Wyatt Earp (left) was the subject of much controversy during his life and a great deal afterwards. Mostly this dated from his short time in Tombstone (he was only there from November 1879 to April 1882). In Tombstone the ‘Cowboy’ party (rustlers and small ranchers, mostly), supported by the Democrats, and The Nugget, with County Sheriff John Behan in their pocket, did all they could to undermine, slander and libel the Earps, who were supported by The Epitaph, Republicans and law-and-order elements. But the Earp faction was itself divided, with Allie, Mrs. Virgil Earp, detesting Wyatt’s new woman – he abandoned his former-prostitute common-law wife Mattie in favor of a glamorous and pushy showgirl, Sadie Marcus, whom Allie called “a strumpet”. After the death of Virgil in 1905, Allie talked to writer Frank Waters who later produced a very anti-Wyatt book, The Earp Brothers of Tombstone. Furthermore, in 1928 Behan deputy William Breakenridge published memoirs which were very unflattering of Wyatt, and this version was used by Eugene Cunningham in his classic work about the gunfighters of the West, Triggernometry (1941). So the anti-Wyatt views were in the ascendant.
John Behan, sheriff of Cochise County
Hollywood, however, went firmly with the pro-Earp line, from the very beginning. The first screen Wyatt in a lead role was Randolph Scott, Frontier Marshal in 1939 (Sadie, now known by her preferred name of Josie, was invited by Fox onto the set as consultant – and very tiresome she turned out to be). Scott was a heroic Earp, bringing law ‘n’ order to the wild frontier towns. This version was based on journalist Stuart N Lake’s sensational and fulsome biography of 1931. John Ford, also using this book as source, directed the splendid (though historically very dubious) My Darling Clementine in 1945, reinforcing the legend of the town-taming marshal (Wyatt was never marshal of any town, in fact). In 1955 Joel McCrea gave us a decent, brave Wyatt in Wichita and ABC started screening The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp with Hugh O’Brian which was supposed to be factual (Lake was often on the set) though it wasn’t, and it was hugely popular. The mythic Earp was glorified still more in the John Sturges-directed Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957 with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt and Kirk Douglas as Doc. In between, B-movie and TV Wyatts were exclusively heroes.
Classic celluloid Doc and Wyatt
When, therefore, the post-spaghetti and post-The Wild Bunch revisionist Western arrived in the early 1970s, questioning all the old Western myths and turning heroes into villains, there had been plenty of bad Wyatts on the printed page but none on the screen. Doc corrected that.
Doc was in many ways not a very good film, and it too falsified history, but it was certainly fair enough to portray an unattractive, even crooked Earp. It was in many ways a necessary corrective. Wyatt had become absurdly saintly. Anyway, we don’t watch Western movies for a history lesson. We have books and documentaries for that.
Curious that they highlight Kate and Wyatt on a film named Doc
The picture was produced by Frank Perry Films Inc. and Mr. Perry directed it. IMDb tells us that “Frank Perry was born on August 21, 1930 in New York City, New York, USA. He was a director and producer, known for Mommie Dearest (1981), The Swimmer (1968) and Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) ... He died on August 29, 1995 in New York City.” Westernwise, he had acted in two episodes of Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans and would later direct Rancho Deluxe, a mildly entertaining anti-Western. Anyway, he managed to get some well-known actors for Doc and get it released by United Artists.
It was written by Pete Hamill, a syndicated columnist who became editor in chief of The New York Daily News. His books include novels, collections of stories, and a bestselling memoir. This was his only Western. But he had clearly read up a bit, especially on the anti-Earp canonical texts.
Stacy Keach was Doc Holliday. This was his first Western. Later he would have a small but strong part in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and would be a key player (and producer and writer) of the 1980 Jesse James story The Long Riders. He is very good as Holliday, with an outer shell of cynical toughness, a man made hard by the violent and dangerous West, yet who gradually hints at an inner vulnerability. He has a spark of decency that he is struggling, almost vainly, to keep alight. But the cold winds of corruption and hatred blow too strongly. At least, that’s my reading of it. He coughs blood into a handkerchief and frequents opium dens for relief.
His co-star was Faye Dunaway. In common with about a million male movie-goers, I used to be passionately in love with Ms. Dunaway (it was love at first sight in 1968 when I saw her sitting on a dark blue Ferrari 275GTB convertible in The Thomas Crown Affair). The Ferrari owner was posh, rich and refined as well as beautiful, so it came as rather a shock to see her as a dirty and coarse prostitute whom Doc wins from Ike Clanton in a game of cards in a ratty Arizona saloon in the middle of nowhere. Of course the year before she had also ended up in a bordello in Little Big Man, so I was prepared. In Doc, Faye is Kate Elder. In Wyatt Earp movies Doc’s mistress was usually named Kate Elder or Kate Fisher, I don't know why. In reality she was Mary Katherine Horony-Cummings, a Hungarian-born prostitute who eventually died in Prescott, AZ in 1940, aged 89. But Kate Elder will do. Frankly, Faye is not the most credible of frontier consorts but I don’t care, I’d watch her in anything.
