Tag Archives: Wyatt Earp


Nicholas Chennault ~ September 2, 2015

Wichita—Joel McCrea, Vera Miles, Lloyd Bridges, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Peter Graves, Keith Larsen Robert Wilke, Jack Elam, Walter Coy, Mae Clarke (1955; Dir: Jacques Tourneur)


Director Jacques Tourneur is best remembered today for such 1940s fare as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (starring Frances Dee, Joel McCrea’s real life wife) and one of the very best films noirs, Out of the Past (1947), with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer.  In the 1950s he made several westerns with Joel McCrea, of which the best is probably Stars in My CrownWichita is one of those Tourneur-McCrea collaborations, a supposed retelling of the early pre-Dodge City part of Wyatt Earp’s career as a lawman.

The railroad has just been brought to Wichita, Kansas, by Sam McCoy (Walter Coy).  It’s starting to attract more cattle herds and those in search of new business opportunities, like young Wyatt Earp (played by not-so-young Joel McCrea).  He camps overnight with one of those herds, and two of their cowboys, the Clements brothers (one played by Lloyd Bridges), try unsuccessfully to rob him while he sleeps.  Foiling that, he moves on to the town, where he meets the local newspaper editor Arthur Whiteside (played as a typical heavy-drinking western newspaperman by Wallace Ford) and his young assistant Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen).  His first action in town is to break up a bank robbery, getting him lots of attention from the law-and-order part of the citizenry.


When wild cowboys shoot up the town and kill a young boy, Wyatt accepts the marshal’s badge and starts to clean things up.  Not everybody is happy with that, including Sam McCoy, who’d like to see the town a little more open to promote business.  McCoy’s daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) is romantically interested in Wyatt, though.  Wyatt bans the wearing of guns in town.  Doc Black (Edgar Buchanan), the most corrupt of the town fathers, tries to hire a couple of slick-looking newcomers to kill Earp, but they turn out to be his brothers Morgan (Peter Graves) and James (John Smith).  When Wyatt runs Doc out of town, he seeks out the Clements brothers and engineers an attack on Wyatt as he leaves the McCoy house.  Instead of Wyatt, they kill McCoy’s wife Mary (Mae Clarke).  Giving chase, the Earp brothers kill one and capture another.

As gunman Ben Thompson (Robert Wilke) and the rest of the cowboys are about to try to get Wyatt, they reconsider as Doc Black’s role in the killings and trying to take down Wyatt is revealed.  Presumably Wyatt and Laurie can now get together, although of course that didn’t happen in real life.


Laurie McCoy (Vera Miles) romances the new marshal (Joel McCrea).

In general, this is a pretty typical town-taming story.  Joel McCrea can play Wyatt Earp’s stern rectitude easily, but at 50 he’s too old for a young Wyatt, and too old for the lovely 27-year-old Vera Miles, who is fine but not very central to the story here.  Wallace Ford is also fine as hard-drinking newspaperman Arthur Whiteside, but we’ve seen this character before—notably Edmund O’Brien in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (also with Vera Miles, this time romanced by the too-old James Stewart and the too-old John Wayne), and even Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone in Stagecoach.  Edgar Buchanan does well as a villain, as he did in Texas (1941), with Glenn Ford and William Holden.  Robert Wilke and Jack Elam appear as bad guys, and the rest of the supporting cast is good.  You might even see future director Sam Peckinpah in an uncredited appearance as a bank teller.

So how do these goings-on relate to the actual Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson?  In real life, Wyatt Earp’s first law enforcement job was for a year in Wichita in the late 1870s, where he was deputy sheriff, not the main man.  He was 28 at the time.  Although Bat Masterson finished his career as a New York sportswriter, at this early stage he’d met Wyatt Earp when they were both hunting buffalo.  Wyatt didn’t take up any long-term romantic relationships in Wichita.  His brother James never did much in the law enforcement business, unlike Morgan and especially Virgil.  All in all, this isn’t very accurate historically.


But it is worth watching, if not the most memorable of Joel McCrea’s westerns.  McCrea was a good actor, and in the late 1930s and early 1940s was a bigger star than John Wayne.  Like Gary Cooper, even if he’s too old for the role, he’s watchable.  This movie makes him the only star to play both Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson (The Gunfight at Dodge City, 1959).

The title song, sung by Tex Ritter, is forgettable.  Shot in color, at 81 minutes.

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Badman’s Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 5, 2014

Badman’s Country—George Montgomery, Buster Crabbe, Karin Booth, Neville Brand, Malcolm Atterbury, Gregory Walcott (1958; Dir: Fred F. Sears)


Ten years before Paul Newman and Robert Redford made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid two of the west’s most charming outlaws, there was this reaction to the popularity of television westerns, throwing almost all the lawman and outlaw names they could think of into one not-terribly-coherent western hash.  Butch Cassidy (Neville Brand) is a well-organized but thoroughly bad Butch Cassidy; his Wild Bunch gang includes the Sundance Kid and Kid Curry, but also Black Jack Ketchum and is here operating near Abilene, Kansas.  The principal good guy is Pat Garrett (George Montgomery, wearing his gun quite low and a his characteristic hat with a low crown and broad brim), with backup from Wyatt Earp (Buster Crabbe), Bat Masterson (Gregory Walcott) and a strange, aging Buffalo Bill Cody (Malcolm Atterbury).  Loma Pardee (Karin Booth), the local doctor’s daughter, is Garrett’s romantic interest.

Apparently five members of the Wild Bunch are looking for Garrett, who’s trying to get out of the lawman business.  He kills two of them and puts the other three in jail and wires for help from Earp and Masterson.  In the end, just a few of the good guys overcome and capture about 40 outlaws, including Butch.


Sheriff Pat Garrett (George Montgomery) rides.

Geographically and timewise, this is one of the most mixed up westerns ever made; the only way it could have been worse is to throw in Davy Crockett (from The Alamo) and Hawkeye (from Last of the Mohicans).  In reality by the time Cassidy had gathered his now-famous Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, Garrett was long retired, Buffalo Bill was touring in his Wild West show, Earp was refereeing prize fights and prospecting for gold in Alaska, and Masterson was a sportswriter for a newspaper in New York City. The low, burning hay bales used at the end to block off the street wouldn’t have stopped any horseback rider who wanted to get over them.  In black and white, at only 68 minutes.


Butch Cassidy (Neville Brand) surrenders.

