History Makes Movies Better

There are 365 days in a normal non-freaky-leap year. Each of those days marks the anniversary of all sorts of crazy shit. Some of that crazy shit has been made into movies.

October 26

33 years ago today a hospital cook named Ali Maow Maalin died from smallpox in Merca, Somalia. Maalin was to have the dubious distinction of being the last person to die from naturally contracted smallpox. Two years later the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would announce the smallpox virus officially eradicated – making it one of only two dangerously infectious diseases that humans have successfully wiped completely from the planet (the other being Rinderpest, a disease that afflicted cattle and domestic buffalo). Considering that smallpox first appeared roughly 10,000 years ago, and still managed to kill nearly 400 million people worldwide in the 20th-century (even as it was rapidly being eradicated), Maalin stood at the end of a long, long line of victims.

Just goes to show you – an unfathomable number of deaths spread out over thousands of years just doesn’t make for an exciting film narrative. A little too broad. Succinctness in all areas can really help sell a good slaughter story. Case in point: 129 years ago today a measly three people died in just thirty seconds, yet the incident is one of the most famous and creatively depicted moments in American history…

In 1880, Virgil Earp had become the city marshal of Tombstone, Arizona. The Earp clan – including brothers Morgan and soon-to-be legendary Wyatt – began clashing with two other families known collectively as the “Cowboys,” the Clantons and the McLaurys, both of whom were in the livestock business in Cochise County (where Tombstone resided). Virgil believed that the Clantons and McLaurys stole much of their livestock from Mexico, and Wyatt also claimed that the Clanton brothers had taken one of his best horses. The blood between the two groups was bad.

On October 25, 1881, Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury arrived in Tombstone. Almost immediately Clanton got into a saloon altercation with Earp clan cohort, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, history’s most badass dentist and tuberculosis sufferer. The following day Virgil arrested Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury and charged them with carrying firearms within the city limits; the two men were soon disarmed and released. By this point it was mid-afternoon and Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury had arrived in town. The Cowboys (including associate, Billy Claiborne), gathered at a vacant lot on Fremont Street near the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral.

Sensing potential trouble (or possibly just being a hardass) Virgil decided to disarm both Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury too, and he deputized Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holliday to help him. Despite the best efforts of Cochise County Sheriff John Behan to diffuse the situation, the Earp group marched down Fremont Street with mean purpose. The actual events of the brief shootout have been debated since the moment they were over. Did the Earps plan to gun-down their enemies? What exactly was said before bullets flew? Who fired the first shot? And why? Did Doc Holiday shoot an unarmed Tom McLaury in the back as he was trying to run away, or shoot him as he was reaching for a weapon? Whatever the case, the end result was thus…

Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne both escaped as the fight broke out.

Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury died from their wounds.

Virgil, Morgan, and Doc Holiday all sustained bullet wounds. Only Wyatt walked away without a scratch.

Just 30 seconds prior, Wyatt Earp had been a relative nobody, with but one notable gunfight to his name. Now he would become one of the most recognizable figures of the American “Old West,” and what became known as the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” – probably because the “Gunfight at the vacant lot near the rear entrance to the OK Corral” didn’t sound as catchy – would become the most famous shootout of the period.

And cinema has certainly helped keep things that way.

Frontier Marshal (1939)
Long before he paired off with Budd Boetticher, Randolph Scott sharpened his western chops as Wyatt Earp in this film. The film is the second adaptation of Stuart N. Lake’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (a highly fictionalized account of Earp’s life, which was supposedly written with the actual Wyatt Earp’s surely unbiased collaboration), the previous film being 1934’s Frontier Marshal. The film is most notable now for its stellar cast, including John Carradine, Ward Bond, Lon Chaney Jr., and Cesar Romero as Doc Halliday (randomly changed from the original spelling).

My Darling Clementine (1946)
This John Ford classic is itself the third adaptation of Stuart N. Lake’s book, and more specifically a remake of the Scott film, with whole scenes from the 1939 version lifted and reshot. Featuring another all-star cast, with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, Kiss of Death’s Victor Mature as Doc Holiday, Walter Brennan as the head of the Clanton clan (who in reality died well before the OK Corral shootout), John Ireland, and Ward Bond again, now upgraded to Morgan Earp. The film plays even faster and looser with facts than Lake’s book, most notably killing off James Earp, who actually died in 1926. The real Tombstone is of course not located in Monument Valley, but anyone gazing at the film’s gorgeous visuals surely cannot gripe about this factual alteration. Ford, who had met the real Earp in his youth, claimed he based his depiction of the famous battle on Earp’s own telling of the tale. Henry Fonda would in a sense return to the role of Wyatt Earp as Clay Blaisedell in Warlock (1959), which follows a story inspired by Earp’s life, climaxing with the “Shootout at the Acme Corral.”

