Friday, September 29, 2006

Hour of the Gun

Plodding shouldn't be a complimentary way to describe a movie, but offhand I can't think of a better word for the pacing of John Sturges' revenge Western, Hour of the Gun, starring James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday.

It's as if Sturges set the beat to Wyatt's first, slow, measured steps out into the streets of Tombstone and towards the O.K. Corral, in the opening shots of the film. The pacing from there on, never speeding up, never slowing down, matches Earp's inexorable march towards vengeance and his final showdown with the man who ordered his brother's death.

That's deceptive.

Wyatt's path to that last gunfight takes him all over the map. It moves in fits and starts. There are times when he isn't chasing the bad guys at all, he's off on some other, mundane, or at least non-violent, errand, like taking Doc, who's dying of tuberculosis, to a sanitarium in Colorado, hundreds of miles away from Tombstone, so far off that it might as well be another planet. Definitely far enough away---and he spends several weeks there, looking after Doc---that you begin to wonder if he's given up his vendetta.

But Sturges hasn't paced the movie to keep in step with Wyatt's geographic travels. He's matching the progress of Wyatt's thoughts as Earp changes from a decent-hearted and dutiful lawman into a lawless but cold and methodical killer.

This progress is only seemingly inexorable. The measured pacing, the one foot in front of the other, one step following from the last scene structure---no jump cuts in this movie. Few close-ups too. Sturges shoots mainly in medium and medium long shots and lets the characters' movements provide all the action, and since Garner is in just about every shot, he sets the pace, slow and steady. Too steady. Inhumanly steady. Scarily steady.---what we're being shown is that this change in Earp is not inevitable. One thing does lead to the other, but predictably, and because it's happening slowly, he has time to think about what he's done, where he's headed, what the final results will be.

He could stop himself at any time.

Like I said, there are times when he seems to have stopped; in the scenes in Colorado Wyatt even comes close to looking cheerful, as if he's let it go. But the measured beat of Sturges' drum is relentless. In his mind, Wyatt's never given up the hunt.

It doesn't help that Clanton can't give up his obsession with Earp any more than Earp can give up his obsession with Clanton. Clanton wants to see Earp "cold and in the ground" and just at the moment when Wyatt seems ready to listen to the angel of his better nature, he gets news of Clanton's plottings.

He doesn't have to do anything about the news, though. He just decides that he will.

He gets back on the trail. The killings continue, each one more violent and more unnecessary and more like murder.

There's not much suspense in the plot. The suspense arises from the place suspense arises in all tragedies---from our hope that something will stop the inevitable in its course and our despairing certainty that nothing will.

Hour of the Gun isn't a true tragedy, though. For one thing, we know going in that Wyatt Earp can't die. Not if the movie is going to be as historically accurate as the title card after the opening credits proclaims it will be.

This movie is based on fact: This is the way it happened.

And for another thing, neither Sturges nor his screenwriter, Edward Anhalt, do much to make us care about what happens to the men Earp goes gunning for. They are bad men and their boss, Ike Clanton, is worse.

What Sturges expects us to care about, and to mourn, is a good man throwing away his own soul.

Hour of the Gun has been called a sequel to the movie Sturges made about Wyatt Earp ten years before, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, starring Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday.

Sequel's the wrong word. Hour of the Gun is the Wyatt Earp movie Sturges would have liked to have made in the 1950s. The Jimmy Stewart-Anthony Mann problem westerns had already shown that movie audiences were ready for morally ambiguous stories with conflicted, if not downright unsympathetic, heroes, but apparently the Wyatt Earp legends were still untouchable. Sturges did what he could to make Gunfight at the O.K. Corral a more realistic story and not another burnishing of the myth, but it is finally an old-fashined shoot-em-up, set in a romanticized Wild West with an idealized Wyatt Earp as its hero.

Hour of the Gun isn't a revisionist western. Sturges isn't out to debunk the myth he had helped shine. He's really trying to show what the title card says: This is the way it happened.

By 1881, when the Earps confronted the Clanton gang at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone wasn't in the Wild West, it was at the very westernmost edge of the tame East. And Wyatt Earp and his brothers weren't heroes riding in to town to clean up. They were peace officers---cops---hired by the town to maintain an orderliness that was already established. In his bulkiness and stolidity, James Garner's Earp is a little bit like John Wayne. But he's more like the guy who's running for sheriff in your town today, a career lawman who's spent too many nights breaking up fights between drunks and picking up the pieces after an accident and arguing with local politicians about budgets.