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Call Him… Ringo

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 19, 2014

A Gunman Named Ringo

The historical Johnny Ringo was an Arizona gunman associated with Ike Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius and the outlaws known as the Cowboys around 1880 in Cochise County.  He may have been the most feared gunman among them, but that’s not clear.  He was found dead in a remote spot with a bullet in his head in 1882 at the age of 32, and nobody knows how he got the bullet or who put it there.  Since he often shows up as a character in movies about Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, some have been tempted to show Wyatt or Doc Holliday as the responsible party.  (See Michael Biehn’s death in Tombstone, for example—Biehn gives what is probably the best representation on film of the historical Ringo, although he is embellished somewhat.)  But nobody really knows the circumstances of Ringo’s death.  The coroner ruled that he died by suicide.  His reputation may have been exaggerated, but he had a great name for a gunman.  For historical background on the real Johnny Ringo, the definitive biography so far is probably Jack Burrows’ Johnny Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was (1987).


The Ringo KId (John Wayne) stops the stage in Stagecoach (1939).

The name Ringo itself, like “Cimarron,” is redolent of the legends of the American west, and it has been used many times in fictional situations.  The best known are the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939), and Jimmy Ringo, an aging gunfighter played by Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter (1950), both sympathetic characters.  The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) has just broken out of the territorial prison, but he was there for a crime he didn’t commit and most people except the Plummer brothers seem to like him.  Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) has led a life of violence, which apparently causes him to draw challengers like flies, but now he wants to leave that life behind and reconcile with his estranged wife, making a family life with a son who doesn’t know him.

Several makers of spaghetti westerns were fond of the name Ringo, too.  Giuliano Gemma seemed to be the most frequent, or at least the best-known, Italian Ringo.  It just seems like a good, all-purpose name for a gunman or an outlaw.  Variations on it (Django, Rango) crop up in a variety of western films.  You never see it applied to a lawman, though.


Above:  Gregory Peck as aging gunfighter Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter (1950); the studio hated Peck’s moustache and thought that it was why the movie didn’t do well at the box office, although the film is now regarded as a near-classic.  And Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo in Tombstone (1993), perhaps the best depiction on film of the actual Arizona gunman.  An educated man, he quotes the Bible and Latin aphorisms with seeming facility, although the real Johnny Ringo was unlikely to have had such an education.

The Oklahoma Kid (1937; Ringo, a sleazy lawyer)
Stagecoach (1939; The Ringo Kid)
The Gunfighter (1950; Jimmy Ringo)
Best of the Badmen (1951; Curley Ringo)
Montana Belle (1952; Ringo [Indian])
Gun Belt (1953; Billy Ringo)
City of Bad Men (1953, Johnny Ringo)
Gunfight at the OK Corral (1958; Johnny Ringo)
Toughest Gun in Tombstone (1958; Johnny Ringo)

Last of the Fast Guns (1958; Johnny Ringo in Mexico)
Una Pistola per Ringo (1965)
Il Ritorno del Ringo (1965)
Stagecoach (1966; The Ringo Kid)
Django (1966; Ringo)
Stagecoach (1986; The Ringo Kid)
Tombstone (1993; Johnny Ringo)
Wyatt Earp (1994; Johnny Ringo)


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Wyatt Earp on Film

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 29, 2014

Wyatt Earp on Film:


The young Wyatt Earp at age 21, taken about 1869, probably in Lamar, Missouri; and Kevin Costner as the young Wyatt Earp, in Wyatt Earp (1994).

Wyatt Earp, now an icon in western history, fiction and film, came late to that position.  Many in Hollywood had known the aging Wyatt Earp, who had died in 1929 after a few years of working as an adviser on western films there.  He had moved to Hollywood in 1915, and may have been introduced to John Ford by western star Harry Carey.  John Ford claimed to have known the old man, to own his rifle and to have gotten the version of the OK Corral gunfight shown in My Darling Clementine from Wyatt.  (The last claim does not appear to be correct; the versions in both Tombstone and Wyatt Earp are much more accurate, according to what is known historically.)  Blake Edwards’ movie Sunset is based on Earp’s Hollywood years, although it shows a younger and physically more active Earp than the old man actually was at that time.  At the time of his death he was much more remembered for his controversial role as the referee in the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey prize fight in San Francisco in December 1896 than he was for participation in the gunfight in Tombstone in 1881.  He died in January 1929 at his home in Los Angeles; he was the last surviving Earp brother and the last living participant in the famous gunfight.  The pallbearers at his funeral included old friend John Clum, the former editor of the Tombstone Epitaph, and Hollywood cowboy stars William S. Hart (then retired) and Tom Mix (then still active).

In his current image as courageous lawman and gunfighter, Earp was largely re-introduced to the American public by a quasi-biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, by Stuart N. Lake.  This book was an extremely flattering and largely fictional bestseller published in 1931, two years after Wyatt’s death.  Josephine Earp tried to get herself and Mattie Blaylock left out of the book, and wanted Wyatt depicted as a teetotaler, which he was not.  Lake was the first to refer to “the Buntline special” as Wyatt’s gun; in fact, it appears not to have existed.

Wyatt Earprussell-earp

Wyatt Earp in his prime, in 1889, a few years after Tombstone; and Kurt Russell as the Tombstone Earp, in Tombstone (1993), with the fictional Buntline special.

Wyatt’s first appearance in film was as an incidental character in William S. Hart’s Wild Bill Hickok (1923), played by Bert Lindley.  Movies with Wyatt in a more central role picked up after the publication of Lake’s book, beginning with Law and Order in 1932, in which those taming Tombstone are named Frame ‘Saint’ Johnson (Walter Huston) and Ed Brandt (Harry Carey), rather than Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  It features the first cinematic treatment of the famous gunfight. Frontier Marshal followed in 1934.  Due to arguments and lawsuits with Josephine Earp, some of the names were changed, and George O’Brien plays “Michael Wyatt.”  This film is now thought to be lost.  The Earp story really became part of the Hollywood mainstream in 1939, with Randolph Scott as Earp, and it has been present ever since in one form or another.  By late 1960s (Hour of the Gun) and 1990s (Tombstone, Wyatt Earp), some of the less savory aspects of Earp’s life, like the Earp brothers’ irregular relationships with women and the quasi-outlaw aspects of Wyatt’s vendetta ride, began to be treated more openly.  Unlike other characters and incidents from actual western history, the Earp story has given rise to an unusual number of good westerns, of which six are recommended below.

In 1927, Earp wrote to Stuart Lake:  “For my handling of the situation at Tombstone, I have no regrets.  Were it to be done over again, I would do exactly as I did at that time.  If the outlaws and their friends and allies imagined that they could intimidate or exterminate the Earps by a process of murder, and then hide behind alibis and the technicalities of the law, they simply missed their guess. [A line in Wyatt Earp echoes this language explicitly.]  I want to call your particular attention again to one fact, which writers of Tombstone incidents and history apparently have overlooked:  with the deaths of the McLowerys, the Clantons, Stillwell, Florentino Cruz, Curly Bill, and the rest, organized, politically protected crime and depredations in Cochise County ceased.”

