HOUR OF THE GUN, a trim, tough western, finally got its due, through reappraisal and rediscovery, five decades after it was overlooked and cast aside in 1967, when asleep at the wheel critics and impatient audiences had attention on the year’s higher profile genre entries: John Wayne’s lively El Dorado and The War Wagon, Paul Newman’s grim and gritty Hombre and a violent, stylish upstart from Italy called The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. What most missed out on was this handsome, elegantly directed, well written and excellently acted revisionist take on the legendary 1880s Earp-Clanton feud. Action-packed but thoughtful, with a great cast and fine music score; all-in, a winner. *
Tombstone, Arizona, 1881. After lawman Wyatt Earp (James Garner), his brothers and his lethal gambler friend Doc Holliday (Jason Robards) win a gunfight with cowboys who work for ambitious rancher Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan), Clanton retaliates, and a last-man-standing feud between the two factions ensues. Legal niceties take a backseat to revenge.
“Those aren’t warrants you have there… those are hunting licenses!”
In 1957, director John Sturges had major hit with the big-scale, 90% fictional Gunfight At The O.K. Corral. With ten years and a few more notches on his gunbelt (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape) he used notable screenwriter Edward Anhalt to help fashion a sober, methodical followup that hewed closer to the facts. Sturges, on the dead-doornail reaction to the picture: “My mistake was I thought people would be fascinated by the real story about the quarrel between the Earps and the Clantons. You didn’t just shoot people, there were trials, lawyers, citizens’ committees. I thought the reality would catch people….Not so. I got preview cards that said of all the stories about Earp and Holliday, this was the dullest. They considered them fictional characters. They couldn’t have cared less that that’s the way it really was.” Done for a modest $1,800,000, it only pulled in $2,100,000. **
Garner played against type for Wyatt (and his own screen image) doing Earp as cold and remorseless (you could also say practical) and it’s one of his best serious dramatic roles; he took the job out of respect for Sturges and regarded the film as one of his favorites. Robards gets the naturally showier job as Holliday, but he keeps it in check so the flamboyance doesn’t overpower authenticity: they play off each other extremely well. Ryan is commanding as always, his imposing presence and cutting voice making for a short-course in bad guy gravitas. Location filming was done in Arizona as well as across the river in Mexico, around Torreon and Durango; the camera manned by the exemplary Lucien Ballard (Ride The High Country, The Sons Of Katie Elder, Will Penny), who had just made Nevada Smith look sharp and would return to the Mexican locations shortly for The Wild Bunch. He captures the desert mountains, rivers and townships so clearly you can almost smell the air. Class-act editing was the work of Ferris Webster, who cut 15 films for Sturges. Jerry Goldsmith’s deceptively simple score tops it off with just the right tones of inevitability and melancholy, accentuated by Latin percussion,on occasion erupting into full symphonic exuberance. The sound effects crew are particularly effective in their tuning up the numerous tense and exciting (and believable) gunfights.
Steve Ihnat and William Windom stand out in a supporting cast stocked with familiar faces. Besides 28-year-old newcomer Jon Voight and Jorge Russek (The Wild Bunch), lending a hand are Albert Salmi, Michael Tolan, Monte Markham, Karl Swenson, Lonny Chapman, Larry Gates, William Schallert, Bill Fletcher, Richard Bull, Sam Melville, Frank Converse and Charlene Holt. 101 minutes.
* While the films mentioned at the top did well in ’67, the good-looking but dull The Way West and the nasty Rough Night In Jericho under-performed and several others bombed worse than the sad 90th place this very good movie expired on. And they deserved their fate: the cheesy Chuka, dismal Welcome To Hard Times and repellent A Time For Killing.
** “A man’s life… for fifty dollars. I’m gonna give you a chance to make another fifty dollars.” A statement like that, casually delivered, can be counted on to be be followed by several ka-boom noises. Like almost all “based on a true story” historical items, it still plays a wide enough game with strict accuracy to suit dramatic needs. That startling revelation rates a big “Yep, so what?” from genre fans and history buffs, savvy enough to know when to crack a book and get ideals deflated (ultimately does that really help?) versus when it’s time to enjoy a few hours of emotionally comforting spirit balm. If you’re a guy, there’s a good chance some kind of firepower will be involved, or at least something sharp. “Look, miss, this cave is safe because I killed the bear, and it makes a decent rug as well.” (digression in pursuit of the next paragraph is excusable when Life as We Know It teeters to a finish). Ryan was 57, Ike Clanton was 34. The O.K. Corral opener to this film runs 13 quick seconds. The actual shootout lasted 30 (still brief, unless you’re the one getting plugged). Wyatt did not drop the hammer on Ike (someone else did eventually).