Hour of the Gun opens with the shootout at the OK Corral and it's staged fairly close to "the way it happened." It's over in a couple of minutes. I think the real gunfight took about thirty seconds. That's because it wasn't meant to be a showdown. It was four cops going to tell a street gang to break it up. The fact that three men ended up dead was enough of a suprise to everybody concerned and seen as something so heinously out of the ordinary that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were actually arrested for murder, although a judge decided there was no case against them and refused to indict.

That's the "wild" west of Hour of the Gun. Showdowns are not a part of daily life and dead bodies in the street are a sign that something went wrong, not that the good guys have put things to right.

You don't need to have seen Gunfight at the O.K. Corral to know what's going on in Hour of the Gun. What you do need is enough of a sense of the legend of Wyatt Earp to accept Earp as a hero at first sight. You also need enough innocence to believe that the legend must have some basis in fact to carry you past any reflexive cynicism that might stand in the way of your seeing Earp as a good guy.

It might help, then, to know that the real Wyatt Earp apparently never killed anybody before the the O.K. Corral. He was a crack shot and could have killed any bad guy he felt needed killing. But his preferred method for dealing with troublemakers was to walk right up to them, snatch whatever weapon they were brandishing out of their hands, cold-cock them over the head with his pistol, and drag them off to jail.

This appears to have worked for the real Seth Bullock of Deadwood fame too.

The real Earp didn't look like James Garner or Burt Lancaster. He was tall, but he was skinny. So it wasn't his size that cowed people. There was something about the force of his character.

Whatever it was that kept him alive and saved him the trouble of having to kill anybody didn't work with the Clanton gang. Gang is the word for them too. They were more like modern gangsters than like the outlaw gangs of the movies or the real life James and Dalton gangs. They were cattle thieves and stick-up artists who ran "legitimate businesses" and bought up local politicians and while some revisionist histories suggest that the gunfight at the OK Corral was actually the result of business and political rivalries getting out of hand, with the Earps being in their way as dirty as the Clantons, it's more the case that the Earps shocked the Clantons by deciding to treat them like the criminals they were instead of the honest ranchers they pretended to be.

The shock caused Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers to draw their guns---or have their guns drawn, that's never been clear. We don't really know if the Earps knew they were walking into a gunfight and went anyway. The way they just walked straight at the Clantons suggests they didn't, and Ike Clanton may not have been wearing his guns, which would mean he wasn't expecting real trouble either.

The famous shootout was probably a mistake. Both sides miscalculated. What happened in the weeks after, though, was murder. Ike Clanton or somebody associated with the gang ordered a hit on the Earps. Morgan and Virgil were ambushed. Morgan was killed and Virgil left crippled.

Then various members of the Clanton gang began turning up dead.

My second favorite Wyatt Earp movie, 1993's Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer as Wyatt and Doc, treats this part of the story as a simple kill or be killed shoot out that takes place over the course of weeks instead of all at once at high noon.

My favorite Wyatt Earp movie is My Darling Clementine, but that's one of John Ford's fairy tales.

Sturges, though, makes it plain that Wyatt Earp does not have to kill any of the men he confronts. He's a much better lawman than they are outlaws and gunfighters. He has the drop on them and the ones who make the mistake of drawing on him do it because he provokes them to.

In every confrontation, except the final one, Earp's former method of handling bad guys---stare them down, take their guns, drag them off to jail---would have worked.

In effect then, Earp murders them all.

Each killing seems less accidental than the last, and with each one Earp grows less and less surprised at himself. When he lets a bad guy live it's only to make him tell him where the next bad guy is hiding out so he can go kill him.

This is the story of a good man who does wrong, but Sturges doesn't ever let us think that Earp has no choice. Wyatt knows that the citizens of Tombstone have been working, successfully, to run Ike Clanton out of town and have effectively disarmed him by breaking up the gang, arresting and buying off those members Earp hasn't caught up with yet.

On top of which, Sturges makes us doubt Wyatt from the start. The opening gunfight is shot almost entirely in longshot and although there's some dialogue we don't hear the words, as if we're being kept out of earshot with the camera. We don't know what the Earps are thinking as they walk down the street or what the Clantons are really planning when they gather at the corral.

But Sturges has James Garner give Earp a moment of pause in which he seems to be re-thinking the situation and even telling himself that this probably isn't the way to go about things and he ought to stop it right now. It's only a moment, but before it passes Garner suddenly looks very sad, as if he has lost something important and is mourning the loss.

And while Sturges' title card insists "This is the way it happened," he's changed an important detail.

In real life, Ike Clanton was with his brother and the McLaurys. The reason he didn't end up dead like them is that when the shooting started he ran at the Earps shouting that he was unarmed---he might have thrown his guns away, he might have dropped them when Virgil Earp ordered the gang to disarm, or he might not have been wearing them to begin with. Whichever was the case, Wyatt Earp shouted at him to get the hell out of the way and even gave him a helpful shove.