WyattEarp1928(2)Sunset (1988) Directed by Blake Edwards Shown: James Garner

Wyatt Earp in 1928, during his Hollywood period as he nears 80, still with more than a hint of flintiness about him; and James Garner playing Wyatt Earp during his Hollywood period in Sunset (1988).

Wild Bill Hickok–Hart (1923):  In Wyatt’s first appearance on film, he is played by Bert Lindley as an incidental character in the larger story of Hickok, played by William S. Hart.
Law and Order—Huston, Carey (1932; Dir: Cahn):  Written by John Huston, this features the first example of the OK Corral gunfight on film, albeit with the leads Walter Huston and Harry Carey (in a top hat) using other names:  Frame “Saint” Johnson and Ed Brandt.  This is sometimes available on YouTube.  It was Carey’s 97th western (he started in 1910), and he had a few more to go.
Frontier Marshal—O’Brien (1934):  Silent star George O’Brien, who subsequently shows up in many John Ford films in character roles, here plays “Michael Earp” or “Michael Wyatt” in a film now thought to be lost.
Frontier Marshal—Scott (1939):  The first of the modern versions of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone features Randolph Scott as a Wyatt with no brothers and Cesar Romero as a credible Doc Holliday.
Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die—Dix (1942):  An aging Richard Dix as Wyatt Earp, with Kent Taylor as Doc Holliday.  Edgar Buchanan as Curly Bill Brocious?
My Darling Clementine—Fonda, Mature, Brennan (1946; Dir: John Ford):  One of John Ford’s masterpieces, this features Henry Fonda as a superb Wyatt Earp.  Characterized by beautiful black and white cinematography, dazzling use of Monument Valley and one of the most robust-looking tubercular dentists on film (Victor Mature).  It’s not strong on historical accuracy, though.
Winchester ’73—Geer, Stewart (1950; Dir: Anthony Mann):  Will Geer plays Wyatt Earp as the judge in a shooting contest in Kansas early in the film.  James Stewart is the main character hunting his brother in this excellent western that has almost nothing to do with Wyatt Earp.
Masterson of Kansas—Cowling, Montgomery (1954; Dir: Castle):  Bruce Cowling is a curiously ineffective Wyatt Earp during his Kansas years, playing a distant second fiddle to the wooden George Montgomery as Bat Masterson.
Wichita–McCrea (1955; Dir: Jacques Tourneur ):  An aging Joel McCrea plays the young Wyatt Earp in Kansas, before Tombstone. Director Tourneur and star McCrea usually make a good combination, but this isn’t their strongest outing.
Gunfight at the OK Corral—Lancaster, Douglas (1957; Dir: John Sturges):  A glitzy Hollywood treatment is given to Earp and Holliday in Kansas and Tombstone by excellent director John Sturges, featuring two of the biggest stars of the time:  Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.
Cheyenne Autumn—Stewart (1964; Dir: John Ford) A very miscast and aging James Stewart is a quasi-comic Wyatt Earp during a misconceived interlude, showing that even a master like John Ford is not infallible.
Hour of the Gun—Garner, Robards (1967; Dir: John Sturges):  This is the better of director John Sturges’ two Wyatt Earp movies, with James Garner and Jason Robards both excellent as Wyatt and Doc Holliday.
Doc—Yulin, Keach, Dunaway (1971; Dir: Frank Perry):  A revisionist 1970s take on Earp and Holliday, not seen a great deal these days.
Sunset—Garner, Willis (1988; Dir: Blake Edwards):  This is a buddy-movie/mystery, focusing on Wyatt Earp’s days in the late 1920s as an adviser to Hollywood westerns.  It features James Garner playing Wyatt Earp for a second time (after 1967’s Hour of the Gun), with Bruce Willis as his partner Tom Mix.
Tombstone—Russell, Kilmer (1993; Dir: George Cosmatos/Kurt Russell):  One of the very good recent retellings of the Tombstone story, with an excellent Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer dazzling as Doc Holliday.
Wyatt Earp—Costner, Quaid (1994; Dir: Lawrence Kasdan):  The most historically accurate retelling of Wyatt Earp’s story on film.  Overlong and often slow, sometimes dour, this is nevertheless worth watching.
Hannah’s Law—Holt, Kennedy, Canning (2012; Dir: Rachel Talalay):  This highly anachronistic made-for-television story of a female bounty hunter also features an anachronistic young Wyatt Earp and young Doc Holliday in Dodge City.
Wyatt Earp’s Revenge (2012):  A direct-to-video story, supposedly about the young Wyatt Earp. With Val Kilmer briefly playing an older Wyatt Earp, this makes him the only actor to have played both Doc Holliday (Tombstone) and Wyatt Earp (here).


Bert Lindley as the first Wyatt Earp on film, an incidental character in Wild Bill Hickok (1923); and Kevin Costner as a more recent cinematic Wyatt in Wyatt Earp (1994).
The Best Movies Based on Wyatt Earp’s Story:

1. Tombstone (1993)
2. My Darling Clementine (1946)
3. Hour of the Gun (1967)
4. Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)
5. Wyatt Earp (1994)
6. Frontier Marshal (1939)

The Best Wyatt Earps on Film:

1. Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine (1946)
2. Kurt Russell in Tombstone (1993)
3. James Garner in Hour of the Gun (1967)
4. Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp (1994)
5. Burt Lancaster in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)
6. Randolph Scott in Frontier Marshal (1939)

The Best Doc Hollidays on Film:

1. Val Kilmer in Tombstone (1993)
2. Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp (1994)
3. Jason Robards in Hour of the Gun (1967)
4. Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine (1946)
5. Kirk Douglas in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)
6. Cesar Romero in Frontier Marshal (1939)


Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp in 1939’s Frontier Marshal; and the poster from the lost 1934 version of the story of the same name, featuring George O’Brien as “Michael Wyatt.”



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Wyatt Earp (1994)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 27, 2014

Wyatt Earp—Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Michael Madsen, Gene Hackman, Mare Winningham, Catherine O’Hara, Linden Ashby, Mark Harmon, Joanna Going, Jeff Fahey, Bill Pullman, Isabella Rosselini, Tom Sizemore, JoBeth Williams, Jim Caviezel, Annabeth Gish, James Gammon (1994; Dir: Lawrence Kasdan)


In the 1980s, director Lawrence Kasdan was riding high, with successful movies in a variety of genres:  neo-film noir (Body Heat), Boomer nostalgia (The Big Chill) and even the deeply unfashionable genre of westerns, with Silverado.  By the mid-1990s, Kevin Costner was at the peak of his acting/directing career, having appeared in Silverado and having directed and starred in Dances With Wolves, which accomplished the then-unthinkable—Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for a western, the first to be awarded a Best Picture Oscar in sixty years.  So if Kasdan and Costner were to join forces on another western, revisiting the ever-popular Wyatt Earp story, how could that be anything but great?

