Thursday, February 20, 2020

Hour of the Gun: After the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

James Garner as Wyatt Earp.
A decade after directing the Western classic The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), director John Sturges returned to the Earp-Clanton saga with Hour of the Gun. In narrative terms, it's a sequel; indeed, the opening is the shoot-out at the famed corral in Tombstone, Arizona. However, the two movies are distinctly different in terms of cast, tone, and accuracy. Sturges emphasizes that last point by ending the opening credits with: "This picture is based on fact. This is the way it happened."

In Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, villain Ike Clanton was gunned down in the climax. Hour of the Gun reveals--accurately--that Clanton wasn't involved the gunfight. Only three men died that day at the O.K. Corral, all of them at the hands of the Earp Brothers (Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil) and Doc Holliday. Although Virgil Earp was the Tombstone marshal, Ike Clanton arranges for the Earps and Holliday to be charged with murder.

When the four men are acquitted during a trial, Clanton takes matters into his own hands. He has one Earp brother maimed and another one murdered, leading Wyatt Earp and Holliday to seek vengeance--and try to stay within the bounds of the law.

Hour of the Gun is a grim Western and, for most of its running time, that's a good thing. James Garner, whose natural humor was always a strength, leaves that levity behind. He portrays Wyatt Earp as an man torn between upholding the law and enforcing retribution. Boasting a mustache and black duds, he transforms into an angel of death wearing a silver badge.

Jason Robards as Doc Holliday.
Garner is wisely paired with Jason Robards as Doc Holliday, who serves as Wyatt's conscience. Robards almost steals the film with his portrayal of the bigger-than-life Holliday, a gambler, alcoholic, and tuberculous-inflicted gunfighter who (in this narrative) values friendship and loyalty above all else. It's the kind of performance that should have earned him an Oscar nomination (he did subsequently win Supporting Actor Oscars for Julia and All the President's Men).

The two leads are backed up by Robert Ryan as Clanton and a bevy of strong supporting players: William Windom, Frank Converse, Steve Ihnat, Jon Voight, Monte Markham, William Schallert, and Albert Salmi. It's interesting to note there are no significant female characters in the film.

Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton.
Despite its claim that "this is the way it happened," the screenplay boasts a few historical inaccuracies. The most obvious is the way it depicts Ike Clanton's demise at the climax. However, compared to previous film versions, to include John Ford's My Darling Clementine, it's much closer to the facts.

James Garner later portrayed a much older Wyatt Earl in Blake Edwards' Sunset (1988), a fictitious tale that had Earp teaming up with cowboy star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) to solve a mystery in L.A. in 1929. Hollywood's fascination with the legend of Wyatt Earp peaked in the 1990s, with two films about the famous marshal being released within a year of each other:  Tombstone (1993), starring Kurt Russell as Earp, and Wyatt Earp (1994) with Kevin Costner.

Here's the opening scene of Hour of the Gun (1967), courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:


  1. Always love your perspective. Not sure about Wyatt Earp, but Tombstone is IMHO excellent, and became in many critics minds an instant classic. Not only was Val Kilmer a "revelation" as Doc Holliday, but Kurt Russell showed that he has always been a very solid actor in the lead role.

  2. Wait a minute. This film is news to me, and if it stars James Garner, I'll change my plans to watch it this evening.