John Sturges & The American West

“We’re playing two pre-Freudian fags.  We’re in love with each other and we don’t know how to express ourselves that way-we just kind of look at each other and grunt and don’t say very much, but you know we love each other.” –Burt Lancaster to Kirk Douglas on the set of John Sturges’ Gunfight At The O.K. Corral

Douglas & Lancaster

John Sturges was one of the most eminent commercial film directors in Hollywood during the fifties and sixties.  Sturges’ films spanned almost every genre, but almost always stuck to a regular formula.  Sturges’ most successful films deal with the relationships between men when they form a common bond during a violent conflict.  The glamorization of male camaraderie is the rhetoric of Sturges’ cinema, from The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) to The Hallelujah Trail (1965) and Ice Station Zebra (1967).  Though Sturges never originated any of his projects, his attraction to films with these similar themes is telling of a definite kind of artistry.  Functioning on an even more subtle level in his films is his depiction of women.  Sturges’ broad all star western comedy The Hallelujah Trail is the only of Sturges’ films that brings his relationship to women to the forefront.  Sturges’ depiction of women is not sexist, but rather chauvinist.  The women in Sturges’ films are strong willed and active characters.  However, these positive traits are overshadowed by the effect they have on the male protagonists at the heart of all of Sturges’ films.  Almost always, the actions the female characters take put the male leads in jeopardy, or simply come to repulse the male characters.  In Sturges’ films, women detract from men like parasites, undoing the more successful and glamorized relationships men have between one another.

The intricacy of John Sturges’ depiction of machismo in his films sits just beneath the surface of all the cinematic conventions Sturges utilizes in his films.  After Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957), Sturges became one of the premiere directors of historical blockbusters with large ensemble casts.  This shift from mediocre “director for hire” to Sturges’ commercial success marks a subversion of the filmmaker’s personal in touch, negating any significant recognition as an auteur in the Andrew Sarris dominated sixties.  In many ways, this makes Gunfight At The O.K. Corral the most intriguing film in Sturges’ vernacular.  The success of this film is not just responsible for Sturges’ transition into big budget Vista-Vision epics, but also the origination of a formal style of filmmaking that would provide the blueprint for all of the director’s films to follow.

Gunfight At The O.K. Corral was produced by Hal Wallis, and scripted by noted author Leon Uris (who, a few years later, would find critical acclaim with his novel Exodus), to re-create the famous shoot-out between the notorious Clantons and Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and his lawmen brothers.  Wallis intended the film to be a more complex western than the usual matinee fare, modeling the character driven screenplay off of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946).  However, Wallis insisted that his film be more up to the times, with more violence and romance than in John Ford’s telling of the familiar tale.

To play the leads, Wallis procured Kirk Douglas to play Doc Holliday, Rhonda Fleming to play Earp’s love interest Laura Denbow and Jo Van Fleet to play Holliday’s romantic interest Kate Fisher.  To round out the cast, Wallis employed the elite and some of the most recognizable character actors of the day such as DeForest Kelley, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Earl Holliman, John Ireland, Martin Milner, and Dennis Hopper in one of his earliest screen roles.  The most difficult problem Wallis faced was obtaining his own contract player Burt Lancaster to commit to playing the film’s lead, Wyatt Earp.  Lancaster eventually struck a deal with Wallis, arranging to play Earp if the lead of Starbuck in Joseph Anthony’s film version of The Rainmaker (1956).

Gunfight At The O.K. Corral is an exercise in the manipulation of framing in  Vista-Vision.  For Sturges’ production, Wallis and Paramount Pictures sparred no expense, and it shows.  Sturges’ work with cinematographer Charles B. Lang Jr. creates a idolized portrait of Wyatt Earp.  Burt Lancaster’s dynamic figure and magnetic presence are utilized in the Vista-Vision to romanticize the character as a larger than life legend, whose significance as a visual signifier is rivaled in the film only by Douglas’ Holliday.  As much as Uris’ script attempts to humanize the film’s characters it cannot compete with Sturges’ visual counter point.

Sturges’ romanticized visuals look to recreate the John Ford model of the western while Uris’ screenplay attempts to improve it.  This presents an odd conundrum, where patriotic pride wins out with a faint hint of a more progressive psychoanalytical approach to already established character types.  In many ways Uris’ script would have been better suited to the sensitivities of Anthony Mann rather than John Sturges.  But the anomaly of Wallis’ pairing is indicative of the dramatic shift in style the western would undergo in the sixties.

Separated from the text of the script, the visuals of male stoicism and camaraderie in Gunfight At The O.K. Corral establish the primary lexicon of images that will compose Stuges’ manly adventure dramas The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.  Sturges’ adventure blockbusters each deal with a facet of American history, creating a Romantic notion of the past.  But this Romantic notion of American heritage is inseparable from the men Sturges’ idolizes in his visuals.  These men, the Earps and Hollidays, provide, at least for Stuges’, the ideal characteristics of an American male.

What differentiates Sturges’ depiction of masculinity from that of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and Robert Aldrich is the lack of human error and vice in the depiction of men in his films.  More than any of his contemporaries Sturges’ revels in the plasticity of his romanticism.  It is far more important to John Sturges that the audience sees something to aspire to in his films than it is to find someone to relate to.  Sturges changes the parameters by which we can assess his western, coming closer to the hyper-realities of Douglas Sirk than the traditionally Romantic realities of Ford and Hawks.

By default the exaggerated romanticism of Gunfight At The O.K. Corral places Sturges’ fascination with idolized masculinity to the film’s forefront, the direct opposite of what occurs in his second film with Burt Lancaster The Hallelujah Trail.  These two films also present an interesting shift in conflicts.  In Gunfight At The O.K. Corral the conflict is between the “ideal” males (Earp and Holliday) and the weak corrupt males (the Clanton gang) while in The Hallelujah Trail the film becomes a battle of the sexes, men versus women.

Lancaster & Douglas

The evolution of conflicts in John Sturges’ westerns coupled with his machismo-laden visuals imbue both Gunfight At The O.K. Corral and The Hallelujah Trail with an undercurrent of homoeroticism.  In fact, a number of Sturges’ films exude the same subtext.  Sturges’ affection for “buddy movies” could easily be construed as the retelling of the same basic story concerning “two pre-Freudian fags” as Lancaster put it.  However, there is no evidence to suggest that Sturges or Uris intended Gunfight At The O.K. Corral to be a homoerotic romance.  But Rhonda Fleming maintains that the film underwent a significant change in the editing room asserting that “when we started out it was going to be a love story between Burt (Lancaster) and me with a strong relationship between Burt and Kirk (Douglas), but as it went on, the relationship became stronger between Burt and Kirk, and I was kind of left holding the horse.”(Fishgall, page 149)

Regardless of what subtext one detects in Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, the film is still an important one to the history of its genre.  Wallis even hired Frankie Laine to sing the film’s theme song written by Dimitri Tiomkin (who also provides the film’s dramatic score), making the film, in hindsight, a prime candidate for nostalgic movie viewing.

-Robert Curry

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