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Friday, August 26, 2016

James Garner in HOUR OF THE GUN - Western Movie Summer Part 4

HOUR OF THE GUN (John Sturges, 1967) is in the lineup Saturday Aug 27th for TCM's "Summer Under the Stars" tribute to James Garner, and I'm pleased to contribute this post to the "Summer Under the Stars" blogathon hosted by Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film.  

James Garner (left) as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday in HOUR OF THE GUN

Doc Holliday:  "I hear that the Chamber of Commerce has put up $20,000 reward money (for the Clanton gang)."
Wyatt Earp: "For arrest and conviction, not 'dead or alive.'  Not your style, Doc."
Doc Holliday:  "For that kind of money I can be as law-abiding are."

It's fitting that in the summer in which I've devoted to watching and studying Westerns, I write my final post of the season on this late Western, when filmmakers have begun to deconstruct its vaunted heroes.  In a few short years the genre would be almost entirely given over to the 'revisionist' or 'anti'-Western, in response to the Vietnam War and the political and societal disillusionment replacing what was typically glorification of American optimism and romanticism in the classic Western.   In HOUR OF THE GUN, audiences are, at least on the surface, in familiar territory with Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and their cohort, the historical western figures whose story had been told and retold throughout the 20th century.  But we are clued in at once that this one will be a bit different:  the film starts with the Earp cohort marching down a dusty main street toward the infamous OK Corral, punctuated with a pounding drum in the soundtrack.  The legendary gunfight just initiates the action, and the film's narrative is all about what happens after.  
Doomed members of the Clanton gang wait to meet Earp & Co.
For a legendary 1881 occurrence in Tombstone, Arizona that has been the subject of dozens of films and television episodes, it's hard to imagine a time when no one knew about Earp & Co. Yet the 'gunfight at OK Corral' had only become part of American lore in 1920, when the real Wyatt Earp, retired from his life as a lawman, began to hang around Hollywood and tell his story to anyone who would listen. Among others, John Ford listened.  In fact, one of the best, albeit fictionalized, account of Wyatt Earp's adventures is John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) starring Henry Fonda.  Fonda as an actor was an early inspiration for James Garner, when the two shared the stage in Garner's first professional acting appearance in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Speaking about Fonda in his memoir, Garner said, "I admired him so much I even mimicked him.  In MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, he did a little seated two-step in place by leaning back in a chair and pushing off a post....I stole it for SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (Burt Kennedy, 1969).

When Garner made this film, he was already a big star, playing the leading role in the Western humor series 'Maverick', and in films such as DUEL AT DIABLO (1966).  He had the experience of working with director John Sturges in THE GREAT ESCAPE. A full decade earlier Western specialist Sturges made the more conventional movie about the gunfight, unsurprisingly named GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL, starring Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday.  HOUR OF THE GUN was the sequel, and quite different in tone and theme. Garner jumped at the chance to work with Sturges again, and accepted the role without having read the script, and years later acknowledged it was a different sort of a Western.  Here, Earp is a conflicted lawman who first must endure being put on trial for murder after the gunfight, supported by Ike Clanton, played by the inimitable Robert Ryan, in a unfortunately small role. Then when one brother is maimed and another murdered, he begins to step outside the law in an increasing vendetta on Clanton and his gang.  The film narrative follows closely the pursuer and the pursued until the inevitable end -- Earp riding to new adventures and doomed Holliday left in a sanitarium.
Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton (seated) as a witness for the prosecution in Earp's trial
Garner is a steely presence here, embodying Earp with a quiet desperation without ever bending that backbone.  To me, he is a more believable, and human, Earp than Lancaster, who seems a bit stiff, and blustery in the role in the earlier film.  Garner does a good job with Edward Anhalt's script that asks us to look at our heroes more realistically, with motives not entirely pure or actions not always justifiable.  Yet as good as Garner is, Jason Robards was just so much fun to watch in the showier role of Doc Holliday.  He sunk his teeth into the scenery, staggered around the set, emitted witticisms and contributed wry humor to what is overall a dark picture.  Apparently Robards off screen was not unlike Holliday.  In his memoir Garner revealed that Robards enjoyed being on location in Mexico a bit too much (a local bar and whorehouse were implicated) and "was never on the set when you needed him." Sturges, however, knew where to find him, and one day, after another late appearance, dressed Robards down publicly, after which he improved his behavior.  

In another departure from the classic Western formula, there are no women characters.  Literally, none, among the credited cast.  Does anyone know if there is another Western in the classic era without the good woman from back East, or the fallen woman who seeks redemption, or a noble native American woman to redeem the male hero?  I'd be interested.  The film is solid, and Garner and Robards are terrific, but the lack of development of the minor characters makes the narrative drag at times and I found it easy to lose track of who is pursuing whom.   Lucien Ballard's cinematography is fine, and the soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith has a perfectly-suited mournful, elegiac quality.  

As an epilogue, I was reminded of a personal connection to this film from many years ago.  As a Star Trek devotee I remember as a child watching, and being freaked out by, a rerun of the original series' third season episode called "Spectre of the Gun".  This aired in 1968, one year after the movie, and the show's producers were inspired enough by the Sturges film to give their episode almost the same name.  They succeeded in crafting a spooky, surreal retelling of the legendary gunfight in which the main crew of the Starship Enterprise are forced into embodying the Clanton gang against the ghosts of Earp and Holliday, thus facing mortal danger.   This might be the creepiest presentation of the famous gunfight ever recorded -- watch the final few minutes here:

Don't forget to check out the others posts for the "Summer Under the Stars" blogathon, all conveniently collected here.

James Garner, with Jon Winokur, The Garner Files, Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, Atheneum Press, 1992.


  1. I imagine actors who are cast as Doc Holliday all clap their hands in glee when they get the news. A feast indeed.

    The many interesting parts of "Hour of the Gun" all fade for me when matched up against the fact, as you pointed out, that it does tend to drag. Unforgivable given the resources.

    1. Yes! On the Doc Holliday casting lottery :-) I enjoyed Victor Mature in the part and from what I understand, Val Kilmer had excellent reviews in his portrayal in 1993. I need to devote a post just to this topic!

      Thanks for visiting and for your comment. I am moving now to 'Slapstick' to follow the TCM course, but will miss the Western. It was a great time exploring the genre and I have so much more to uncover!

    2. Looking forward to this new course as well. No need to miss westerns considering all the great comedy-westerns, especially "Way Out West".

  2. I saw this as a teen and really disliked it because, I think, I wasn't ready to see James Garner in any kind of morally questionable role. (Though, now that I think about it, Bret Maverick can be pretty morally questionable. Hmm.) But I watched it again a couple years ago because my best friend watched it and could not stop raving about it, and to my surprise, I liked it a lot! I don't mind the slower pace, as it feels to me more like a character exploration than an actiony film. And the soundtrack is now one of my top favorites. While Val Kilmer remains my favorite Doc Holliday, James Garner is now my favorite Wyatt Earp.