(Please note: this is one of those long, involved, screencap-heavy, gushy posts where I DO spoil stuff. But this movie is based on the real events surrounding the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, so you probably know already how the plot basically goes.)
Hour of the Gun is a deep character study masquerading as a vengeance story. This might be why, as a teen, I disliked it. I wanted my westerns to be bouncy and full of energy when I was a teen. Not that I don't still like that kind of westerns now, but I appreciate the deeper ones too.
I probably also disliked it because James Garner is Very Different here from how he is on Maverick or in Support Your Local Sheriff and The Great Escape. Very, Very Different. His Wyatt Earp is positively grim. If you're having trouble imagining James Garner being grim, well, read on! You'll see what I mean.
Jason Robards plays Doc Holliday as acerbic, caustic, abrasive, cynical, and somehow very likable.
This movie is one of the reasons I Do Not Ever Trust Robert Ryan In Any Movie At All No Matter How Good His Character Is Supposed To Be. Oh, my word. His Ike Clanton is a slimeball. Blech.
It all starts down at the edge of town, where a bunch of ne'er-do-wells are gathering at the OK Corral. Throughout the first four minutes of this film, there is no audible dialog. We just have amazing, ominous music by Jerry Goldsmith playing as everyone very deliberately takes their places.
So, crazy thing. John Sturges also directed another version of this same story! He directed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), which has a totally different flavor from this. That one is sort of a boisterous brawl, and it does the more usual thing of getting to know all the characters before the titular gunfight. I have no idea why he decided to direct another O.K. Corral movie, but I'm glad he did, because I really love his deliberate, calm, precise directing here. Almost every frame is a gem of composition and moving the story along visually.
Wyatt starts to walk away from his brothers. Still no audible dialog going on, though you can see that Virgil Earp is hastily swearing in Doc as a deputy. Just so this is all on the up-and-up, technically.
We get this bold statement, which is... kind of true. I mean, they do stick pretty close to a lot of the facts of what happened in Tombstone between the Earps and the Clantons, though it's definitely streamlined and Hollywood-ized. But mostly what I get from this little statement splashed across Wyatt Earp's chest is that this is that they're trying to warn the audience this is not going to be a hero-worshiping movie where Wyatt Earp comes out smelling like a daisy and looking like an Arthurian knight. It's gritty and brooding and dark. It actually does end up adding to Wyatt Earp's heroic mythos, but in a different way than the other movies about him that were made before this.
I've seen a lot of movie versions of these events: Tombstone (1993), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), My Darling Clementine (1946), and Wyatt Earp (1994). They all get to know the characters first and let tension build as we work toward that famous showdown. This one doesn't. Hour of the Gun starts with the showdown, then focuses on the aftermath to reveal the characters. It's fascinating.
So, anyway, Wyatt, Doc, Morgan, and Virgil start walking down the street together. Very matter-of-fact, very purposeful. Not out for a stroll or thinking this is going to be fun. They're setting out to deal with some troublemakers, and they know it.
The quartet walks allllll the way down the street. Tombstone is not a small town.
They're not hiding. They're openly armed. They're heading straight for the corral. Everyone can see they mean business.
They're all very, very serious... and eager to have this over with, I think.
They approach a photographer's studio and gallery, where a bunch of men wait conspicuously.
The rest of their adversaries are in the corral. Virgil Earp announces they've come to disarm Clanton's men, and he tells them to raise their hands over their heads. Spoiler alert: they don't.
Thirteen seconds later, it's all over. Morgan and Virgil Earp are both wounded. Several of Ike Clanton's men are dead or wounded, including his brother Billy.
I didn't actually get a screencap of this (I mean, I couldn't cap EVERYTHING or we'd be here all winter), but Wyatt Earp stands up through the whole gunfight. Doesn't hide, doesn't crouch, just stands there and shoots. This jibes with what I've read about him, especially in Bat Masterson's biographical essay of Wyatt Earp, who was his personal friend. Masterson said Wyatt was a man absolutely devoid of fear, which was what made him so formidable in a physical fight with fists or guns. And that's exactly how James Garner portrays him. He has a job to do, he does it, the end. No fear, no thought to personal danger. He's protective of others, fiercely so, but not of his own self.