It’s not a failure, exactly, but it did not turn out to be great.  It was complicated by the fact that this was one of two Wyatt Earp movies in production at the same time.  Tombstone, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, was released first and turned out to be the better (and more enjoyable) western.  Even without comparisons with Tombstone, Wyatt Earp feels overlong, sometimes turgid and dour.  It is also perhaps the most accurate telling of the Earp story on film so far (although it has a few inaccuracies of its own), making it worth while to watch, and doubly so if you’re fond of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday gunfight story.

The first hour or more is spent setting up the story, and, although we haven’t seen a lot of this stuff before, it feels slow.  It starts with a brief scene setting up the famous gunfight in Tombstone and then cuts to Wyatt’s childhood in Illinois during the Civil War.  Oldest brothers James and Virgil are off at the war, and we see patriarch Nicholas Earp (Gene Hackman), a lawyer and farmer, instilling his own version of family values.  “Remember this, all of you.  Nothing counts so much as blood.  The rest are just strangers.”  After the war Wyatt spends some time out west, freighting in Wyoming and refereeing the occasional bareknuckle fight.


Young Wyatt (Kevin Costner) freighting out west in Wyoming; and the tubercular dentist-gambler-gunfighter, Dr. John Holliday (Dennis Quaid).

Returning to Missouri, Wyatt plans to study law with his grandfather, a judge, and to marry Urilla Sutherland. He succeeds in the second, only to see Urilla (Annabeth Gish), who is expecting their child, succumb to typhoid.  Wyatt goes off the rails, and we next see him as a drunk, robbing a man and stealing a horse in Arkansas.  Thown in jail, he is bailed out by his father, and he is next seen as a dour teetotaler, hunting buffalo on the southern plains, where he employs Ed (Bill Pullman) and Bat Masterson (Tom Sizemore) as skinners.

Nicholas Earp: “You know I’m a man that believes in the law.  After your family it’s about the only thing you’ve got to believe in.  But there are plenty of men who don’t care about the law. Men who will take part in all kinds of viciousness.  Don’t care who gets hurt.  In fact, the more that get hurt, the better. When you find yourself in a fight with such viciousness, hit—hit to kill.  You’ll know, don’t worry….you’ll know when it comes to that.  The Earps always know.”

When he takes care of a violent man the marshal won’t handle in Wichita, Wyatt is hired as a deputry.  He develops a direct way of dealing with disorder and shows a talent for handling disorderly groups.  Hired away as a deputy by Dodge City, he brings along the Masterson brothers and his own brother Morgan as deputies, too.  Some think he’s too quick to bust a rule-breaker over the head, but he tells Ed that talking too much and being too affable can get a man killed.  While on the outs with the Dodge City fathers, he meets John Holliday (Dennis Quaid) in Fort Griffin, Texas, and the two form a friendship.  Then he is called back to Dodge because things have gotten out of hand without his firm approach.


Bad guys hanging out in Tombstone. That’s Ike Clanton (Jeff Fahey) in the middle in the long duster.

Eventually, Wyatt talks his brothers into moving to Tombstone, to get out of the law enforcement business and take up new opportunities in mining and gambling.  He does this against the wishes of his brothers’ wives and quasi-wives.  He himself brings along Mattie Blaylock (Mare Winningham), to whom he is not married.  His older brother James’ wife Bessie (JoBeth Williams) is a prostitute, and Virgil’s wife Allie (Catherine O’Hara) is not fond of Wyatt’s influence in the family.  Doc Holliday follows along, with his paramour Big Nose Kate Elder (Isabella Rosselini).

Bessie Earp:  “We are your wives.  Don’t we ever count more than the damn brothers?”
Wyatt: “No, Bessie, you don’t.  Wives come and go, that’s the plain truth of it.  They run off.  They die.”


Heading to the OK Corral:  Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), Morgan Earp (Linden Ashby), Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner) and Virgil Earp (Michael Madsen).

In Tombstone the film is finally entering familiar territory.  The brothers acquire some mining and gambling interests, and Virgil signs up to be the town marshal when Fred White is killed by Curly Bill Brocius.  This brings in three of the brothers, including Wyatt, and they begin to run afoul of the Clanton-McLaury faction and slippery Cochise Co. Sheriff Johnny Behan (Mark Harmon).  Wyatt slips away from Mattie Blaylock and takes up with Behan’s young Jewish paramour, Josie Marcus (Joanna Going).  While attempting to disarm the Clanton group, the famous gunfight erupts, with three Earps and Holliday taking on two Clantons, two McLaurys and Billy Claiborne.  It ends with all of the Clanton group but Ike Clanton dead.

In revenge, the Clanton group shoots Morgan Earp in the back with a shotgun blast, killing him, and on the same night bushwhacking Virgil as he does his rounds.  (Those events actually happened three months apart.)  Virgil’s arm is crippled.  Wyatt takes his father’s words to heart, and the vendetta ride is on.

Strangely for such a long movie, not so much of the vendetta ride is shown, just the killing of Frank Stilwell in the Tucson railroad station, the shooting of Indian Charlie and the fight at the river where Brocius is killed.  The implication is that Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo were both killed there as well, which was not the case.  Neither Brocius nor Johnny Ringo is developed much as a character, making the end of the vendetta seem inconclusive.  Doc’s death in a sanatarium in Colorado is not shown as it is in some cinematic versions of the story (Hour of the Gun, Tombstone).  For the rest of Wyatt’s life, there is just one scene on a boat heading into Nome, Alaska, where a young man asks about Wyatt holding off a mob that wanted to lynch his uncle, Tommy Behind-the-Deuce.  There is nothing about Wyatt’s subsequent career as a prospector, a prize-fight referee or even as an adviser on Hollywood westerns in the late 1920s.  For such a long movie, there are a lot of loose ends remaining.


Wyatt (Kevin Costner) taking back the streets.

Costner and Quaid are very good in the two main roles of Wyatt and Doc.  Unfortunately Costner isn’t as good as Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine) or Kurt Russell (Tombstone), and Quaid is second to Val Kilmer (Tombstone) as a cinematic Doc Holliday.  Quaid lost thirty pounds for this role, and he’s excellent, managing to convey a sense of meanness under the tubercular exterior.  Costner shows the relentlessness and direct nature of Wyatt, but less the charisma and leadership.  He makes Wyatt seem dour even when he takes up with Josie Marcus, and the part needs lifting somehow.  Still, Costner has a flair for westerns, as he showed later in directing and starring in Open Range.  The film has a huge cast, many of whom have worked with Kasdan before and many of whom are very good.  Among the casting notes that don’t seem to work is Joanna Going as young Josie Marcus.  She doesn’t have the dramatic heft to balance Wyatt, as the story seems to call for.  Bill Pullman as Ed Masterson and Linden Ashby as Morgan Earp are good in smallish parts, and Mark Harmon is suitably distasteful as Johnny Behan.

