Hour of the Gun

Starring: James Garner, Jason Robards, Robert Ryan

Director: John Sturges
Released: 1967

Mood: If you’ve already had your hopes and dreams or at least a really good goal crushed this week and want to watch a Western that’s so thoroughly disappointing it makes you forget you had dreams.

I can’t believe I’m about to say this. I NEVER thought I’d see the day when these words would flow from my fingertips and onto a website owned by me. I feel dirty, like a traitor to the Western genre. I have to take a swig of beer to even get up the nerve.

Here goes… 

I really, really, REALLY dislike Hour of the Gun

If you think that was no big deal, you clearly don’t understand exactly how much I love James Garner. This man was truly a gem. You can read my entire profession of love for Garner in my Support Your Local Sheriff review. He was a gift to us all, and a great Western lead.

Except in this movie.

I don’t want to say that I hated it, but it does fail in a lot of the same ways as Westerns I’ve hated. It claims to be the ‘true story’, yet changes TONS of key facts about extremely well-known historical figures – and the changes don’t advance the plot in any way.

screenshot showing a quote from the opening credits that reads "this picture is based on fact. this is the way it happened."
Seriously. It’s REALLY supposed to be accurate.

The story doesn’t hook you. The acting falls short of everything else I’ve seen from Garner or Jason Robards. The shootouts lack passion. And, worst of all, I felt NO F*CKING JOY watching a movie about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.  It was the greatest disappointment of any movie I’ve seen this year. So I guess I have to hate it.

hour of the gun DVD

Hour of the Gun opens right at the start of the gunfight adjacent to the O.K. Corral. Wyatt (Garner) and Doc (Robards) march up to the group of Cowboys with Virgil and Morgan, and the shootout takes around 30 seconds. They got that part right. 

The rest of the movie follows the events after the shootout: the trial and acquittal of the Earps and Doc, the trial and acquittal of the Cowboys for killing Morgan, and Wyatt’s ‘vendetta ride’ to hunt them down. 

The first trial combines over a month’s worth of proceedings into one hearing scene, and this is the first time you hear Doc Holliday speak. On the stand he’s commanding, loud, and sounds exactly like Wyatt – not the refined, poetic Southerner who would have been perpetually coughing up a lung at that point in Doc’s life

But on the plus side, there’s mention of the evidence that the dead Cowboys’ wounds weren’t consistent with testimony that they were unarmed with their hands up when the Earps and Doc shot them. Hence the acquittal.

When Wyatt escorts Virgil, his wife, and Morgan’s widow to the train (this is the only time you see any of the Earp women, and they don’t speak), there’s further shooting. I read a comment on IMDB that Garner, who was a highly experienced shootist in Westerns, was often shown with his gun aimed too low. Once I read that I couldn’t unsee it, and it’s true of this and at least one more scene.

The rest of the vendetta ride is anti-climatic. And for some reason Doc doesn’t agree with Wyatt’s methods and even finds him disgusting, accusing Wyatt of wanting Morgan’s murderers to go free so he could kill them himself. Doc and Wyatt may or may not have been good friends, accounts vary… and the same is true about whether or not Doc was a cold-blooded killer… but there’s no version I’ve read where Doc tried to take the moral high ground over Wyatt.  

illustration of a fancy moustache

Garner’s Wyatt has cold, sharp eyes, and a great f*cking moustache. In his first few scenes I was totally into it. But as the movie progressed, my heart kept sinking. The performance felt tired, and was missing that trademark Garner spark. I’m not saying he needed to make it cheeky or comedic – Wyatt was famously dour. But it needed SOMETHING. Kevin F*cking Costner can make grumpy Wyatt engaging while James Garner falls short? What is this world coming to?!

Robards’ Doc is the ‘two’ in the one-two punch of disappointment, because I f*cking LOVED him in Once Upon a Time in the West and had high hopes for him as Doc. It’s technically a solid Western performance, but it’s just another case of ‘didn’t research the character’. Even as a strong, gunslinging silverfox (aka the opposite of Doc), I could have bought Robards if he had the other mannerisms. 

He didn’t even start coughing until late in the movie! Doc had had tuberculosis for nine years when these events took place, so you better believe he was sickly AF. Robards would have made a great Wyatt, or Virgil in a version where Virgil had 50% of the lines. He’s a great actor who instantly grabs your attention. But he failed to evoke even 10% of Doc

There are a LOT of other dudes in this movie, but they all blur together and none of them stand out. The only thing I could say about Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) is that he was there. I don’t remember anything he said or did. Missed opportunity to steal the show, since in this version he’s the ringleader. 

And I’m not saying every Western needs female characters, but seriously. The Earp women, Josephine, and Kate were so pivotal in these events that the story feels hollow without them.  

illustration of a fancy moustache

Director John Sturges specifically made this movie as a follow-up to his Gunfight at the O.K. Corral so he could tell the ‘real’ story. Remember that screenshot above, of the opening credits? “This picture is based on fact. This is the way it happened.” 

Yeah, here’s a high-level list of problems with that statement: 

  • Cowboy characters are invented for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and some of the Cowboys who were actually present aren’t in the movie (um, where were the McLaurys?) – this gunfight was both a cumulation of multiple grievances AND the catalyst for everything afterward, so why the f*ck change who was there?!
  • Sheriff John Behan’s name is changed to Jimmy Bryan for some inexplicable reason
  • Virgil appears to be significantly younger than Wyatt, because the actor actually was 10 years Garner’s junior 
  • Ike Clanton was in his early thirties when this all went down, but actor Robert Ryan was almost 60 
  • Multiple people are killed under different circumstances or in different locations than how they really died (or in some cases, didn’t die – at least, not on the vendetta ride)

I can’t believe I waited two months for this movie to arrive. I was SO EXCITED and now I’m so thoroughly crushed. If you want to see a good oldschool Western about Doc and Wyatt directed by Sturges, watch Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It may take creative liberties with history, but at least it doesn’t claim to be the truth.

You could do worse than Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. This movie is proof of that.

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