So anyway, the Earps are City Marshals. Virgil is, anyway, and he's deputized Morgan and Wyatt and Doc. But Ike Clanton controls the county sheriff (Bill Fletcher). The sheriff thinks he's going to arrest Doc and the Earps. With Morgan and Virgil bleeding on the ground, it shouldn't be too hard. Maybe he can end the whole thing right there.
Wyatt and Doc aren't in the mood to get arrested. Wyatt gets all growly about it. In fact, he's very growly throughout the whole film. It's a brilliant performance from James Garner -- if you're at all a fan of his, you need to see this because he's so, so different in it. He really stretches and shows off his acting range. I mean, you expect Jason Robards to be crabby and sly, but you do not expect James Garner to be grim and growly and severe and fierce for the whole movie. He might get a little like that once in a while in other roles, but this whole thing, he's a bulldog. And the fact that we don't expect that of him, that he's basically cast against type, is what makes his Wyatt so chillingly mesmerizing. You don't want to take your eyes off him because you can't wait to see what he does next.
Okay, so back to the plot. Ike Clanton talks to his pet sheriff and his lawyer and they decide that the Earps will have to go on trial, and they'll get rid of them that way. Clanton has all kinds of illegal operations going on around Tombstone and the Earps keep interfering, so he wants them gone. For good.
Clanton puts his brother's body on display, along with the McLowery brothers, in a shameless bid for public sympathy. He wants the people of Tombstone to be outraged about their "murder." I love this shot here, with Clanton reflected in the window, superimposed over the three men he basically sacrificed to try to get rid of the Earps.
The case goes to trial and, of course, Ike Clanton employs an oily lawyer to try to force the Earps to go to prison.
Doc smarts off to the lawyer repeatedly. It's probably my favorite Doc scene. He absolutely takes all the wind out of that lawyer in the most sarcastic, funny ways possible, and I love it. He tells the whole truth, unvarnished, and it's awesome.
Even so, things don't look great for the Earps for a while. The trial is attended by basically everyone in Tombstone, with Wyatt Earp as the main attraction.
The judge (William Schallert) is fairly impartial, but leans a little away from Ike Clanton, and thus a little toward the Earps. In the end, the Earps are acquitted and go free.
As you can guess, Ike Clanton's not happy about this. He decides if he can't get rid of the Earps legally, he'll resort to the illegal ways. Oh, not himself, of course. He'll have some of his hired guns ambush them.
Clanton's men shoot Virgil at night, from an ambush, no warning.
There's one witness, and Wyatt literally twists his arm to get him to tell what he saw. But Wyatt promises not to tell anyone about it so Clanton can't come after the witness and his family. He'll just have to find some other way to convict the ambushers.
Back to court we go! This time it's Clanton's gunhands on trial for attempted murder. Annnnnnnd they totally go free because that one witness won't come forward to testify, and Wyatt won't rat him out, and there's no other concrete evidence.
So, if you watch any movies about the Earps and Tombstone and all that, or have read the real history of the affair, you know that Morgan Earp playing pool is not going to end well. At all. I get so, so tense during this scene because I know what's going to happen, and I can't jump inside the story and warn them all. Argh!
More sneaking, murderous cowards come hunting Earps.
They shoot Morgan in the back, and he dies.
Wyatt accompanies Virgil and his family as they leave Tombstone for somewhere safer. Virgil's lost the use of his arm.
Wyatt gets a big surprise on the train. Doc Holliday decided to come along. Just for the change of scenery, of course. Not because he suspects Wyatt's about to turn vigilante and might need backup or anything. Obviously not.
Wyatt is displeased by Doc's presence. He's very cold and very grim, with this lurking rage in his eyes that's pretty scary. He sits down by himself, the opposite side of the aisle from Doc, and ignores his friend.
