Director John Sturges returns to the scene of his earlier “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, with a revisionist western attempting a greater fidelity to historical fact than previous westerns based upon the cultural myths advanced about Wyatt Earp. Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton. Rather than the predictable narrative structure with the O.K. Corral gunfight as the climax of the story, the film begins with the incident and explores the aftermath (including the lesser known but equally important Spicer hearings and the later Earp vendetta ride) of the continued battle of wills between Earp and Clanton, both in violent incident and a creeping moral degeneracy blurring the line between the law and the lawless. Though the familial bonds- which activate Earp’s acts of retribution as justice -are intensely impressed in the lawman, the most significant relationship depicted in the film is the unlikely friendship between Earp and the tubercular gambler/gunfighter Doc Holliday, portrayed by the wistful Jason Robards, who acts as both ally and wandering conscience to the complexly melancholic Wyatt Earp of James Garner. Though Edward Anhalt’s screenplay often concedes to a certain placard carrying obviousness of moralizing- especially in the crudely officious self-interest the righteous Tombstone community and business leaders express -more often than not, within the concessions to traditional western tropes there exists a welcome exploration of how the brutality of both profession and professional landscape may erode the fortitude of righteousness. In this exploration, the dynamic of gunfighter versus lawman, affords the opportunity for a continually escalating argument between the allies as to the legitimacy of the law used for the purposes of justice while genuinely motivated by personal vigilantism. While never conceding to the tired notion of Earp becoming that which he is pursuing, there is a motivational element to Earp’s actions that becomes an understandable circumstance of moral fence walking while it also becomes questionable whether or not that a lawman (in Western terms) being the lone arbiter in a (this question arises continually in Ted Post’s 1968 “Hang ‘Em High” in which the badge is a convenient mechanism to allow personal revenge despite the rather hypocritical assertions of the script, abandoning all philosophical underpinnings for the sake of gratuitous action) desolate territory, distanced from civilized jurisprudence, is allowed to make spontaneous alterations in the lawful boundaries of their duties and if so, what happens when poisonous emotional bias enters into that process?
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