Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Summer of Sturges: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

John Sturges that is. During the 1950's and 60's, John Sturges was one of Hollywood's most prolific directors, churning out critical and commercial hits like Bad Day At Black Rock, Escape From Fort Bravo, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Ice Station Zebra. Through his lengthy career he directed a who's who of leading men including Spencer Tracy, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, James Garner, James Coburn and Rock Hudson.

Many of the titles listed above deal with soldiers or police types in the middle of seemingly insurmountable odds. Infiltrating a racist town to uncover a hidden murder, trying to stop a prison escape while defending the innocent, 7 men taking on 40; there isn't a meat grinder Sturges didn't throw his characters into. This is where he excels as a story teller; creating a deft balance between character and action. His films always excite as much as they illuminate the trials, tribulations and thoughts of our heroes.

Perhaps his most seminal work, The Great Escape, is celebrating it's 50th anniversary. Around Los Angeles, a new, 4K restoration digital print premiered at the Turner Classic Movie Festival in April and is playing at the historical Aero Theatre this weekend. Since Sturges' work is never far from my television, I've declared it Sturges week with nightly viewings to prime the pump for the momentous occasion.

1957's Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a take on an old classic, the story of near mythical lawman Wyatt Earp and his friendship with card playing killer Doc Holliday. The film takes place before, during and after the duo's involvement in the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral. Where Wyatt, his brothers and Holliday took on local cattle barons The Clantons after business and family tensions boiled into a personal vendetta and eventual war. It's a fun, exciting and well made western yarn full of gunfights, showdowns, love, loss, heartbreak and vengeance.

Another staple of Sturges work is his notion of "minding the gut" of a cast. He felt stars would take care of their own but the middle roles are just as important. Viewers will spot Rhonda Fleming, John Ireland (Spartacus), Earl Holliman (Sons of Katie Elder), a young Dennis Hopper, DeForest Kelly (Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy) and Lee Van Cleef in a small role among many others.

Burt Lancaster plays Earp strong and stern while Kirk Douglas portrays John "Doc" Holliday as charming yet angry beneath the smile. This would be the 2nd of an eventual 7 movies the two played opposite each other. Director John Frankenheimer (Seven Days In May, The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) described them as professional rivals, like two great boxers always trying to get the best out of the other. In a time before homoerotic (Rocky III), heroic bloodshed (John Woo's The Killers) and bromance (Arnold and Sly in The Expendables), Lancaster and Douglas were just a case of square deal and "I like your cut". Men appreciating other men. According to Douglas' autobiography, their off screen rapport saw them having dinner after shooting and sitting around talking late into the night. Their natural ease with one another even rankled one of the film's producers who just couldn't understand having a friendship like they had.

The film recently played at UCLA's tribute to Burt Lancaster with Kirk Douglas on hand to introduce the film.  Unfortunately an out of town wedding put the kibosh on seeing Corral on the big screen with a living legend.  Ah well, I was a couple feet away from him at a Spartacus anniversary.

Check out this clip where Earp and Holliday confront 20 cowboys:

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