Among westerns strongly grounded in history, the Wyatt Earp story has generated an unusual proportion of good films and successful retellings:  Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Hour of the Gun and Tombstone.  Although this is not the best of them (probably My Darling Clementine and Tombstone), it does belong in that excellent company.  It keeps closer to the actual events than most, but don’t look for complete accuracy here, either.


Wyatt (Kevin Costner) romances Josie (Joanna Going) in Tombstone.

Much of what doesn’t work so well here probably has to be chalked up to Kasdan’s direction and editing.  The cinematography by Owen Roizman is elegant, but it contributes to the slow moving of the first hour, with drifting shots of corn fields, flowering trees and extended plains.  There is excellent music by James Newton Howard, but it feels in some ways like it lacks a western connection.  The movie is more than three hours long at 191 minutes, although there is also an extended cut at 212 minutes.

If you’re interested in the real history of the Earps, in addition to the sources cited elsewhere there is a recent biography of Josephine Marcus Earp, often referred to as Wyatt’s wife or common-law wife since there is no record of them having been married:  Lady at the O.K. Corral by Ann Kirschner (2013).

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Hannah’s Law

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2014

Hannah’s Law—Sarah Canning, John Pyper-Ferguson, Billy Zane, Danny Glover, Greyston Holt, Ryan Kennedy (MfTV, 2012; Dir.: Rachel Talalay)


This made-for-television movie was produced for the Hallmark Channel and shows its awareness of its audience (largely female and older, but reaching for younger viewers, too) by embracing anachronistic attitudes toward feminism, killing, ethnic diversity and sex.  It is part of a line of female revenge fantasies going back at least to Hannie Caulder in the early 1970s and extending to the present through The Quick and the Dead (the one directed by Sam Raimi, not the one based on a Louis L’Amour novel) and 6 Guns (also made for television).  Although it attempts to introduce actual historical characters into its story, it takes some of them (Isom Dart, Stagecoach Mary) out of their actual times and locations.  This appears to be set in Dodge City when Wyatt Earp (Greyston Holt) was a deputy there, making it the late 1870s.  Doc Holiday (Ryan Kennedy) is also a character (relying heavily on Val Kilmer’s performance in Tombstone for inspiration), but Doc and Wyatt do not yet appear to be friends.

Hannah Beaumont’s family was killed by ruthless post-Civil War outlaws twelve years ago.  She (Sarah Canning) was raised in the orphanage in Dodge City and tutored in bounty hunting by Isom Dart (Danny Glover).  Now, one by one, she’s bringing in members of the gang that killed her family, without killing any of them.  Physically, she’s attractive but fairly small.  Wyatt would like to advance his relationship with her, but she’s not paying attention.  At least once, she sleeps recreationally with Doc.  She has carefully interracial relationships with Dart and with Stagecoach Mary.


Danny Glover as Isom Dart, Hannah’s bounty hunting mentor.

Frank McMurphy (John Pyper-Ferguson), head of the outlaw gang, finally figures out his men are disappearing and decides to get Hannah before she gets any more of them.  Isom Dart, now wanted himself, has returned to Kansas, and McMurphy thinks Hannah will be looking for him.  (She’s actually plenty easy to find herself in Dodge, so this subterfuge isn’t necessary.)

As McMurphy and his gang come to town, everybody appears to desert her at the instigation of the town boss (Billy Zane), even her friends Earp, Isom, Holliday and Mary.  Predictably, they haven’t really deserted her, but she (not terribly believably) bears the brunt of the fight.  As Wyatt is forced to shoot McMurphy, the bad guy has just revealed to Hannah that her brother is still alive but did not say where he is or what name he is using, clearly setting up a potential sequel.


Sarah Canning as Hannah in her bounty hunting attire, and looking more traditionally female with the young Doc Holliday (Ryan Kennedy) and Wyatt Earp (Greyston Holt).

Stagecoach Mary (real name:  Mary Fields) was actually significantly older than Isom Dart.  She would have been around 45 at the time of this story, a former slave living in Florida.  Around 1883 she moved to Montana, where she became known by her nickname.  Isom Dart would have been about 25-30 years old at the time of this story, not the 60-ish shown.  A rustler, he was killed around the turn of the century by Tom Horn in Brown’s Hole, where Wyoming, Utah and Colorado come together.

Uses of minorities in westerns are welcome, but one would like to see them used more authentically and less anachronistically than this.  Similarly, it would be good to see more female directors of westerns like Rachel Talalay–especially of good westerns.  This was kind of a low-budget production ($5,000,000), and it’s short at 88 minutes.  Shot in Alberta, Canada.

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Masterson of Kansas

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 16, 2014

Masterson of Kansas—George Montgomery, Nancy Gates, Bruce Cowling, James Griffith, William Henry, Jay Silverheels, John Maxwell (1954; Dir: William Castle)


Badly written and clunkily directed, this B-movie western takes such historical figures as Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and does completely fictional things.  The best acting here is done by James Griffith as Doc Holliday, but that’s always a juicy role.  As in Frontier Marshal and My Darling Clementine, Doc Holliday is depicted as a medical doctor (patching up a wounded Virgil Earp), instead of the dentist he was.  George Montgomery as the titlular Bat Masterson is so stiff you can see why he eventually gave up acting for furniture design.  Bruce Cowling (the cuckolded Irish trooper in Ambush) is a curiously ineffective Wyatt Earp.  Everybody in this movie wears two guns in 1950s-style rigs. The cast now seems lacking in star power.

A supposed enmity between Bat Masterson, the sheriff of Dodge City, and Doc Holliday is the background for a plot to lynch Indian sympathizer Amos Merrick (John Maxwell) so that white cattlemen can get Indian land.  Nancy Gates (the rescued wife in Comanche Station) plays Merrick’s daughter Amy, the romantic interest for Masterson, but she seems largely extraneous.  She persuades Doc, despite his feud with Masterson, to help in the search for Clay Bennett, who testified that he saw the murder.  Jay Silverheels shows up as Yellow Hawk, chief of the Comanches (or Kiowas or southern Cheyennes).  William Henry is Charlie Fry, the nefarious cattleman behind the lynching and all the bad goings-on.


In the end, it’s Masterson, Wyatt and Doc striding down the main street of Hays City, shooting it out with a horde of gunmen.  None of it makes a great deal of sense, and there’s a lot of improbable shooting.  Director William Castle was better known for low-budget horror pictures, but he made his share of westerns as well, none of which are particularly notable.  In color, at just 73 minutes.