In the movie, Sturges has Ike standing across the street with the rest of the gang and then ducking for cover as soon as the shooting starts. He's wearing his gunbelt, but he takes it off before the smoke clears so that he'll appear to have been an innocent bystander.

He doesn't owe his life to Wyatt then. He owes it to his trigger-happy kid brother Billy and the McLaurys who started shooting too soon. The Earps have to deal with them first and while they are shooting it out with Billy and the McLaurys, the rest of the gang scatters and Ike is forced to take cover.

The implication is that Ike meant to be part of the confrontation and that the Earps expected him to be. And since Ike is played by Robert Ryan and is the only star among the Clantons---although Jon Voight appears in one of his earliest roles as Curly Bill Brocius---Ike is the only Clanton of interest at that point. So we can't help feeling it was Ike the Earps were on their way to... what to?

Arrest? Argue with? Interrogate?


That's what I think Garner's little moment of hesitation and sorrow is meant to tell us. As the movie begins, Wyatt Earp has already decided that he's going to kill Ike Clanton. He's concluded that there's no other way to deal with him. The decision is morally wrong because it's wrong for practical reasons. The town has already begun to make moves to get rid of Ike. Clanton himself is desperate because, as he tells his bought politicians later, "The East is coming." He means that the town's honest citizens will finally have the backing of real government and he won't be able to survive that.

Wyatt certainly knows the East is coming too. But he's lost patience. Perhaps it's also a matter of pride with him. He's going to put a stop to Clanton himself, once and for all, and that means he has to kill him. The thing he's mourning the loss of in that moment, then, is himself.

We're not meant to think that Wyatt is driven to murder by passion and an understandable desire for revenge. When Clanton has his brothers ambushed it gives him justification not motivation for a course of action he's already decided upon.

Hour of the Gun is a director's not an actor's movie. There's not much in the way of dialogue. The characters tell each other what they they need to know, never what they are thinking or feeling. Garner isn't called upon to do much more than glower and then glower harder. Robert Ryan's job is to give Ike Clanton the charisma and intelligence necessary to organize, lead, and hold together a collection of thugs, cowards, sociopaths, drifters, and grifters. It's interesting and fun to see him make Clanton into a precursor of Deadwood's Al Swearengen. In his speeches to his gang about the threat from the East he sounds very much like Swearengen ranting about Yankton, without the profanity of course and without the poetry either, but he has exactly the same contempt for his bought politicians as Ian McShane has Swearengen show towards the corrupt "decent" citizens that are his allies.

All the real heavylifting is left to Jason Robards. He only has a couple of notes to sing, going back and forth between world-weary cynic and outraged idealist, but he doesn't go the usual route of having the cynic be the mask of the idealist. He makes the idealist the creation of the cynic.

As I said, you don't need to believe the myth as much as remember it to accept the movie's premise that Wyatt Earp is a good man. But it's clear that Robards' Doc Holliday not only believes the myth but needs it to be true to the point that he drags himself out of the hospital in order to try to get in the way of Earp's self-propelled downfall. If there's killing to be done, Doc Holliday is the one to do it not Wyatt Earp.

Holliday sees himself as having been a bad man, and not just a sinner but a villain. Somehow and for reasons neither man can probably articulate Wyatt Earp became his friend. Holliday has concluded that if someone like Wyatt Earp can see something good in him then maybe he's not as irredeemble as he'd supposed.

Wyatt Earp is Doc Holliday's personal savior and now that Doc knows that he can't fight off his TB any longer, that it's going to take much more time to kill him, he desperately needs Wyatt to be what he thought him to be so that he can die thinking of himself as not entirely damned.

I like it that the dialogue doesn't lay this out for us. We have to see it for ourselves in Robards' anger and anguish at what Wyatt is doing to himself.

The nicest thing about Robards' performance, though, is the calmness that comes over him when he realizes that it didn't matter that he couldn't stop Wyatt.

It's Robards, not Garner, Sturges gives the last scene and the last lines to.

Before leaving him at the sanitarium, knowing that this is the last time, it's the end of the line for Doc, Wyatt has told Doc a lie about himself, a charitable lie, meant to leave Doc with his illusions about Wyatt's heroism. Doc pretends to believe it, but he doesn't and there's a heartbroken look on Robards' face as he watches Wyatt ride away.

But it doesn't last. He turns his attention to a card game he's playing with an orderly and finishes the game and the movie with a rueful but sincere grin.

"Aces," he says as he lays out his winning hand. It's a description of his mood as well as of his cards.

In Wyatt Earp, Sturges is showing us that the seeds of our moral self-destruction are in our own hands.

But in Doc Holliday he is showing us that the corrollary is true too. The agent of our redemption is our own self.


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