Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hour of the Gun (1967)

Hour of the Gun (1967) is director John Sturges' (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape) retelling of the incidents and characters of his own 1957 film, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas portrayed Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, respectively, in the previous film. Ten years later, it’s James Garner as Wyatt and Jason Robards (1922-2000) as the tuberculosis-ravaged Doc Holliday. As for the rest of the cast, Sturges (1911-1992) initially chose to reuse the actors who played Earp’s brothers from the previous movie, but as it turned out, none of them were available (including Star Trek’s DeForest “Dr. McCoy” Kelley), so the director went with both actors of young, promising talent (Jon Voight; Steve Ihnat) and tried-and-true veterans (Robert Ryan; Albert Salmi; William Windom) to fill out his cast. The movie is largely seen as a flawed, below-average effort from one of Hollywood’s “action” directors, but what fails to get mentioned is how well the movie works as a tale of friendship and loyalty.

“Get this through your heads. If this was the east, I could make law the way they do. But the best I can do out here is buy it.”

~Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) in Hour of the Gun

The movie begins with the October 26 1881 gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona that served as the climax to all the previous movies on the subject. After the gunfight is over, we get a deliberately-paced account ("slow" to the movie’s detractors) of the events that took place after the famous battle. There’s much political maneuvering between the Earps and the powerful, patriarchal Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan), who manipulates the fragile western law. (I'd wager that if Ryan's Clanton had lived in New York, he would have run Tammany Hall). Ryan doesn't have much screentime, but he carries enormous presence in his scenes, and his character’s power is felt, even when he's not there.

The political underhandedness gives way to the Earps and the Clanton gang waging a war of attrition, knocking each other off in brutal fashion. However, I prefer the wonderful character interplay between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday over the traditional narrative elements and gun blazing action of Hour of the Gun. The character dynamic between Earp and Holliday indicates that this was a "Buddy Movie" decades before that term was coined.

“I don't care about the rules anymore. I'm not that much of a hypocrite.”

~Wyatt Earp (James Garner) in Hour of the Gun

There’s nary a trace of sunny and affable Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford in James Garner’s Wyatt Earp. When Wyatt’s brother, Morgan (Sam Melville) is murdered and dies in his arms, Wyatt becomes a dark avenger with vengeance running hot in his heart. It’s a disturbing portrayal unequalled in Garner’s career. Only his other western roles of this period (1966’s
Duel at Diablo, 1970’s A Man Called Sledge) come close to comparison in terms of a nasty Garner characterization. Earp’s one mean S.O.B., a facet of his persona not really touched on the character until Tombstone (with Kurt Russell as Wyatt) and 1994’s Wyatt Earp, when Kevin Costner played the lawman. Costner's Earp was hurt by tragedy and not very likable, but Garner’s Earp is frightening. He’s cold, callous, and boiling with rage—except for the relative warmth in his scenes with Jason Robards’ Doc Holliday.

“I'm just educating myself. I've never been on the right side of the law before. I want to see how much good it does you when you are.”

~Doc Holliday (Jason Robards) in Hour of the Gun.

Compared to Earp’s obsession with vengeance, Jason Robards’ Doc Holliday is the calm, reserved member of the tandem and he gives a gem of a performance. You won’t find Robards’ take on the character on many favorites lists, but I’d be so bold as to state that Robards gives the best portrayal of Holliday ever put on film. Robards’ low-key, wryly humorous take on Holliday is the perfect counterbalance to the rigid, humorless Wyatt Earp. Robards delivers the film’s best and most telling lines. He is as much an observer and commentator as he is a participant in the bloody events depicted in the film. Holliday has done his share of killing and now that he nears death, has nothing but his loyalty to his best friend Earp to keep him going. Robards’ rough, boozy voice and wiry frame add genuine flavor to his portrayal of Holliday, and he looks like the sick man that Holliday was. Robards is infinitely superior to the effete and bafflingly over-praised caricature that Val Kilmer popularized in Tombstone. I don’t know if anyone agrees with this opinion of Robards' or Kilmer’s Doc; judge for yourself.

