The shootout at the O.K. Corral is one of the defining stories of the American West. Famously lasting only thirty seconds, the altercation ended with three deaths and stamped the legacies of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday as folk heroes. Like so many other events during the nation’s long westward development, it has expanded over the ensuing 135 years to mythic proportions. The gunfight has been depicted in at least ten different films, and no doubt a qualified historian could point out falsification in each and every one of them. Selecting two films from this cornucopian filmography to compare is a matter of random sampling, but I’ll go with the only two that, to date, I’ve seen.
My Darling Clementine and Tombstone both portray a world of pistol-whipping, frontier surgery, and long treks along dusty roads toward violent reckonings. But their approaches to the material are starkly different. It starts with the titles: one romantic and sentimental, the other tough and factual. My Darling Clementine makes its theme the story of two families, the Earps and the Clantons. Tombstone emphasizes the fight against nascent organized crime — basically “The Untouchables in the Old West.” What’s interesting is that each route leads to more or less the same place, with the future of American civilization being decided.
To a certain point, the two interpretations follow the same trajectory. Wyatt Earp and his brothers arrive in Tombstone, seeking fortune and actively resisting the opportunity to go into law enforcement, despite their qualifications. They find a booming but still wild town and take stock of the situation. Wyatt asserts his authority by single-handedly (and without a gun) throwing a troublemaker out of a saloon. Later, Wyatt and Doc Holliday spend an evening at the theater, but some of the local tough guys prove impatient with the fine arts. This isn’t the main inciting incident in either film, but it’s a hint of clashes to come.
The use of Shakespeare is the first great breach between the two films. Prior to that, there are certainly distinctions to be made. My Darling Clementine‘s director, John Ford, quickly establishes his mythic scope with the opening image of a cattle drive in Monument Valley. Tombstone opens with a somewhat long-winded history lesson (incorporating footage from the world’s first western, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery). But the truly crystallizing moment comes when a supporting character starts reciting from an Elizabethan play. America’s love affair with the Bard is something Ford deeply understood. It’s incredibly stirring to see Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech bring a room to a standstill — all the more when that same room has seen guns getting slid across a counter and shot glasses chucked at the floor. Tombstone features a different classic passage, the “St. Crispin’s Day Speech” from Henry V, but the sense of awe is altogether absent. What director George P. Cosmatos sees in this scene is a bunch of unwashed varmints heckling the snooty thespian, nothing more. It’s cheap.
The Shakespearean quality defines My Darling Clementine as a whole, whereas Tombstone consistently draws its inspiration from film history. In the earlier film, the opposing families jostling for power in the Arizona territory ensure that the story’s conflicts will be simple and solid, but also inevitably symbolic. The Clantons and the Earps are each trying to plant the seeds of community in their different, yet equally masculine, ways. Like other feuding families before them, they scar each other irrevocably. The first marker of civilization is a grave. Tombstone has two characters named Clanton, as well, but they aren’t especially significant to the story. The fight is with the “Cowboys,” a loosely organized band of marauding gangsters. Crime film tropes are combined with direct references to My Darling Clementine itself, most notably the iconic image of Wyatt propping his feet up on a sidewalk post. The closing narration (spoken by Robert Mitchum, no less) can’t resist pointing out that Wyatt lived long enough to be good friends with “early western movie stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix.” Left unmentioned is the fact that Josephine Earp, Wyatt’s last wife, lived all the way to 1944, two years before the release of My Darling Clementine.
These movies might be best remembered for scenes of men shooting each other, but upon close inspection it becomes clear that the women in Tombstone have a noticeable impact on the heroes. Ford’s understanding of Clementine (Cathy Downs) and Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) is probably cinema’s cleanest expression of the virgin-whore dichotomy. They initially appear as the angel and devil on Doc Holliday’s shoulders, but by the end they both play a part in his redemption. In the later film, it’s Wyatt Earp who’s torn between two women, one of them his current wife, Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). Wyatt’s sudden attraction to the visiting actress Josephine (Dana Delany) who promises him a more exciting life is made more palatable by Mattie’s increasing laudanum dependency. The love triangle is visualized in a couple scenes by having Wyatt stand in the middle of an imaginary boxing ring with the two women appearing in opposite corners. Alas, they never fight. Mattie is placed on a train and is conveniently never heard from again. What unites all four women, as so often with women in the western mythos, is that they give the men something to aspire to, a reason to plant their feet on the ground.
The approaches to casting in these films are also revealing. John Ford, of course, is one of the preeminent auteurs in Hollywood history. So, while he had a couple big stars in Henry Fonda and Victor Mature, his cast is made up of dependable character actors, some of whom (including Fonda) had worked with him before. George P. Cosmatos, on the other hand, is more of the “anonymous journeyman” kind of director. And Tombstone is star-studded, although, to be fair, some of the actors would be more famous later. The point is that the performers provide most of the film’s spark. Val Kilmer, in particular, creates an infinitely more vital and interesting Doc Holliday than Mature did. It’s hard to beat Fonda’s Wyatt Earp, though, with his thoroughly modest strength and unflappable righteousness. Kurt Russell is a screen hero in the John Wayne tradition, not the Fonda tradition. He does some of the same things Fonda does, but with more of an emphasis on displaying his dominance. The problem may lie with the writing and direction more than anything else. Fonda is given great character moments (the shave, the graveside scene, the perfume, the dance), while Russell is left with little more than an awesome mustache and some cool poses.
Finally, there’s the shootout itself, which is saved for last in My Darling Clementine but occurs a little over halfway through Tombstone. The later film has a pronounced edge in the historical accuracy department, but the fight drags on for a few minutes in both. Ford stages the showdown as, ultimately, a fight between Wyatt Earp and the Clanton patriarch (Walter Brennan), who reveals that he himself shot and killed James and Morgan Earp earlier. In Tombstone, the two leaders of the Cowboys (played by Powers Boothe and Michael Biehn) are not involved in the shootout; their demises are saved for later. In short, the later film can be seen as an attempt to take in the greater sweep of historical events, which is a worthy goal. But the simpler stories tend to be the more effective ones. So, surprise, surprise, the canonical film ends up being the greater of the two. At least they arrive at the same place, with lawlessness tamed and a growing American town left in good hands. The town’s name stuck, though.