This worries Doc. A lot. I really love how he spends the rest of this movie sort of watching over and protecting Wyatt, emotionally as well as physically. It's not something you really get in the other Wyatt Earp movies, and it's a big part of why I love this one.
Did I mention that James Garner is a startlingly handsome man? Well, he is. Even when he's all stern like this (almost gruff, but not quite), he's still just so, so handsome.
Anyway, when Wyatt drops off Virgil and his family, he meets up with this great guy called Sherman McMasters (Monte Markham), a local lawman wherever it is they've landed who thinks the Earps got a raw deal. He signs up to help Wyatt hunt down a bunch of Clanton's men because Wyatt has a warrant for their arrest now. And there's a reward.
Wyatt is very suspicious of this train yard. He keeps tucking his coat back to let his gun swing free on his hip, which has the added benefit of making him look pretty darn sexy too.
Okay, so, I know I saw this as a teen. I know I disliked it. I refused to ever watch it again. I put it out of my head for twenty years. And then DKoren convinced me to watch it a couple years ago, and I didn't remember a tiny smidge of it until I got to this scene. A bunch of Clanton's guys are here, hiding on the other side of a train, waiting to kill Wyatt. There's lots of dodging around train cars, lots of smoke, and all of a sudden, it all felt really familiar and I started remembering bits of the movie! Isn't that odd?
Anyway, this scene is gorgeously lit and filmed. Look at Wyatt walking toward the camera, all tall and commanding even from a distance because the camera angle is so low. That light coming through the smoke -- gorgeous. Those trains basically pointing down at him? I mean, wow.
So many shadows, so many hiding places. It's like a little slice of film noir.
Wyatt totally knows that dude is over there. Remember that absence of fear thing? He just walks right out in the open to face him.
We don't see Wyatt fire, we just see his face. Did you know James Garner could look mean? Did you know he could look remorseless? He totally can. And he's good at it.
I do NOT appreciate Robert Ryan. I mean, I do appreciate that he's talented and very good at playing oozy buckets of slime, but ugh, he makes my skin crawl in this. He's so... smug.
Know who else is smug? Jon Voight as Curly Bill Brocious. Eeeeeeeeeee, no, let's just not dwell on these guys. They're up to more skulduggery, and that's all you need to know.
Wyatt goes his own way next. McMasters and Doc promise to find him a posse. Doc says it'll be the kind of guys Wyatt could never get on his own, and Wyatt is grateful for that.
Doc being willing to dig up a few less-than-pure men for the posse will keep Wyatt's conscience a little clearer. Doc knows this. Once again, he's trying to protect Wyatt the best way he knows how.
You know what makes this film work so achingly well? The chemistry between Robards and Garner. They are spectacular. You truly believe they are not only friends, but the kind of friends who can communicate without words. A glance, an eyebrow-raise, a nod, that's all they need. I'm not aware that they ever worked together besides in this movie, and that is a terrible shame because they are terrific together.
This is only here because it's pretty.
This is also only here because it's pretty. This is James Garner's best costume in the whole movie. The gray shirt, the fitted black vest, the hat, the flipped-up collar -- delicious.
One more. Then I really will move on with the storyline.
Okay, so Wyatt goes off after one of Clanton's men that he's pretty sure has just robbed a stagecoach and killed the driver. He find him in this little adobe train depot, waiting for a train.
I love this shot, with his shadow on the window.
Anyway, after he takes down that dude, Wyatt's feeling pretty good about himself. Not only did he kill one of the men who killed his brother, he recovered the money from the stagecoach robbery. He and his pals have a friendly little game of poker.
Doc starts to talk. Doc's an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler and he has consumption (tuberculosis)... and he has this itch to be Wyatt's protector, especially when it comes to Wyatt's conscience. He can't stand seeing Wyatt feel like he's done the right thing by killing that man for revenge, so he starts to talk, and Wyatt gets mad, and then Wyatt looks like this right after he tells Doc off and Doc runs out.