Besides Garner and Robards, the other standout element of Hour of the Gun is the music. When watching the movie, listen to how well Jerry Goldsmith's score works within the film. It’s often understated and subtle but propels the action along when needed (and sometimes this movie needs it). The film’s opening with the Earps and Holliday heading to the gunfight plays out with Goldsmith adding tense, deliberately-paced underscore of the film’s main titles, (of which a “hipped up” 1960s-style version is available on the album). There are dark, ominous passages and delightfully melodic portions of the score that all succeed in enhancing the action sequences. One musical cue (not on the album) is a comparatively "happy" piece. It plays when Wyatt comes to visit the dying Holliday. It’s understandable why it was left off the original LP, as it’s in cheery contrast to the rest of the alternately moody and action-packed score. But it’s the sensitively scored scenes between Earp and Holliday that make this music so special. Goldsmith fashioned a malleable main title that has several wonderful variations.

Hour of the Gun is primarily recommended for those already familiar with the other more famous Wyatt Earp films, especially Sturges’ earlier Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946). Both the previous films add depth to the character relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and this movie adds yet another layer. For the fine character interaction between Earp and Holliday, Hour of the Gun is a better movie than its reputation suggests.

Hour of the Gun will air Wednesday, June 3 on Turner Classic Movies (USA).

Recommended Reading: Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges. By Glenn Lovell.


  1. Excellent indepth article on one of my favourite westerns. I'll be mentioning this post on The Tainted Archive later today.

  2. I rewatched this movie recently, and I think it really stands up. The strength really lies in the portrayals by Garner and Robards. Thanks for this review.

  3. Excellent review C.K.
    I always liked James Garner and this is definitely, a different role for him. As you state "There’s nary a trace of sunny and affable Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford in James Garner’s Wyatt Earp." This is much darker version of the Wyatt Earp legend ("Wyatt becomes a dark avenger with vengeance running hot in his heart.") and while I do not know anything about what the real Earp was like, you have to believe this version is somewhat closer to the truth.

    What I find most interesting is the contrast between Sturges 1957 film "Gunfight at the OK Corral", a more traditional viewpoint vs. his 1967 "Hour of the Gun." In the 1950's, we needed our "heroes" to be pure good vs. pure evil. By 1967, there were a lot more shades of gray. Our "heroes" were not always so good, sometimes they were not so good, making them a lot more human.

    I recently purchased the Sturges book, though I have yet to read it.

  4. Great writeup. This is one of my uncle's favorite westerns. He's always raving about it. For some reason I've never seen it. I definitely want to watch it now.

  5. I only wrote the Hour of the Gun post because I thought we fellas needed an occasion to get together! :D

    I absolutely love westerns, and it surprised me that I written anything on one yet. I look forward to doing more.

    Archavist: Any compliment from you on westerns is a supreme compliment, indeed. I appreciate the plug, too.

    Duane: You're right, it makes the movie. I'm more of a character-driven movie lover than a plot-driven one. Thanks for dropping by!

    John: I appreciate the second look that Sturges gave to the subject matter, which was obviously something that fascinated him. I love both versions, for different reasons, of course.

    Keith: I hope you tackle some of Dino's western roles over at the Lounge, you'd do a bang-up job!

    Funny, I was sure that my slam on Val Kilmer's Doc would've gotten some kind of reaction!

  6. Just watched it this weekend and appreciate your sharp comments! in many ways it's sturge's best film. really an "art" film if you will. very unconventional. must have really thrown folks at the time. now it's clear and its influence on a masterpiece like the wild bunch also comes through. it's about power, the law, friendship. just like the wild bunch. the law doesn't mean much up against brute power. very tough and lonely world in the west and friendship is as strong a tonic as power. primal western with a lot on its mind. hope more people get around to seeing it. it's weathered time better than lots of hyped movies of the time.

  7. These are the times that really show a difference between the United States of America and other countries. The old west was real and amazing. These films are great because this the United States experience of evolving from the inception to the Civil War to WW2 to today is such a great story. Not because it was a great camera angle.
    Barris Jahn


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