The Tombstone fight is ‘perfect theater.’
The date October 26, 1881, has become embedded in the minds of countless Western historians and film buffs, all because of a brief gunfight in a vacant lot near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory.
Although well chronicled, the incident might have faded into obscurity if not for Stuart Lake’s 1931 best-selling biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. That book, now regarded as more fiction than fact, got Hollywood’s attention. Since 1939 eight theatrical movies have depicted Earp and the so-called Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: Frontier Marshal, with Randolph Scott (1939); Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die, with Richard Dix (1942); My Darling Clementine, with Henry Fonda and Victor Mature (1946); Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (1957); Hour of the Gun, with James Garner and Jason Robards (1967); Doc, with Stacy Keach (1971); Tombstone, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer (1993); and Wyatt Earp, with Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid (1994).
Michael F. Blake, an Emmy Award–winning makeup artist, has written extensively about movies. His book Code of Honor: The Making of Three Great American Westerns (2003) looks at the 1950s classics High Noon, Shane and The Searchers. He was also drawn to Hollywood’s retellings of the West’s most famous gunfight, which he examines in his latest book, Hollywood and the O.K. Corral: Portrayals of the Gunfight and Wyatt Earp (2006, McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C., $39.95). Blake, who lives in Los Angeles, took time between movie makeup jobs and writing to talk to Wild West about Hollywood and the O.K. Corral.
What led you to write a book about film treatments of the O.K. Corral?
In American Western history three things happened that most people can relate to or know of: the Battle of the Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Talking to people, I found out what they know about the gunfight came from the movies. I realized I had to give people an overview, a CliffsNotes version of what happened, and I got so caught up in the history that my original draft of just the historical stuff was about 113 pages, and I went, “Oh, this isn’t good.” I had to really whack it down and cut to the bare bones of why things happened.
Why has this 30-second gunfight been so popular with filmmakers?
It’s perfect theater. Here you have, depending on the take you want to do on it, three stalwart brothers and a loyal friend going against the bad guys, and it’s a stand-up fight. It’s not anyone sneaking around and shooting them. They’re face to face. Here they are, the good guys, and they vanquish the bad guys. It’s almost Shakespearean in the drama of it. Really, the whole Earp saga in Tombstone has a real Shakespearean-Greek tragedy feel to it. Filmmakers just gravitate to something like this. You’ve got good guys, you’ve got bad guys, and you’ve got shoot-’em-ups. I think also people can relate to it in many ways. Everybody wants a Doc Holliday as a friend. They want that kind of bond that was there between Wyatt and Doc.
Did Earp’s efforts at self-promotion influence Hollywood?
From what I have gathered, other than Earp dealing with William S. Hart, trying to get things going, I don’t think Earp really tried to promote himself. I think Earp in a lot of ways really regretted the gunfight. Over the years, I think he was able to look back and go: “Boy, did we really screw up there. We lost this, and we lost that.”
What was Stuart Lake’s role in creating the phenomenon?
Now we’re talking about the P.T. Barnum of the Wyatt Earp saga. Here was a guy where [the Earp biography] was basically dropped in his lap, and he made a career out of it for 40 years….This was a guy who was always on the outside looking in at Hollywood, and he longed to be in. He wanted to be a player in Hollywood. I believe, based on his letters to producers and what others have said, he had a tremendous ego, an inflated impression of himself. He’s an interesting character, but if we didn’t have Stuart Lake, I really wonder how popular Wyatt Earp would be to this day. I think Lake served a very important purpose in Earp’s life, and certainly he saw an opportunity for himself.
Jimmy Stewart as Doc Holliday? What other casting decisions never came to be seen on film?
Originally John Ford wanted Henry Fonda and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Wyatt and Doc for My Darling Clementine, and [executive producer Darryl F.] Zanuck would not go with Fairbanks. Zanuck was hesitant to get anybody who wasn’t under contract to the studio, because it would cost him more money. Stewart, I think, would have been interesting….What’s interesting is who they wanted for Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral— Humphrey Bogart. That’s kind of a stretch. [Producer] Hal B. Wallis wanted Burt Lancaster badly for Wyatt, and Burt wanted nothing to do with it. Where Wallis had Burt over a barrel was that Burt owed him one more film from his contract. They looked at John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, who I thought would have been interesting, but at that point Joel’s career was in the B movies. At one point they were looking at Lancaster and Richard Widmark, and they were going to use that to dangle in front of John Ford to direct, possibly, but Ford was tied up on Wings of Eagles. Finally, Burt says to Kirk, “If you do this with me, I can get out of my deal.” So they went ahead and did it. In Tombstone the original choice of the original director, Kevin Jarre, was Liam Neeson and David Bowie as Wyatt and Doc. Another possibility as they went down the list was Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. I think that would have been very interesting. But I think ultimately…the right actors got to the right roles—Burt and Kirk really make Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Henry Fonda and Victor Mature really make My Darling Clementine work, and Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer make Tombstone work.