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Frontier Marshal

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 4, 2013

Frontier Marshal—Randolph Scott, Cesar Romero, Nancy Kelly, John Carradine, Binnie Barnes, Eddie Foy, Jr., Ward Bond, Lon Chaney, Jr. (1939; Dir:  Allan Dwan)

Frontier Marshal poster.jpg

The poster seems to indicate that Wyatt (Randolph Scott) and Sarah (Nancy Gates) may eventually get together, which they never do in the movie.

This film is interesting for two external reasons:  (1) It catches Randolph Scott in the early flush of his career as a lead in westerns (think Last of the Mohicans, Western Union and Virginia City), and he’s good; and (2) it represents an early attempt at the cinematic legend of Wyatt Earp, one that influenced such better-remembered movies as My Darling Clementine.  When this was made, Earp had only been dead for ten years, and there were many still in Hollywood who remembered him.  John Ford claimed to have received Wyatt’s rifle as a gift from the old man before his death.  Stuart Lake’s (more or less) biographical work on Wyatt was fairly recent; the first movie based on his 1931 book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was in 1934, and this is better.


Wyatt Earp (Randolph Scott), the new man in town, corrals Indian Charlie (Charles Stevens).

In this version Wyatt shows up in Tombstone alone, without brothers.  Apparently he has a reputation as an Indian scout for Nelson A. Miles (the historical Wyatt did no Indian scouting for the Army, for Nelson Miles or anybody else); no mention is made of Dodge City.  Much as in the beginning of Clementine, Wyatt takes on a drunken miscreant Indian Charlie when nobody else will, impressing local authorities.  Beaten up by the miscreant’s compatriots led by Curley Bill, Wyatt then takes the badge full time, with battle lines drawn.  He meets Doc Halliday [sic] (Cesar Romero), who clearly has a death wish, and they strike up an unlikely friendship, comparing shooting irons at a bar in an unintentionally Freudian scene (much like John Ireland and Montgomery Clift in Red River).  Or maybe we’re just too cynical about such things.

Doc’s former girl friend Sarah Allen (Nancy Gates), a nurse, shows up to remind him of his past life and loves.  He has left all that behind him in order not to saddle her with a dying consumptive.  Wyatt thinks Sarah will be good for Doc, but Doc’s current dance hall companion Jerry (Binnie Barnes) is filled with consternation, not to say hostility.


Wyatt (Randolph Scott), Doc (Cesar Romero, drinking milk) and Jerry (Binnie Barnes).

Wyatt and Doc rescue comedian Eddie Foy (played by Eddie Foy, Jr.) when he is kidnapped by a rival saloon, and they find themselves on a stage carrying gold and silver that is about to be robbed.  Jerry has provided Curley Bill with information about the stage and its contents, thinking only that it’ll get Wyatt killed.  However, much of the outlaw gang is shot down in the attack, and Wyatt, a wounded Doc and Foy make it back to Tombstone.

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Wyatt and a wounded Doc head back to Tombstone.

In yet another shootout with the remainder of the gang, the Mexican bartender’s son is shot, and the wounded Doc is pressed back into service as a surgeon by Sarah.  He operates in a saloon and is successful in saving young Pablo.  As he steps outside for a breath of air, Doc is gunned down by Curley Bill, who yells to Wyatt that they’ll meet him at the OK Corral.  Wyatt heads there alone, and kills them all.  In the end, Jerry shoots down the fleeing Curley Bill in revenge for Doc.

As we all know by now, Doc didn’t die in Tombstone but in Colorado six years later.  You can almost hear studio gears grinding:  “Yeah, but we have to have somebody on Wyatt’s side die to convey the gravity of the evil he’s facing.  And Doc is so doomed and expendable anyway.  And the situation with the two women is unsalvageable.”  Even John Ford will play it that way in seven years, and the dance hall floozy will die then, too, for good measure.


Wyatt takes on the bad guys.

Scott makes a strong, clean-cut Wyatt Earp, who never makes a play for Sarah, although he seems attracted.  Romero is an effective, dark Doc, although one can think of at least five better Docs (Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas, Jason Robards, Dennis Quaid and, perhaps the best, Val Kilmer).  Nancy Gates as Sarah is stronger than Cathy Downs would be seven years later as Clementine in practically the same role.  Director Dwan was an experienced front-line director from the days of silent movies, so this was a bit more reputable than most low-budget B westerns of the 1930s.  In fact, Dwan was said to have directed 171 westerns from 1911 to 1957, and this may have been his best.

Ward Bond is the local Tombstone marshal who won’t go after the miscreant and is replaced by Wyatt.  He had been a bad guy in the 1934 film (now thought to be lost) starring former silent star George O’Brien.  Bond would get promoted to playing Morgan Earp in Clementine, his third Wyatt Earp film in 12 years.  Lon Chaney, Jr. is Pringle, one of Curley Bill’s gang.  The bad guys seem kind of middle-aged and thick around the waist for current notions of western badmen.  But they are certainly rotten.  John Carradine is appropriately serpentine as the owner of a rival saloon and business manager of Curley Bill’s outlaw gang, playing this the same year he did his better-known acting as Hatfield in Stagecoach.  Charles Stevens, who played the drunken Indian Charlie, repeated the role in John Ford‘s remake, My Darling Clementine.  Stevens, who was half Mexican and half Apache, was supposedly the grandson of legendary Apache leader Geronimo. 


Wyatt goes it alone at the OK Corral, in the dark.

Don’t expect much historical accuracy here, or length, either, at just 71 minutes.  There are no Earp brothers and no Clantons, so it’s a pretty stripped-down version of the story.  If you’re only going to see one early Earp-Holliday movie, it would be Clementine.  But it’s also interesting to compare the two and think about why one is good (for its time) and why one is great (still).  And why the great would not exist without the good.

It was Lake’s 1931 book that first brought the Earp myth to public prominence, although Lake’s version deviated substantially from the actual history.  Walter Noble Burns had also published in 1927 a pro-Wyatt, factually-deficient version of events in Tombstone.  Prior to these books, nobody much was familiar with what has since become the most famous gunfight in western history.  Since the 1934 film is apparently lost, this 1939 version is the earliest available cinematic recounting of the Earp-Tombstone story.  Lake did an updated edition of his book in 1946, on which John Ford’s Clementine was based.


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Gunfight at the OK Corral

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 16, 2013

Gunfight At The O.K. Corral—Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, DeForest Kelly, Dennis Hopper, Jack Elam, Earl Holliman, John Hudson, Martin Milner, Lee Van Cleef (1957; Dir:  John Sturges)


This is the first and bigger-budgeted (and not necessarily the better) of two effective retellings of the story of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone directed by John Sturges.  A decade later he’d do it again with a lower-wattage cast in a version that told the story better.  This version owes something to My Darling Clementine, and it’s not much closer to the facts than John Ford’s classic was.   The gunfight itself is the end, rather than the middle, of the story as shown here. 

