Judge Paul Corupe warns: "Don't you go a-takin' no wooden nickels, and don't let this hyar movin' picture convince ya that it's histurricul fact."
Wyatt Earp—hero with a badge or cold-blooded killer?
The life and times of legendary lawman Wyatt Earp have provided plentiful material for westerns over the years, from classics like My Darling Clementine and Frontier Marshal to relatively recent adaptations including Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. John Sturges's much admired 1956 oater Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is probably one of the finest adaptations of the Earp story, a Technicolor potboiler that depicts Earp butting heads with rival cattle rustler Ike Clanton, a conflict which ultimately leads to the titular skirmish. After westerns went out of vogue in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sturges surprised everyone by revisiting Tombstone, Arizona more than a decade later for another, quite different look at the Earp legacy. Hour of the Gun, which picks up right where Gunfight at the O.K. Corral left off, is a revisionist look at one of America's most enduring real-life western heroes, and a film that finally claims to dig up the truth behind the infamous marshal's life.
Facts of the Case
After the thick haze of gun smoke disperses from the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp (James Garner, A Man Called Sledge) finds himself in court, defending his murderous actions to all of Tombstone. The judge absolves Earp and his partner Doc Holliday (Jason Robards,Once Upon a Time in the West) of the shooting deaths of Ike Clanton's (Robert Ryan, The Wild Bunch) hired goons, but once the upstanding gunslingers are back on the street, Clanton plans his own six-gun justice. Motivated by not only revenge but also to gain financial and political control over Arizona, Clanton sends his boys out to pick off Earp's brothers. After the same judge fails to convict Clanton for these latest murders, Earp and his old compatriot Holliday load up on federal arrest warrants, with a plan to track down each of the killers. Holliday, however, is convinced that Earp wants personal revenge rather than justice, and he's proven right when the marshal begins to unceremoniously execute his prey on a sprawling journey that leads him down to Clanton's Mexican ranch.
Director John Sturges has made some of the greatest westerns of the mid-20th Century—Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven—but rarely is Hour of the Gun mentioned alongside those first-rate films. That this late-period western has fallen between the cracks of Sturges's resume should really not be a surprise, however, since its claims to historical accuracy tend to get mired down in that wide-open plain that lies between Old West truth and Hollywood myth.
That Hour of the Gun offers some kind of "authentic" version of Earp's life is only really true in comparison to the kind of sagebrush stereotypes offered up by its predecessors. Under the pretense of historical accuracy, Hour of the Gun simply substitutes an aging Hollywood mythos with a more cynical, contemporary one. Taking its cue from hardboiled crime and gangster films that had made a comeback in the late 1960s, Hour of the Gun trades in classical notions of heroism and justice for an anti-hero marshal who discreetly snickers at the "dead or alive" addendums on his warrants as he calls out the Clanton gang and challenges them to one-sided duels. Despite the undoubtedly more accurate portrayal of Earp as a fallible man rather than a walking metaphor for law and order, the film still smacks with the improbable Hollywood contrivances, including Earp's miraculous appearance in town to rescue Holliday after a spontaneous attempted arrest turns sour, and later, the tubercular Holliday's somehow managing to sneak out of the hospital to join the vengeful marshal on a train headed south of the border. Likewise, Earp and his nemesis Clanton may be far more complex than previously portrayed, but the rest of the supporting cast is not, each comfortably falling into either "altruistically law-abiding" or "unrepentantly evil" categories.
It's Hour of the Gun's occasional concessions to historical fact, however, that unintentionally sabotage the dramatic punch of the story. In following the general trajectory of Earp's life more closely than previous directors, Sturges is forced to rely on far fewer action scenes than he usually employs, reducing the film to just a lengthy series of assassinations. Instead, the film seems more interested in the political maneuvering of the Clantons and the Earps as Arizona prepares to become a state, as the characters round up posses, haggle over legal jurisdiction, and prepare for elections. These scenes were obviously intended to lend some factual authority to the film, but they're hardly exciting and more often than not only end up testing the viewer's patience.
Still, the film does have several things going for it, not the least of which is an eye-catching use of locations. Known for his breathtaking scenery, Sturges splashes his action across an Old West full of breathtaking backgrounds lovingly captured in the VistaVision widescreen process. Keeping the camera low to the ground to flaunt the expansive sky and cool blue mountains of Arizona, Hour of the Gun is chock full of beautiful settings that truly enhance the atmosphere and action on screen.
The film also features some strong acting on behalf of James Garner and Jason Robards, who offer one of the more impressive portrayals of Wyatt Earp and his well-meaning, alcoholic partner Doc Holliday. Garner is at his absolute best here, a stoic figure whose stony face belies obviously conflicting emotions underneath the surface. Robards backs him up ably, with a highly colorful portrayal of Holliday as a rascally poker player and die-hard compatriot. As Ike Clanton, Robert Ryan barely gets any screen time, but he's a welcome addition to the cast, and manages to give the elder of the Clanton clan a little respectability despite all his devious plotting.
Hey, here's something I haven't seen in a little while—a flipper disc with an anamorphic widescreen image on one side, and a pan-and-scan version on the other! The transfer itself is nothing to get too excited about. The image is reasonably clear and bright, if slightly soft, and the soundtrack is a no-nonsense mono that is free of any artifacts. Hour of the Gun is a western catalogue release, so you know what that means—the only special feature is a trailer.
Hour of the Gun has garnered something of a reputation with Western fans over the years, but its distinctive take on the genre is far more indicative of the changing times than any real reevaluation of history. Moreover, Garner's portrayal of Earp as a conflicted cowboy torn between righteousness and revenge is simply too little, too late—over in Italy, Clint Eastwood and Franco Nero had already made dark motives and outbursts of fierce action standard for spaghetti western anti-heroes, and Sam Peckinpah was no doubt already hard at work putting together his cynical, violent classic The Wild Bunch. Western fans will certainly want to take a look at Hour of the Gun for its unique perspective on the Earp mythology, but others will probably be happy with one of Sturges's better-known films.
Hour of the Gun is guilty of the dissemination of suspicious history.
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