Doc finds somewhere else to drink. He overhears someone talk about where to find Curly Bill Brocious and some of Clanton's other gunhands.
I love this shot because it highlights how cautious Doc is. He is not devoid of fear like Wyatt -- he wants to not just look before he leaps, but look at where he'll land from as many angles as possible.
Doc finds Curly Bill and says he's there to arrest him. Curly Bill's friends come to his defense. Things look really bad for Doc for a minute, and I think Doc is almost a little relieved because he's about to get killed in a gunfight, not die a lingering death from the tuberculosis that's making his life harder and harder.
But Wyatt is not going to let Doc die today. He shows up in a delightful sheepskin coat and I looooove this shot. Isn't it striking? Wow. All that black. All those shadows.
Okay, so after killing Curly Bill, Wyatt and his pals ride off to find the last guy who was involved in the shootings of Morgan and Virgil. Just so we're clear, Wyatt is supposed to be arresting these guys. Not killing them. He has a warrant for their arrest and he's promised to share the rewards for their capture with McMasters and the guys Doc found for the posse. But somehow they all end up dead. Resisting arrest and so on, of course.
Anyway, last guy. He's not at all happy to see them.
That's okay, Wyatt's not happy to be there. Grimly satisfied to have found him, but not happy. Also, how cool is it the way his shoulders sort of mimic the slope of the land behind him? Gorgeous shot.
We all knew how this showdown was going to end.
Oooh, a little emotion from Wyatt! Sort of a disgusted GRR face.
This worries Doc. Again with the great framing, with his hat brim mimicking the slope of the mountains.
Wyatt's all, "Oh, come on, he deserved this. Why shouldn't I be happy about getting revenge for my brothers?"
Doc pulls out his flask and offers Wyatt a drink to "help this day stay down" because he's all kinds of disgusted. With Wyatt, and with himself.
And he goes ahead and tells Wyatt so. This wasn't justice, this was revenge. Wyatt Earp's so fast with a gun, it was practically murder, and Wyatt needs to stop pretending to himself he's been doing any kind of lawman work. He's just out here paying back some men for what they did to his brothers.
As you can guess, this makes Wyatt so happy he hugs Doc, they go to a nearby town and get roaring drunk together, and then they both live happily ever after.
Um, no. Obviously not. They have words and come to blows, and then they're okay again. Wyatt insists Doc needs treatment for his TB, and they do head off together, but not to get drunk. And nobody hugs. Because I wasn't there to hug them, which is a crying shame, as they both could use a good hug at this point.
Next thing we know, Wyatt's visiting Doc at a rest home in the mountains for invalids. Doc's tuberculosis is flaring up, and he's very sick. And very cranky.
He's also worried about Wyatt. He says he didn't mean all that stuff about Wyatt not acting as a law man. Obviously, Wyatt was doing his job. It's all okay.
Neither of them says much more than that during the visit. Lots of silence and pauses and so much lovely acting between the two of them. Wyatt tells Doc he's going back to Tombstone to settle down and be the lawman there again. He gives Doc some money for the whiskey he's not supposed to be drinking and the gambling he's not supposed to be doing, and they part amiably this time.
And then guess who shows up on the train Wyatt's on?
And guess who's not happy to see his friend?
Doc knows this isn't over. How can it be, when Ike Clanton is still free out there somewhere? And Doc refuses to let Wyatt go after him alone.
More pretty scenery. Now we're in Mexico, where Clanton is stealing cattle. Wyatt gets a warrant from the Mexican authorities and goes after him.
We have an exciting shoot-out with a lot of cows milling around. Wyatt captures two of Clanton's men, and they agree to testify about Clanton's illegal dealings.
And then Wyatt and Doc get bad news from the local authorities. Those two witnesses died in their cells, murdered. Silenced by Ike Clanton.
This is my favorite scene. Doc's barely holding himself together physically, and Wyatt's barely holding himself together emotionally. It's a wonderful scene, played perfectly, shot perfectly, written perfectly. It's so full of juicy character goodness I could hug it.
