#28 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
John Ford takes on one of the most famous real life Western showdowns and shootouts, delivering a handsome and emotionally affecting character piece that also ends up dealing with the actual shootout. It’s mostly a character piece about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday where the Clantons are largely forgotten for a very large bulk of the film. The heart is in the character work that dominates the center of the film, where the film is best, but the Clanton stuff ends up feeling tacked on. It also seems to have little to do with the actual history, which I don’t care about at all.
The four Earp brothers drive their herd of cattle westward towards California, setting up camp a couple of miles away from Tombstone, Arizona. The three eldest go into town where Wyatt (Henry Fonda) makes himself known to the authorities when he pacifies a dangerous situation. His reputation as the lawman from Dodge City precedes him, but he is only interested in moving on with his cattle to sell in California. Returning to camp, they find the cattle rustled and their youngest brother James (Don Garner) dead, most definitely at the hands of the Clanton family led by Newman (Walter Brennan), the patriarch. Wyatt decides to stay in Tombstone as marshal, taking up the tin badge in order to exact justice for his deceased brother. And then…the Clantons mostly get forgotten.
Instead, the movie kind of slows down as Wyatt settles into his new life as marshal, dealing with small things like cheating at the poker table, and the arrival of Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), noted gambler dying of tuberculosis. The bulk of the film is really about Wyatt learning to deal with Holliday as marshal while Holliday feels like he owns the place combined with Holliday’s two women Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) and Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), the latter of whom has followed Holliday from Boston in the hopes of rekindling their love together.
It’s here where the film really finds its most solid footing. Wyatt falls for Clementine who’s dealing with rejection from Holliday after he tells her to go back. Chihuahua celebrates the break between Clementine and Holliday. It’s where Wyatt and Clementine quietly move towards each other emotionally that the film works best. He’s obviously anxious about it, and she’s wounded but open to a good man. Their tender opening of a relationship, capped by a dance at the celebratory dance for the construction of the church of Tombstone. It’s really sweet, and the understated way that it’s handled makes it kind of wonderful to watch.
The other side is really Holliday’s views of himself. His casting off of Clementine, his acceptance of his own mortality, his rejection of his past in the form of both Clementine and his actual profession of being a doctor which he does not practice in Tombstone, comes to a head when Chihuahua gets shot by the long dormant Clantons, and Doc has to do surgery on her. It’s a wonderfully tense scene as Doc must prove himself, and he seems to succeed. Yet, when Chihuahua dies the next day, Doc is simply done. He grabs a rifle to help in the final confrontation with the Clantons ready to die. It’s a strong moment.
And then there’s the Clanton storyline. As I’ve said, it dominates the first fifteen minutes or so until the Clanton family mostly disappear from the film. They appear once in a sequence around a traveling actor that they terrorize in the tavern so he can’t get to the theater to perform, but it could have been any group of roughs to do it. When Wyatt and Doc show up, there’s no talk or even implication about James Earp or the cattle, the focus is entirely about the actor (Alan Mowbray) and his efforts to complete the “To Be or Not To Be” speech. The Clanton family then waits to do anything until the end when Chihuahua accidentally shows Wyatt the silver cross James had been wearing upon his death. Roping in Doc Holliday to figure out who did what, it turns out that Chihuahua had stayed with a Clanton who had given it to her, and that sets off the series of events that leads to the showdown at the O.K. Corral.
The confrontation apparently has little to do with the documented history of what happened, relying on a decades old recollection of an account Ford supposedly heard from Wyatt Earp himself in the 1910s, but it’s a nicely tense little scene that eschews any music.
I kind of love a large section of the film where it becomes a character study of our two main protagonists, but I really wish the actual showdown aspects had either been cut out or integrated better throughout. That it gets forgotten for so long, providing an almost lackadaisical feeling to the action in its absence, and then brought back with a vengeance late feels really odd to me. It takes the movie down a couple of notches, especially from the character highs that dominate the center of the film.
Overall, it’s a fine fictionalized telling of the famous gunfight that seems a bit hobbled by some structural choices that kept the film from fully dedicated to the one of two types of stories at play. It’s enjoyable for what it is, but what it is could have really been smoothed out.