Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster 

Director:  John Sturges
Released: 1957

Verdict: If you’re craving a ’50s retelling of that infamous shootout and you don’t mind historical inaccuracy as long as it has great acting.

As far as 1950s Westerns go, this is a great f*cking movie. 

Amazon knew I was the target audience for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral when it slid this suggestion in front of my face. I mean, that doesn’t take an algorithm’s level of genius – half of my orders are Western DVDs and books, Kirk Douglas is all through my wish list, and I spend a LOT of time browsing stuff related to Doc Holliday, the Earps, and Tombstone. 

I’m always wary about ‘50s Westerns, though; they’re totally hit or miss. The hits are HITS. You can watch them over and over and still always experience the same thrill.  

But the misses… Even if the story is good, the lack of effort in general appearance (costumes, hair styles, makeup) is often too distracting. You have dudes who look and talk like ‘40s gangsters, and women with heavy-duty makeup and ‘50s hair, and no story could stand a chance. 

I think that’s why actors like John Wayne excelled in Westerns – they already embodied the Old West in looks, mannerisms, and personality. You could surround them with perfectly pressed outfits and historical inaccuracies, and they’d still transport you to another time. 

ANYWAY. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a hit, thanks to Kirk Douglas.

Gunfight at the OK Corral DVD

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral plays fast and loose with the facts, but it’s still an entertaining story. It starts waaaayyyy back in the Earp/Holliday history, in Fort Griffin, Texas. Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef) is waiting in a saloon to kill Doc Holliday (Douglas) for shooting his brother. 

Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) tries to trade information about Bailey hiding a pistol in his left boot for details on where the Clanton posse might be, but Doc politely declines. Wyatt still saves Doc when a lynch mob comes for him. The two meet again in Dodge City, and this time it’s Doc who saves Wyatt’s life. 

Wyatt also starts up a highly fictitious romance with a gorgeous lady gambler named Laura (Rhonda Fleming), gets engaged, then ditches her to go clean up Tombstone with Doc. 

Like I said, lots of creative liberties you’ll recognize or can read about, including:  

  • Johnny Ringo (John Ireland) is dating the spurned Big Nose Kate (Jo Van Fleet)
  • Ringo participates in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral 
  • The gunfight is premeditated, lasts for over five minutes, and spans a huge area
  • This is one of the few movies where James Earp makes the cut as a character, but here he’s the youngest (instead of the eldest) and is the one who gets killed first (instead of Morgan) to trigger the final showdown
  • None of the Earp Women exist, except a made-up ‘Betty’ Earp
  • Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) is the cowboys’ leader, and Curly Bill Brocius doesn’t exist

Here’s where I’m going to broadcast my massive hypocrisy – even though I noticed all of those points and more, I didn’t care and thoroughly enjoyed this movie. 

I’ve ripped on other movies for bending the truth too much, and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is every bit as full of BS. But the difference between this movie and Hickok or American Outlaws is that it NEVER tried to seem accurate. There were no taglines about ‘the real story’ – it’s all drama, all the time, and I f*cking love it

illustration of a fancy moustache

Kirk Douglas is zero percent Southern gentleman, but he still completely pulls off the necessary refinement and wit to capture Doc Holliday’s spirit. The way he trades barbs with Wyatt is fun to watch, and most of the best lines of the entire film are his scathing burns.

Douglas gives you an entire range of emotion in his performance. He can rock affable cleverness, and 30 seconds later he’s vibrating with restrained anger. Oh, you want someone who looks at home in the saddle, but carries himself with a gentlemanly swagger? Check and check.

Burt Lancaster is pretty good as Wyatt Earp. There’s no trademark moustache, which was a crushing disappointment. His character is more earnest and modern sheriff than surly, heavy-handed Wild West lawman, but it works with this more romantic/bro-mantic storyline.

Jo Van Fleet really went for it – I mean, REALLY went for it. She apparently asked Kirk Douglas to hit her in the face so she could evoke the ‘abused woman’, and he did. It was a lot of over-acting, and her character annoyed me, but that’s the way she was written. It’s definitely not one of the best female roles in a Western.

Rhonda Fleming’s role as Laura Denbow was smaller, but much more entertaining. She had great dialogue, easily holding her own in banter with Douglas and stealing the spotlight in her scenes with Lancaster.

The supporting cast is peppered with ‘hey, that’s so-and-so’ stars. As mentioned, Lee Van Cleef is in the early scenes as Ed Bailey. A super young Dennis Hopper plays Billy, the sweet youngest Clanton who brings out Wyatt’s fatherly, protective side. Jack Elam is a brief flash as Tom McLowery. Bing Russell, father of future Wyatt Earp Kurt Russell, appears uncredited as Harry the bartender. 

The awesomest bit of trivia comes with DeForest Kelley, who plays Morgan Earp. Kelley, better known as Bones from Star Trek, is no stranger to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In 1955 he played Ike Clanton in You Are There: The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (October 26, 1881), AND Bones “assumed the role of Tom McLaury” in Star Trek: Spectre of the Gun (original series season 3, episode 6). 

How did I not know that there was a Star Trek/Tombstone crossover?!

illustration of a fancy moustache

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a great piece of storytelling, and if you love Kirk Douglas, you’ll enjoy every moment of his performance. I’m not saying he’s my favourite Doc Holliday – nothing will ever top Val Kilmer’s turn in Tombstone

But if you want to watch a strong ‘50s Western that gives you action, romance, and great lines, this is a fantastic pick. I watched it in a room full of fellow Western fans, and it was indeed a hit.

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