The ‘Infamous’ Gunfight: The Legend of OK Corral
By Tom Morrow
Western folklore is uniquely American, and few stories have been told, written or put on film more often than the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Few Western stories have been exaggerated or turned into legend, even myth as has been this 1881 incident.
There have been no less than 12 depictions on film of the infamous battle that took place at 3 p.m., Oct. 26, 1881, in Tombstone, which is near Bisbee, the Cochise County seat of southern Arizona.
Earp died in 1929, and the first film referring to the gunfight was “Law and Order” produced in 1932, starring Walter Huston as Earp. Today, that first film has been all but forgotten, but notably produced after Earp made himself known in Hollywood trying to get his story put on celluloid. Earp had become friends with William S. Hart and later, cowboy matinee idol Tom Mix. Earp was used by several movie producers as a “technical advisor” for western films.
The second OK Corral film, “Frontier Marshal,” was made in 1939, starring Randolph Scott. The writers of this movie took more than great liberties, namely it has Earp, alone, gunning down the Clantons and McLaury brothers.
The next movie about the gunfight was made in 1942. “Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die,” starred popular western star of that time, Richard Dix as Wyatt Earp. John “Doc” Holliday was played by Kent Taylor. This film is quite good in that it got 95 percent of the facts into the story in well-told fashion.
In 1946, after World War II, one of the all-time movie favorites is “My Darlin’ Clementine,” starring Henry Fonda as Earp, and Victor Mature as Doc. In an interview with this writer, Mature said it was his first film after being discharged from the U.S. Coast Guard. “I wasn’t sure I could get my career going again after being away from Hollywood for four years,” he told me. “Clementine” was one of my favorite movies.”
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From 1955 to 1961, a popular television series starring Hugh O’Brian resurrected Earp’s name: “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” The name was about the only thing factual.
In 1957, one of the most popular and successful films about the story was “The Gunfight at the OK Corral,” starring Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as Holliday. Lots of fiction-on-fact in this movie, but it is one of the more entertaining of the series.
In 1966, British writers of the popular TV series, “Doctor Who,” dedicated an episode, “The Gunfighters,” about the western American story.
Another of the better depictions of the Tombstone event was the 1967 film, “Hour of the Gun,” starring James Garner as Earp and Jason Robards as Doc. In a 1970 interview, Robards told this writer, ‘I never saw the movie (“Hour of the Gun), but I’m told it’s quite good.” And, it is. The film is the first to concentrate on the aftermath revenge chase by Earp in pursuit of his brother Morgan’s killers.
In 1968, an episode, “Spector of the Gun” on TV’s original “Star Trek” series was dedicated to the gunfight, as was a 1972, Pete Hamill-written script for the TV series, “Appointment With Destiny,” titled “Showdown at the OK Corral.” That effort was nominated for an Emmy.
The final two OK Corral movies appeared on screen in 1993 and 1994. “Tombstone,” starring Kurt Russell and “Wyatt Earp,” starring Kevin Costner, are two of the best-told films of the series about the gunfight.
In 1916, the real Earp arrived in Hollywood and became friends with the two most famous western actors of that era: William S. Hart and Tom Mix. Earp frequently visited the sets of movie director John Ford, whose movies starred Harry Carey, both future mentors of John Wayne. In the early 1920s, Earp was given the honorary title of deputy sheriff in San Bernardino County.
To clarify some misconceptions, the five Earp brothers were: Virgil, James, Wyatt, Morgan, and Warren. “Doc” Holliday was a dentist from Valdosta, Georgia, not an M.D. The OK Corral gunfight lasted less than 40 seconds; it took place in a vacant lot “behind” the corral. Virgil Earp already was a deputy U.S. Marshal when he arrived in Tombstone. Wyatt wasn’t a lawman at that time. However, even these so-called “facts” have been told and twisted in a variety of ways – the OK Corral gunfight saga has been left to interpretation by historians.
John ‘Doc’ Holliday died of tuberculous at the age of 36 and is buried in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Wyatt Earp died at age 80 on Jan. 13, 1929, in Los Angeles and was buried by his common-law wife, Josephine Marcus in a Jewish section of the Memorial Cemetery of Colma, California.