Two Hollywood giants of their day, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, play Wyatt and Doc Holliday—the second of seven films the two made together.  Douglas, although an excellent actor here, is obviously from the Victor Mature school of robust tuberculars, very different physically from the spindly homicidal dentist of history.  Rhonda Fleming is lady gambler Laura Denbow, a romantic interest for Earp in Dodge City, although she refuses to follow him to Tombstone and actually isn’t very necessary to the proceedings.  Jo Van Fleet is Kate Fisher, Doc’s not-very-faithful prostitute girlfriend, obviously based on Big Nose Kate Elder.  Dennis Hopper is good as a conflicted young Billy Clanton, but Lyle Bettger isn’t terribly memorable as Ike. 


Doc (Kirk Douglas) and Wyatt (Burt Lancaster) join forces against Shanghai Pierce and Ringo in Dodge City.

The gunfight, like that in Clementine, is nothing like what actually happened.  In addition to all the choreography, it shows Ike and Finn Clanton getting killed, and ultimately Billy, too.  In fact, Ike ran away from the fight and survived intact, and Finn wasn’t there.  Doc shoots down Ringo (well-played by John Ireland), but Ringo wasn’t there either.  As with Clementine, the action is precipitated by a Clanton killing of the youngest Earp brother, James (Martin Milner).  In fact, James was the oldest Earp brother and was not involved in the events in Arizona at all.  The actual gunfight lasted a mere 30 seconds, resulting in three dead men after an exchange of 34 bullets.  In this adaptation, the movie gunfight took four days to film and produced an on-screen bloodbath that lasted five minutes.  And there’s nothing about the subsequent murder of Morgan or the maiming of Virgil Earp, or Wyatt’s vendetta ride.  Like most versions from this era, the story steers clear of Wyatt’s irregularities in his relationships with women. This movie works by itself as a story, as long as you’re not remembering the real story too much.  This also makes Earp’s role as a Dodge City lawman more important than it was.  As a cinematic matter, a nice touch is the montage of shots of concerned women just before the gunfight:  Ma Clanton, worrying about her errant sons, especially young Billy; Allie Earp, Virgil’s wife; and the faithless Kate Elder. 


Heading for the corral with a low camera angle–clearly not a social call.

An interesting comparison is with Sturges’ second version, Hour of the Gun, which features James Garner in his grim mode as Wyatt and Jason Robards as a sardonic Doc—not as lustrous a cast, but it works better. Much of this film was shot at the famous Old Tucson facility, not far from the real Tombstone.  However, its “town street” set was used surprisingly as Fort Griffin, Texas, in the opening reels, while later Tombstone street scenes were shot in southern California, on the same Paramount Ranch set that was later used as Virginia City, Nevada, on TV’s “Bonanza” (1959).  The theme song is sung by Frankie Laine, who had a voice made for western themes.  Excellent score by Dimitri Tiomkin; cinematography by Charles Lang.  The co-writer on this was apparently Leon Uris, author of the best-selling novels Exodus and Battle Cry. 

Dennis Hopper, interestingly enough, was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, where the first half or more of this movie takes place.  Billy Clanton: “I don’t know why I get into gunfights. I guess sometimes I just get lonely.”  This was also the second time John Ireland was gunned down in Tombstone; here he plays Ringo and in Clementine he was Billy Clanton.  Wyatt’s last word on the subject:  “All gunfighters are lonely.  They live in fear.  They die without a dime, a woman or a friend.”

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My Darling Clementine

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 30, 2013

My Darling Clementine—Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Cathy Downs, Tim Holt, Ward Bond (1946; Dir:  John Ford)

Of all the cinematic versions of the Wyatt Earp story, this is the least accurate historically.  (Well, with the exception of 1939’s Frontier Marshal, which is a pretty good movie, too.)  But this elegant black and white retelling, with Henry Fonda as a mythic Wyatt, has a visual spareness and beauty that remain unmatched more than sixty years later.  If you know much about the historical events in Tombstone, maybe the best way to watch this classic is to just enjoy the story John Ford tells here for what it is without weighing it against the actual history.  Bear in mind the line from another Ford western (Liberty Valance) about legends becoming fact.  Ford was helping that process along for the Earps.


Filmed in Ford’s favorite western location (Monument Valley, where he made nine movies), there are images from this movie that linger long after it’s over:  Fonda sitting in a chair on the boardwalk, tipped back on the rear legs with his leg propped against a post as he watches the town’s comings and goings; Fonda and Downs at a church social, dancing outdoors on the newly-built floor of what will be the church; Fonda and his brothers finding the body of the youngest brother in the pouring rain; a hack actor getting help from Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday in finishing Hamlet’s soliloquy; a badly shot Mature calmly looking through the poles of a corral, his hand holding a white handkerchief near his head as he selects and shoots his next target.


Bruce Willis in a visual Fonda reference (Last Man Standing, a gangster-era remake of Yojimbo directed by western aficionado Walter Hill).  Even the chair is the same.

The most eye-catching female role here is not the Clementine Carter of the title, played by Cathy Downs, but smoldering Linda Darnell as Chihuahua, a Mexican saloon girl and prostitute in love with Doc Holliday. 

At the movie’s start, Wyatt Earp (Fonda) and his three brothers, Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James, are driving a herd of cattle to California when they arrive outside Tombstone in Arizona.  Leaving young James to watch the herd, they go into town for a shave and a drink.  They return in the driving rain to find the herd stolen and James dead.  It’s obvious to us that it’s the work of Old Man Clanton (an unusually malevolent Walter Brennan) and his four sons, who were coveting the herd earlier and tried to buy it.  The surviving brothers return to town, where Wyatt, already known as a peace officer from a stint in Dodge City, accepts a job as the town marshal with his brothers as deputies.


Walter Brennan as a malevolent Old Man Clanton.

One of his first actions is to meet and establish some kind of relationship with Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), who owns the local saloon where Chihuahua sings.  Doc is volatile and used to having his way, but he and Wyatt arrive at a wary accommodation.  There is a sense of impending doom over Doc, due to bouts of wracking coughs that indicate he has consumption (tuberculosis).  The stage brings Clementine Carter to town, a figure from Doc’s past with whom Wyatt is immediately taken.  Doc is less thrilled to see her, and he tells Clementine to leave town or he will.  The jealous Chihuahua thinks Doc will now go to Mexico with her and marry her.  Meanwhile, Wyatt discovers Chihuahua with an elaborate silver cross that James had bought for his own girl, and she tells him she got it from Doc.  Wyatt chases down the stage for Tucson and retrieves Doc.  He doesn’t come easily; the two finally face off, and Wyatt wins.

