Alan Moore’s story in Cinema Purgatorio, “After Tombstone”, is pretty complex for the roughly 6 pages it takes to vivisect the gunfight at the OK Corral. I’m no expert on the subject, but I’m a lot closer now than I was a month ago, having spent a lot of time reading Wikipedia and watched the three main movies that Moore seems to be drawing on for this story (in order to annotate). None of these four sources agree with each other about what was really going on. And then, the clearly unreliable narrator of Moore’s story has yet a fifth account.
It seems to me that what Moore is getting at here is not just the now-familiar concept that history is another kind of fiction. Rather, that fiction overwrites history, often repeatedly. History becomes palimpsest, a hologram of all the different versions refracting with each other at once. As Dave Sim once quoted Moore as saying, “All stories are true.”
Of course, as we see in “After Tombstone”, this process of overwriting is an extremely violent one. Corpses are left on the street whenever it happens. In Moore’s eternalist view of the universe, however, being shot full of holes in no way prevents (or allows) those bodies to not continually repeat their roles. Dead (line) or not, the show must go on.
The first of these films, chronologically, is John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946). Having not seen many Westerns prior to this, but having been exposed to a fair amount of parody and deconstruction, it certainly was interesting to start with this completely unreconstructed example of the form, black and white in both coloration and morality. Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp only goes after the Clantons once he has proof that they are the varmints what killed his brother and rustled his cattle. Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday (who looks a lot like Kestrell-favorite Robert Mitchum, and conveys a similar quiet deadliness) is allowed a small amount of depth; he quotes Shakespeare, and tries to protect his innocent cousin from back east. For all that, he’s still a killer at heart, so the best fate that awaits him is a heroic death. Meanwhile, Fonda doesn’t even “get” the girl (an innocent schoolmarm), there is merely a suggestion that possibly sometime in the distant future, they might date.
Moving on, we have John Sturges’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). We have gained color, a corny song accompanying the act breaks, and a smidge more moral complexity. Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp starts the film as a Law man in the D&D sense of Law. Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday is dissipated and suicidally reckless, the very essence of Chaos. The relationship between the two is a testosterone-infused version of the classic romantic comedy “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I love you.” Being the 1950s, the “I love you” part is merely implied, but it’s definitely there. For the entire last half of the film, Holliday’s sometime girlfriend is just adorably jealous of Wyatt Earp. Lancaster gradually loosens up and becomes willing to at least somewhat take the law into his own hands; Douglas straightens out somewhat and learns the value of standing up for what is right, despite himself. They both live, but they separate and their love remains un-consummated.
A decade after Gunfight, John Sturges returned to the subject matter in Hour of the Gun (1967). This one added a significant chunk of historical accuracy, though perhaps not enough to quite justify its claim “THIS IS HOW IT HAPPENED.” Rather than, like the earlier films, leading up to the OK Corral as the climax, here we start with the shootout right after the credits. We learn some of what led up to it during a series of courtroom scenes over the first act, as the Earps stand trial for murder. The politics and economics that led to this situation are overt for once; while there is still an element of feuding families, it’s money and power that everything starts over. The Earps are acquitted, but Ike Clanton refuses to let them stand in his way, and assassinates two of them. Wyatt (James Garner) sets out to bring the killers to justice – or does he? Rather, he is in some sense continuing his moral arc from the previous film. One after another, he tracks down the killers, only to find increasingly flimsy excuses to gun them down. Doc Holliday (Jason Robards), after being a roguish trickster for much of the movie, ends up being the voice of reason and calling Wyatt out on his bloodlust. They remain friends, and at the end of the movie, it seems they have both renounced violence – though the ending admits of ambiguity.
Hour of the Gun is testosterone-driven in a different way than the first two; it simply has no women. Well, technically women appear on the screen on rare occasions, but I don’t think a single one of them had a line. An early example, perhaps, of the poisonous trope “historically accurate means conforming even harder than usual to our cultural prejudices”? Also notable in the development of the form is that this is the first of the films I watched to actually show blood – Technicolor-bright obviously fake blood, but blood nonetheless.
After this, I was on a roll (and unsure whether or not Moore drew on it), so went on to Frank Perry’s 1971 “Doc”. Though only four years after the previous film, it is decidedly a new decade. From the very first scene, this film is chock-full of dirty faces, profanity, and the most explicit sexual material yet. Stacy Keach plays Doc Holliday, his puffy eyes reminding me strangely of Jeffrey Jones in Ravenous. This Holliday doesn’t particularly want to kill, but never has his hand far from a gun, always hyper-aware of the deadliness of his milieu. Faye Dunaway plays Doc’s… “Lady” friend, filthy in multiple senses, and by far the most complex female character yet to appear in these (not that that’s such a high bar). Doc’s “courtship” of her has the casually violent misogyny one often sees in 70s movies, with informed consent nowhere in sight. That said, the characters do evince a charmingly deep love for each other – though neither of them is actually experienced enough with the concept of love to quite know what to do with it… Speaking of love, the Wyatt/Doc slashiness continues hotly, though in this one it’s Wyatt who gets to be the jealous lover.