Let’s cut to the chase. What’s the best movie about the gunfight?
For all its faults, Tombstone just looks so damned good, and it plays so damned good. Everybody in that film is so good, and it just works. It’s got a pulse to it that you can’t beat. I also love My Darling Clementine, because it’s so lyrical. It’s the Wyatt Earp you wanted to believe in as a kid growing up, the very heroic Earp, and Henry Fonda plays him so well.
And the most historically accurate?
Has yet to be made. Before then, probably it’s a toss-up between Tombstone and Hour of the Gun. I think those are about the closest to being accurate without being a documentary.
The best Doc Holliday?
A combination of Val Kilmer and Dennis Quaid. I think the two of them really caught the essence of Doc Holliday, and if you could have just infused what both actors brought to the role into one role, you would have had Doc Holliday.
And Wyatt Earp?
Despite what James Garner told me, I think it’s a combination of Kurt Russell and James Garner. They really caught what Wyatt Earp was like. James Garner always said he thought Henry Fonda made the best Wyatt Earp. And when I told him that several Earp historians said he really caught the essence of Wyatt and the consequences of what happened afterward and really showed the grim, dark side of Wyatt, he was quite surprised and said, “Well, tell them, ‘Thank you.’” And I think that’s also true of Kurt Russell’s performance.
How has the film image of both Earp and the famous gunfight changed over the years?
In Frontier Marshal, with Randolph Scott, we all still looked at our Western hero through rose-colored glasses. They did no wrong. They were the saviors. They were the good guys. We didn’t question their motives. They were always true and always right. I think it reflects the times. Frontier Marshal is 1939. The war in Europe is starting to gear up….Then you go to 1942, with Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die, and you can make an argument that it’s a reflection of our involvement in World War II. Here come Wyatt Earp and his brothers into a town full of bad guys, and he cleans it up and goes on. Well, that was us going into North Africa with the other Allies, and into Italy, and the same in the South Pacific. You can see a change, obviously, by 1967, with Hour of the Gun. Now Wyatt Earp is much darker, he’s less heroic. And then you have that god-awful movie Doc. You talk about a waste of celluloid! But by the time you get to Tombstone, society has come to the point that our heroes are not 100 percent pure, and we really want to know what they were really like, and we’re willing to accept them, warts and all.
Have the films had any impact on the actual town of Tombstone?
Absolutely. I think possibly with the TV series [The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, 1955–1961] it did. I know for sure with the movie Tombstone it did, because they had a huge spike in tourism for the next two years. You go walking down the street, you can’t help but run into posters or a photo of Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. You go into the visitor’s bureau, and there’s Tombstone being played on a TV….Interesting enough, no one mentions Wyatt Earp.
You’ve covered the O.K. Corral, Shane, High Noon and The Searchers, not to mention Lon Chaney. What’s next?
I’ve just finished a historical novel called Gone to See the Elephant, which starts in 1878 on a cattle drive and ends up in Hollywood in 1934….I’m also planning on doing a book on John Ford’s cavalry trilogy [Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande], and I want to do a book…called “When You Call Me That, Smile”: Great Quotes from Western Movies. I know there have been other books [on that same subject], but they frustrate me to no end, because they leave out all the good dialogue.
What would Earp think about Hollywood’s treatment of him through the years?
On one hand he might be embarrassed by all the attention, but also in some ways I think he would have been surprised that people were interested in him and this whole story. I certainly don’t think he would have liked Doc.
Not many filmgoers do.
Yeah. I think he would really have liked Tombstone. He would have found it very interesting. I think he would have liked Ford’s My Darling Clementine, although he would have laughed at it a lot, because it’s so highly fictionalized. But overall I have a feeling that on one hand he would have been embarrassed, and in some cases he would have rolled his eyes and sighed at the ways he’s been treated, but on another hand I think he would have gone, “Wow, I’m kind of a hero.”
Were Hollywood to film a new version of the gunfight, who are your dream actors to play Wyatt and Doc?
If Heath Ledger were still alive, I would have hired him for Wyatt Earp. Barring that, even though I know he’s a little older, I would pick Brad Pitt, based on his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which I think is a great movie. I would possibly even consider Casey Affleck as Doc. He’s kind of frail looking, and with the right makeup, he would have looked like he was a lunger. I still think Johnny Depp would make a great Doc. I think I’d have to recast Powers Boothe as Curly Bill [Brocius] and Stephen Lang as Ike [Clanton], because I don’t think you can get any better than those two.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.