Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef) is seeking Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) because he has just killed his brother in a drunken altercation. As he waits for the former dentist to come downstairs from the saloon he has been living above, Doc is arguing with his girlfriend Kate (Jo Van Fleet), as theirs is a tempestuous understanding between two souls who have yet to find their place in respectable society. Unlike Doc's good friend Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster), who is a Marshal round this area, much admired for getting the job done when it comes to lawbreakers... but he's about to face his biggest test.
Filmmakers have long been attracted to the tale of the Gunfight at O.K. Corral, and ten years before this John Ford had made his mark with a more sentimental telling of the story in My Darling Clementine, but following this there were both the Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner, and the better thought of Tombstone of the nineties, not to mention the greatest version, The Goodies episode Bunfight at the O.K. Tearooms. Director John Sturges even went as far as sequelising his own movie here with Hour of the Gun, and the Earp historical character continues to exert a fascination: a man who dodged many a bullet, but always got his quarry.
Yet somehow the film with the title everyone recalls was not quite the best adaptation. There was Sturges' customary muscular direction, an emphasis on character, and it all escalated to a climax with the gunfight taking centre stage, but it was one of those films that was easy to rewatch thanks to it being solidly entertaining without being especially memorable in its details. As far as history went, the facts were embellished to make for a more involved plotline, but if that was the idea then why did the movie tend to wash over you while you were watching, neither terrible or attaining any heights of excellence?
Granted, it was a humourless relaying of the narrative, with even Douglas's tubercular Doc not given any funny lines in spite of that role being traditionally the scene-stealer, but it was more as if the importance of the events in the popular mind forced the moviemakers to render this in as po-faced a style as possible. The cast were not at fault, as there were plenty of seasoned actors who were perfect here, so it could have been Leon Uris's dutiful script that drained the tension out of what should have been suspenseful. That's not to say there was no enjoyment to be had from watching these archetypes, both historically and in personality, interacting, and you can see why of all the fifties westerns this one has endured where better ones have fallen by the wayside.
It could be that both Earp and Holliday have nothing at stake but losing their close friendship; sure, they both have women who dote over them, with Rhonda Fleming landed with a nothing love interest part for Wyatt and Van Fleet doing rather better with the unfaithful Kate, yet the real love affair is between those two men. Lancaster certainly wanted to play their bond as if it were the love that dare not speak its name, whether Douglas was quite as keen on that idea is not quite as clear, but it's true that the only relationship that matters, above even family and the love of a woman, is the one between Wyatt and Doc. Another aspect that makes this a touch more distinctive is that every death in it is far from anonymous, and the personal side to gunning someone down in the name of the law, or the lawbreaker, is explicitly stated in portentous scenes which offer the overall effect as, if anything, weighty, solemn and to some extent self-important. Star power carries this, well, that and the once heard-never forgotten Frankie Laine theme song played throughout. Score by Dmitri Tiomkin.