On their return to Tombstone, they confront Chihuahua, since Doc knows he didn’t give her the cross.  She finally confesses that she got it from Billy Clanton (John Ireland), and Clanton, who has been lurking outside the window, shoots her and flees on horseback.  Wyatt takes three shots at Clanton to little apparent effect and Virgil pursues him toward the Clanton ranch.  At the ranch, Billy falls dead on the porch from wounds, and Old Man Clanton shoots Virgil in the back with a shotgun. 


Wyatt delivers an ultimatum to the Clantons at the OK Corral.

Meanwhile, Doc Holliday exercises his now-quite-rusty surgical skills on the badly wounded Chihuahua, using saloon tables for the operation with the assistance of trained nurse Clementine.  It’s apparently successful, and for a time Doc is the skilled surgeon of old.  However, the Clantons return with Virgil’s body to Tombstone, setting up the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Chihuahua dies, and Holliday joins the Earps against the Clantons.  In the extended shootout, all four of the remaining Clantons are killed, with Old Man Clanton as the final member of the family to go down.  Wyatt and surviving brother Morgan (Ward Bond) head for California to tell their father what has happened, and Clementine becomes the schoolmarm in Tombstone.  Wyatt departs, leaving the sense that he’ll be back to resume the relationship.

Tim Holt and Cathy Downs in My Darling Clementine, 1946.

Wyatt and Clementine say goodbye for a while.

Fonda couldn’t be better as Wyatt Earp in his first movie role after returning from service in the navy during World War II.  As it is used in this movie, even Fonda’s hat almost becomes a character itself; both its shape and Fonda’s use of it seem authentic.  Victor Mature, whose most obvious characteristic was his physical size and robustness, is a strange choice to play the slight, tubercular Holliday, but it works well enough in the end.  Walter Brennan is excellent as Old Man Clanton, setting up a similar role for him in the parody Support Your Local Sheriff more than twenty years later.  The Clanton sons never become differentiated and don’t matter much.  There’s something of a Mexican stereotype in Darnell’s Chihuahua, but she doesn’t go so far as to attempt a Mexican accent and after enough fiery close-ups she’s effective.  Cathy Downs is beautiful as Clementine, and she doesn’t actually have to do much.  The character actors such as Alan Mowbray’s Shakespearean hack Granville Thorndyke, Jane Darwell’s townswoman Kate Nelson, and J. Farrell Macdonald as Mac the barman are excellent.  Wyatt to Mac:  “Mac, you ever been in love?”  Mac:  “No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.”

This was also John Ford’s first postwar movie, and it began another amazing run for him.  Over the next ten years, he’d make a string of some of the most remarkable westerns ever filmed.  Ford was said to have known Wyatt Earp as an old man (Earp died in 1929, spending a few of those last years in Hollywood), and this film was loosely based on Stuart Lake’s biography written soon after the old lawman’s death.  Ford claimed that the version of the famous gunfight that he shot was based what Earp personally told him, including a diagram and the passage of a dust-raising stagecoach during the shooting.  But as usual he was “printing the legend”–telling his story the way he thought it should be.  After Ford submitted his film, studio head Darryl Zanuck notoriously took some liberties with it, resulting in some new footage and a shorter cut.  (See Lost Masterpieces.)

The black-and-white cinematography by James MacDonald is remarkable, especially in low shots that bring in the sky; in rain at night; in its use of shadows and light in interior shots; and in long shots that end up in the distance on a feature of Monument Valley geography.  As the surviving Earps and Doc Holliday walk down the dirt street at dawn toward the OK Corral, they’re barely visible in long shots that emphasize the looming sky.  The movie in general has an almost palpable sense of bygone Americana.


The mortally wounded Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) does not go gently.

If you want a more historical recounting of the Tombstone saga, and in particular the famous gunfight, try Tombstone or Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp.  So what’s incorrect in Clementine?  There was no Clementine historically, and Wyatt’s relations with women were less fastidious than this movie depicts.  James was the oldest of the Earp brothers, not the youngest, and the positions of Morgan and Virgil were switched in this film.  It was older brother Virgil, not Wyatt, who took on the job of marshal in Tombstone.  The Earps did not come to Tombstone driving cattle; they came to a booming mining town looking for gambling opportunities and maybe a quick mining strike.  The country around Tombstone isn’t much like Monument Valley.  Wyatt didn’t meet Doc Holliday in Tombstone; they’d previously met in Fort Griffin, Texas, and had been friends for some years.  Doc came to Tombstone after the Earps were already there.  Doc was a dentist, not a surgeon, and he was from Georgia, not Boston, although he was trained in Philadelphia.  He was not killed at the OK Corral, but died in a Colorado sanitarium six years later.  His mistress was not Mexican, but a Hungarian prostitute, Big Nose Kate Elder, and she outlived Doc by more than 50 years.  The Earps’ opponents at the shootout were not Old Man Clanton and three of his four sons—he had only three and he was dead months before the shootout.  Ike and Billy Clanton were in the fight; Ike ran and survived, and Billy was killed, along with the two McLaury brothers.  The gunfight itself was a more stand-up and shoot-it-out affair than depicted in the movie with less moving around, and it was over much quicker.  Some of the more interesting aspects of the real-life story happen during Wyatt’s vendetta ride after the shootout at the corral, and that aftermath is not depicted at all in this film.  And that’s for starters.

Some of these less-than-historical elements have their roots in earlier cinematic versions of the story.  For example, for a Clementine figure re-entering Doc’s life in Tombstone, Doc as a surgeon rather than a dentist, a dramatic operation on a saloon table and Doc being killed in Tombstone, see Frontier Marshal from 1939, with Randolph Scott as Earp and Cesar Romero as Doc.

Wyatt and Clementine dance--he clumsy but enthusiastic, and with great joy. "Make room for our new Marshall and his Lady Fair".

The marshal dances with Clementine, as Monument Valley looms in the background.

John Ford was indisputably a great director, but he could be nasty to work with.  Three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan would refuse to work with him again after this film.  And Henry Fonda, who had an extraordinarily successful history with Ford by the time this was made (Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath), would have his own falling-out with Ford about ten years later.

For historical reading on the actual Tombstone and the Earps, try Paula Marks’ To Live and Die in the West or recent biographies of Wyatt by Allen Barra or Casey Tefertiller. 


On the set of My Darling Clementine, 1946.

Note:  As of Oct. 2014, this classic was released on a Criterion Collection DVD, complete with commentary, extras, a fully-restored version of the 97-minute theatrical release, and even a 103-minute pre-release cut.  It’s the best way to see the film.  However, the earlier 2004 DVD has an excellent commentary by film historian and Ford biographer Scott Eyman that is worth listening to.





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