombstone by way of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.