“Doc” is informed by history, but totally willing to deliberately overturn it in service of the story they’re telling. This film is very much in conversation with the Western genre in general and earlier O K Corral films in particular. Where Hour of the Gun showed a Wyatt Earp who was falling from grace, the Wyatt in “Doc” never had any grace to fall from. Showing him to be an ambitious, venal, political, corrupt thug would make for a disturbing character all by itself; when compared with the more traditional portrayals of Wyatt Earp as a saintly Good Guy, it’s positively shocking. While I’m usually a big fan of historical accuracy, I have to say that this was my favorite film of the bunch so far, by a long ways. It told a good (if tragic) story and told it well. It’s also, notably, an actor’s showcase; almost all of the critical scenes have little or no dialogue, just body language and expressive close-ups that tell you how they feel about what they’ve just decided to do – or not do.
So far, I’d progressed forward decade by decade, but there was no O K Corral film during the 1980s. In fact, there were precious few westerns of any kind. Given that these were my young adult years of prime media consumption, it is perhaps no mystery that I am under exposed to westerns. So I decided to move back a decade, to 1939’s Frontier Marshal, directed by Allan Dwan.
We’re back to black and white, in both literal and moral terms. Though this film actually has more character complexity (in my opinion) than Ford’s Clementine. Randolph Scott and Cesar Romero play Wyatt and Doc; by now I am thoroughly sensitized to slashiness between them, even when it is (production) coded – mere moments after the two characters meet in a saloon, they have each pulled out their pistols and are happily comparing them. There are two female characters, and while they are definitely the Good Girl and the Bad Girl, they get a decent amount of complexity each. I was particularly impressed with Binnie Barnes as the Bad Girl; she’s fully as sexy as the Code will allow, doing smoldering wonders with the line “Break me.” She even gets the last words, and – truly impressively – the last kill.
This one has no interest at all in historical accuracy, but was actually close enough in time to the history for a couple interesting effects. For one thing, worries about a lawsuit from the surviving family members caused one of the major characters to be named Doc “Halliday”. One of the supporting characters is the historical old West entertainer Eddie Foy; the part is played by his actual son, Eddie Foy Junior! The depiction of violence varies oddly. There is some blood in this, albeit black-and-white. On the other hand, there are multiple instances of hats being shot off and guns shot out of hands…
One thing I found particularly interesting in seeing this one out of order, is how massively influential it was. While no other film exactly follows its particular plot, all of the other films I watched have at least one scene that is clearly taken from Frontier Marshal.
Moving forward to the 90s is a film I’ve heard some good things about, 1993’s Tombstone, directed by George P. Cosmatos. Sadly, I found this one largely irritating. The cinematography and production design are attractive, the actors are largely portraying their roles well as written (though I found Val Kilmer’s Southern gentleman accent unconvincing and distracting). It’s the storytelling and, for lack of a better word, world building that I took issue with. Like most film versions, Tombstone has no particular interest in using actual history for its story; despite this, it is fetishisticly jam-packed with characters whose names come from the historical record, whether or not the character is significant in this film. Frequently, there are minor details and even snippets of dialogue from actual history, which only serves to underline how completely over the top ahistorical the actual plotting is.
This version of Tombstone is bizarrely blasé about violence. During the first half hour as we are establishing the setting, guns are shot off into the air – or into actual human beings – seemingly all the time. Yet no one screams, runs for cover, or seems to regard this as anything other than a normal Tuesday. Yes, these outbreaks of violence are a well established part of the Western film genre. However, having just immersed myself in a survey of the form, I can state with confidence that the earlier films do not normalize this violence; when guns go off, people notice. After spending the whole first half of the movie obsessively avoiding violence, in the final act Wyatt Earp goes on a rampage killing literally dozens. (Strangely, like most film gangs of faceless mooks, the more he kills, the greater the number of bad guys there are visible in the following scene.) And there is the ever popular (mystifyingly) scene in which the Good Guy marches slowly at the Bad Guy through a hail of gunfire, none of which even grazes him, due no doubt to his protective force field of self-righteous rage.
Also, I find myself completely bored with the question of whether Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp will remain loyal to his opium addict wife, or be drawn to the dark side of the sexy, carefree temptress actress. There sure are a lot of named female characters in this film. Not that any of them really get anything to do. I get the impression that they are present largely because the producers didn’t want there to be any inconvenient hints of icky homoeroticism between the male leads. And if you lose the slashiness between Wyatt and Doc (which they largely do), there isn’t much “there” left. Val Kilmer’s Doc is left with little to do but punctuate scenes with dialogue that is either completely obvious or completely meaningless. “He’s not after revenge, he’s after a reckoning.” Those are all English words, spoken as if they mean something profound, and yet…
This also struck me as the least subtle version I saw – which is saying considerable after John Ford’s version. Every beat is completely on the nose and reinforced several times to make sure you didn’t miss it. Did you have any doubt about the actress’s role as temptress? Let’s literally cast her as Satan in a production of Faust just to underline it. Are the good guys about to be involved in a really dangerous situation? Let’s make sure there’s thunder and lightning for punctuation. Oh, and just to mix it up, instead of a storm, we’ll have a gratuitously burning building for one of the scenes. It certainly is possible to take lack of subtlety so far that it transcends into brilliance, as proven by Night of the Hunter. But it’s a sucker’s bet.
Okay, that’s six gunfights from six decades spread across the 20th century. One annoyed me, I was neutral on three, and two were pleasantly surprising. Not a bad score for a genre I had pretty much ignored up until now. That said, I think I am done with Westerns for a good while now. Happy trails!
- A Tumbleweed of Tombstones