Wyatt is being eaten up by his desire for revenge. We can all see it. He just won't admit it.
Doc warns him he has to do this legally. That Wyatt doesn't know how much the law, being a lawman, and being on the side of right really means. To himself, especially.
Doc practically begs him to find a way to get Clanton legally. But Wyatt decides there's no way left. He's tried that over and over, and Clanton always wriggles free.
Wyatt doesn't like it, but he knows what he has to do.
He pulls out his badge and looks at it. Considers it for a long time.
Are your toes curling from how gorgeous these images are? Oh my goodness, feast your eyes on them. This is such a beautifully filmed western.
Okay, so in the morning, off Doc and Wyatt go.
They're also riding from right to left. I talked about this in my review of Slow West a couple years ago, and I'm going to bring it up again now. Filmmakers have developed this code for movement that helps them communicate with viewers without outright telling them things. And part of that is that good guys cross the screen from left to right. People off to do something good go from left to right. Bad guys and people up to mischief go from right to left. Left-to-right indicates natural progression of time. Normality. Right-to-left indicates the opposite. So I think that John Sturges is right here telling us in a subtle visual way that Wyatt has left the path of law and order completely. He's going against the grain, riding off the rails, doing it all backwards.
This video on YouTube talks a lot about how filmmakers use direction to communicate, if you want to know more.
Gorgeous set for this finale, by the way.
Wyatt and Doc sneak up on the place where they know Ike Clanton is living. Doc moves off to a side doorway while Wyatt chooses to enter straight through the front gates.
Do you like how Wyatt gets framed with the church behind him? Very common for westerns. Put a church behind the good guy to show he's the good guy without a doubt. Even though Wyatt is not here as a lawman, not here with a warrant, just here as one dude wanting to kill another dude, he's still the hero of the tale.
What's behind Clanton? Wilderness, broken walls, nothing important.
They exchange some words. We get some nice shots like this.
Doc waits, ready to assist or avenge, whichever is needed. Always protecting Wyatt, no matter what.
Can you feel that tension mounting?
More tension! More tension! Who'll shoot first?!?!?
It doesn't really matter who shoots first. We know who will still be standing at the end of this fight.
And are these not just The Coolest Shots ever? Wow. Mmm, mmm, good. Each frame so balanced, so clean, so aesthetically pleasing. Wowsers.
And then, it's over. We're back at the rest home. Wyatt tells Doc he's heading back to Tombstone for real now. He's got an appointment as a Federal Marshal for the whole territory. He's doing okay, he's going to be fine, and he's not at all crumpled up on the inside by all the stuff he did to avenge his brothers.
Doc watches him ride away and smiles, comforted that Wyatt is all right, emotionally and physically.
Except he's not. Wyatt's actually refused the position as Marshal and is leaving for parts unknown, vowing he's not going to be a lawman ever again. Something has curdled inside him. You know how, in The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmund Dantes learns that getting revenge on your enemies hurts you just as much as it hurts them? Wyatt Earp in this movie learns that avenging your family members is just as damaging to you as to those you bring down. But he very kindly and sweetly protects Doc this time, letting him think that all is well. Bringing just a little peace into Doc's last days.
TL;DR: This movie is a powerful meditation on the damage vengeance causes to everyone involved. Go watch it and be amazed.
I mentioned Jerry Goldsmith's music at the very beginning, and I just want to highlight it again here as well. The score for this film is phenomenal. It's very spare, very direct, and exactly suits the somber tone of this film. It's a little expensive on CD, so maybe listen to it on YouTube here before you buy it.
This has been another contribution to the Legends of Western Cinema Week event I'm co-hosting with Olivia of Meanwhile, in Rivendell... and Heidi of Along the Brandywine. I hope you've enjoyed it. Especially because it's so long ;-)
Is this movie family friendly? Actually, yes. Lots of violence, a few mild cuss words, and that's about it. My 7-yr-old watched about half of it with me one night because she couldn't sleep.