The most beautiful woman in the world
When the couple finally get to Tombstone, Doc renews his acquaintanceship with Wyatt Earp (Harris Yulin). As usual in Earp movies, Wyatt is the city marshal and, as is also traditional with celluloid Earps, the brothers are there at his beck and call to obey his orders. At least this time James (Ferdinand Zogbaum) is not shown as the innocent boy, the youngest of the brood.
Mr. Yulin gives us an almost creepy corrupt politician Wyatt Earp. Dressed slickly but in an unusual brown, with two tie-down guns, one of them a Buntline Special, he comes across as a very nasty piece of work. Ringo (Fred Dennis) says at one point, “That Wyatt Earp ain’t right in the head.” And Ringo does seem to have a point. There is a hinted-at homosexual relationship between Wyatt and Doc, or at least Wyatt is certainly jealous of Kate. It's all very 70s.
Keach and Yulin were New Yorker actors new to the Western genre and ‘outside’ it, as it were. The director and writer too. They did bring a different look to a Western. And it’s good to have a Doc-centered view of the Tombstone events for once rather than an Earpocentric one.
Central to the plot is the deal Wyatt does with Ike Clanton: turn over Ringo for the stage robbery and Ike gets the reward money while Wyatt gets the credit – a major advantage when running against Behan (Richard McKenzie) for the lucrative post of county sheriff. When Doc hears about this he says, “We sound like bad people, Wyatt” and Earp replies, “We are, John.” Talking to his brothers (Virgil, played by John Bottoms, looks younger than Wyatt. The actor was a year younger), Wyatt says he is going to clean up Tombstone. “Clean out Tombstone, you mean,” retorts Virgil.
Ike, Wyatt, Kate
Actually, this deal did take place. It wasn’t Ringo that was to be turned in but others of the Clanton/McLaury clan, and when they were killed in separate incidents the deal fell apart. Behan was re-elected. Ike was left vulnerable because if it had emerged that he had been ready to betray his crew, he would have been done for. Wyatt would have been embarrassed too, of course, but Ike risked losing his life. In Doc, Wyatt announces that he is going to kill Ike; it is a deliberate, pre-meditated scheme and he engineers the OK Corral fight to carry the plan out.
The look of the film is dark and claustrophobic, and so is the tone. In some ways it reminds us of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, released two months before. It was shot by Gerald Hirschfield and although there is the occasional Old Tucson location, most of it was shot in Almeria in Andalucia. This doesn’t make it a spaghetti western. The fine Valdez Is Coming was filmed there the same year and that is no cheap spaghetti. Production designer Gene Callahan created a convincing Tombstone, AZ in southern Spain.
Dark, dirty and claustrophobic
The language is 70s-salty. Doc and Kate have a bantering insult-trading dialogue. “Bitch!” he says. “Bastard!” she replies. Doc draws a derringer on Ike in the first reel (so that’s good) and threatens to give him another asshole. That kind of thing. Probably rather daring for the time, and probably authentic to the less refined elements of 1880s Arizona.
Curiously, John Clum, editor of The Epitaph, appears to be anti-Earp, I’m not sure why. Clum is played by Dan Greenburg and his impact is diminished by his looking incredibly like Quentin Tarantino.
The movie invents a character, The Kid (Denver John Collins). He is a kind of Billy Clanton. Traditionally in Earp movies young Billy is uncomfortable with his lawless family and toys with crossing to the law-and-order side of the street but in the end stands by his clan and dies at the gunfight at the OK Corral. So it is with the Kid. Kid idolizes Doc, who teaches him to shoot. Nevertheless, in a very sour moment of the movie Doc shoots him in the heart at the corral after the boy has lowered his gun out of respect.
The Billy Clanton figure
We have the traditional shot of Doc and the Earps (all armed with shotguns) four abreast as they walk down to the corral. There are seven against the Earps and Doc at the corral fight, as there had been in Sturges’s Gunfight at the OK Corral. I suppose it makes the Earp party more heroic, whereas if they only had to face two McLaurys and two Clantons, one of whom, Ike, ran away before fighting, the Earp victory looks less dramatic.
Ike only has the chance to blurt out that he wants to talk before the Earps start blasting. As they all (including Ike) lie dead in the dust, and brother Morgan (Phil Shafer) too, Wyatt delivers a shrewd and cynical political speech saying that he was proud to have done his bounden duty as a peace officer and protected the decent people of Tombstone from violent trash. He uses Morgan’s demise to advance his cause. “My brother’s death is not gonna be in vain.” Doc is disillusioned and rides out, alone.
It all does rather leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Lovers of traditional Westerns did not care for it one bit. Brian Garfield, for example, in his fine guide Western Films, said, "It is impossible to be kind to this sort of trash." But it does make a refreshing change from all those Earp pictures in which Wyatt is a paragon of virtue. Roger Ebert thought that “another look at characters in the public domain” was perfectly permissible, and “Perry's approach to those strange events so many years ago in Tombstone is altogether fascinating. It is also a good Western, by the by.” I kind of agree with that.
Well, that's enough Earpery for now. Next time, back to Fred.