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
John Sturges classic focuses heavily on a stylized relationship between Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and a healthier Doc Holiday (Kirk Douglas). It also veers far into fiction when it comes to the titular battle. Whereas the actual gunfight was 30 seconds long, with 34 bullets spent amongst the entire group, and claimed few lives, here the bullet riddled bloodbath lasts nearly five minutes. It also places famous “badman” Johnny Ringo (Clementine alum, John Ireland) at the OK Corral fight. The film features a young Dennis Hopper as one of the Clantons, as well as Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, and future spaceman, DeForest Kelley.

Hour of the Gun (1967)
There is certainly a lot of connectivity between the OK Corral movies. Director John Sturges returned to the material ten years later with this significantly more historically accurate and tonally somber film. Starring James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday (and featuring a bit appearance by Jon Voight as a Clanton hired goon), the film is in a sense a sequel to Sturges’s previous film. Whereas O.K. Corral built up to and romanticized the famous battle, Hour begins with the battle and them moves onwards into the aftermath. This time around, and a sign of the changing times, Sturges moved away from the Hollywood shoot-em-up action of the first film and produced a more psychological character study.

Doc (1971)
Doc Holiday has always been the choice role in the Tombstone story. Complex and colorful, Holiday is simply the most showy and surely most fun to play of the characters. It only makes sense that at some point he’d get bumped up to protagonist, and that’s just what happened in this film from Frank “Mommy Dearest” Perry. Cinema’s greatest cleft lip triumph tale, Stacy Keach, takes on the role of Doc Holiday (who some historians have claimed was himself born with a cleft palate). The story focuses on Holiday’s relationship with his common law wife, Kate Elder (Faye Dunaway), as they come to Tombstone looking for Wyatt Earp (unsung character actor Harris Yulin). Here the famous OK Corral shootout is set during a fiesta.

Sunset (1988)
Surely the most bizarre concept of all Wyatt Earp films (until the asinine sounding Earp: Saints for Sinners is made), this Blake Edwards non-classic features James Garner once more as Wyatt Earp, now well into his autumn years. Set in 1920’s Hollywood, Earp is working as the consultant on a film about his life (which will feature the famous OK Corral gunfight). Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) is the actor playing Earp. Distracted from the film they’re supposed to make, the two find themselves mixed up in zany murder mystery, following clues and prostitutes and such, while uncovering the sinister truth behind an evil studio head. The film’s most notable attribute these days is the fact that you’ve never heard of it despite it featuring Die Hard-era Bruce Willis, James Garner, Malcolm McDowell, Mariel Hemingway, M. Emmet Walsh, and Dermot Mulroney.

Tombstone (1993)
The Earp/OK Corral tale for Generations X and Y (and thereabouts). The film began life as a Kevin Costner film, but Costner and screenwriter Kevin Jarre disagreed on the importance that should be placed on the Wyatt Earp character (Costner felt the film should focus entirely on Wyatt). When Costner moved on to make his own Wyatt Earp centric film, he used his then fairly mighty industry power to try and prevent Tombstone from getting distribution. Disney’s Buena Vista was the only studio willing to bite, but they vetoed Jarre’s original choice for Doc Holiday, Willem Dafoe, because of the The Last Temptation of Christ controversy surrounding the actor. Fortunately, Val Kilmer would turn in a career-highlight performance. Kurt Russell put on Wyatt’s spurs, with the human mustache, Sam Elliot, and Bill Paxton as Virgil and Morgan. Continuing the trend of amazing casts for OK Corral films, Tombstone also features a cavalcade of badasses, like Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston, Terry O’Quinn, Michael Rooker, Billy Bob Thorton, Thomas Haden Church, and Frank Stallone. Plus… Jason Priestley. The film has a fun bit of stunt casting with Wyatt Earp (a distant relative of the original Earp) playing Billy Clairborne. Much like its forbear, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone’s main goal was not historical accuracy, so much as entertainment.

Wyatt Earp (1994)
Despite beginning production before Tombstone, Lawrence Kasdan and Kevin Costner’s lengthy and slow-paced film was released a year later, and proved an unappealing slog to audiences who had already received the whiz-bang, kickass version of the Earp/OK Corral story – earning $25mil domestically on a $63mil budget, compared with Tombstone‘s $56mil gross on a $25mil budget. Though the film does feature the most accurate representation of the famous OK Corral gunfight. Not to mention a somewhat career changing turn by Dennis Quaid, who lost a considerable amount of weight to play Doc Holiday. The film also stars Gene Hackman, Tom Sizemore, Adam Baldwin, and because Bill Paxton was in Tombstone, it only makes sense that this film has Bill Pullman.

See you all next time. Still plenty more history and plenty more movies out there.