We admire a great script.
In our view, a great script is one that hides itself from us. It creates characters we love or hate, and makes us believe on-screen events are unfolding organically.
Such is the case with the 1957 western, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the famous story of upright lawman Wyatt Earp and his unlikely partnership with the morally ambiguous Doc Holliday.
The script has all the hallmarks of a great western: memorable lines, interesting characters, and authentic-looking sets. But Gunfight at the O.K. Corral offers something more. It is an unflinching look at how people (us) choose to live their remaining days.
Burt Lancaster is Wyatt Earp, a man who wears his Sense Of Justice as comfortably as his freshly-pressed shirts. Kirk Douglas is Doc Holliday, a former dentist who is “in a state of complete financial collapse” and frequents poker games to support himself.
Kirk as Holliday is not a healthy man, and his illness will likely kill him, if his drinking doesn’t do the job first. He tells Lancaster: “[T]he only thing I’m scared of is dying in bed. I don’t want to go little by little. Someday somebody’s got to outshoot me and it’ll be over real quick.”
He’s not the only one to talk about The End. In one scene, Lancaster meets with an old friend (Frank Faylen), a sheriff who is filled with as much cynicism as you can cram into one fellow. “It’s the end of the line for me,” he tells Lancaster. “Might happen to you someday. Like it happens to all of us.”
Like it happens to all of us. Here’s a screenplay that isn’t afraid to make us face our own mortality. In this film, death is a character sitting at a corner table, calmly sipping a whiskey and studying those around him. (Even the local newspaper is called the Tombstone Epitaph.)
But, given all this, the film doesn’t feel heavy and morbid. That’s because the crackling screenplay gives us hope, as embodied in Wyatt Earp and Holliday’s mistress.
Lancaster’s Earp is content to live his life, catching criminals and doing What Is Right No Matter What. But he shows signs of weariness, and even the great Wyatt Earp ponders his End. “All gunfighters are lonely,” he says. “They die without dime or a woman or a friend.”
Ah, but one day he does meet a woman (Rhonda Fleming) and suddenly there are new possibilities in life. He needs to ask if enforcing the law in Tombstone is really what a man wants; if Tombstone will be the end of the line for him.
But it is Douglas’ on-screen mistress (Jo Van Fleet) who shows us life is worth living. Even though she and Douglas have twisted relationship – as the screenplay makes evident early in the film – she refuses to give up on him. Douglas spews existential rubbish (“We don’t matter, Kate. We haven’t mattered since the day we were born.”), and still she nurses and mothers and loves him. She sees value in him that years of drinking and disappointment have concealed from his view.
This film was written by American novelist Leon Uris, who also wrote the screenplay for Battle Cry as well as lengthy, well-researched tomes like Exodus.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was the eighth top-grossing film in 1957, thanks in no small part to its shrewd casting, expert direction, and brilliant, thought-provoking script. But it did not win the Oscar in the category for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.
It wasn’t even nominated.
The Oscar for best original screenplay that year was awarded to Designing Woman, a delightful romantic comedy.
But certainly no Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming. Directed by John Sturges. Written by Leon Uris. Paramount Pictures Corp., 1957, Colour, 122 mins.
Another review of Shootout/O.K. Corral movies can be found at Ted Hicks’ fab movie blog.
This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club during the month of February. Be sure to read all the other fabulous contributions.