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Martin Miler Mondays: Gunfight at O.K. Corral (1957)

Originally published: December 30th 2020

This week, in honor of what would have been Martin Milner’s 90th birthday, I wanted to pay tribute to the actor’s wide-ranging, but often little-known career. More specifically, I wanted to take a look at some of the first-time watches I’ve somehow missed during the many years I’ve followed his work. Today, I’m taking a look at the classic western Gunfight at O.K. Corral. Here’s everything you need to know.

Gunfight at O.K. Corral traces the lead up to the infamous Tombstone Arizona gunfight led by Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and Doc Holiday (Kirk Douglas). Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, DeForest Kelley, and Martin Milner co-star in the feature. Classic film fans should also recognize a pre almost everything, Dennis Hopper. John Sturges directs from a script by Leon Uris.

Diving right into this, I found the pacing on Gunfight at O.K. Corral particularly interesting but somewhat cumbersome. For a movie about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone itself (and the gunfight for that matter) actually feels like a very small part of the narrative as a whole. The script meanders a bit, leaving the movie feeling more like a Wyatt Earp/Doc Holiday buddy picture, tracing the bond between the two men as the “A” story. In fact, the action doesn’t actually move to Tombstone until very late in the second act, and the actual gunfight is saved for the very end of the film.

At the same time, the early acts do spend a lot of time trying to build a romantic pairing between Earp and lady gambler (gasp!) Laura Denbow (Fleming). In truth, thanks to Fleming’s vibrant performance, Denbow ends up feeling like one of the more interesting characters in the picture. Fleming brings an uncanny ability to make the men of Dodge City clutch their pearls in the most un-cowboy way. It’s delightful. However, this particular plot point comes to a very abrupt end midway through the second act. We never see her again.

That being said though, Fleming and Lancaster achieve great chemistry throughout the movie. They are a believable couple and it’s easy to become invested in the relationship– this is why it’s so noticeable when it drops away. Now, the same can’t be said for Holiday and Kate (Jo Van Fleet), Holiday’s nurse/girlfriend/friend… it’s difficult to narrow the relationship down exactly. The bond between the two is never fully examined and their chemistry never manages to find its footing.

Most in the United States are familiar with the historical gunfight at O.K. corral as a well-documented part of “old west” history. So, with that being said, this isn’t the only film to tackle these almost mythic events. Interestingly, as I sat down to watch the movie, I realized that I’d been mixing this version up in my head with My Darling Clementine (1946). This is never a good conundrum for a work to have, especially for films all dealing with the same characters and similar subject matter. It always leads to disappointment.

*Minor Spoilers Ahead*

At the same time, I found myself watching Gunfight at O.K. Corral with memories of Tombstone (1993) in the back of my head. So, I found myself frustrated with the relative lack of the other Earp Brothers (DeForest Kelley, Martin Milner and John Hudson) throughout most of the first two acts. As I mentioned, the narrative doesn’t completely move to Tombstone until deep into the second act.

Now, this is being posted as part of a birthday tribute to Martin Milner. So, it only makes sense to bring the discussion around to my favorite actor. Milner plays James Earp, the source of much of the movie’s historical gymnastics (sources report James was one of the older Earp siblings and was not involved in law enforcement). This isn’t what the script shows us.

Interestingly, as we finally see the Earp Brothers, it is James who we’re supposed to notice in the narrative. At the most superficial, visual level, Martin Milner physically stands out among the dark-haired Earp boys. The audience is also on the receiving end of far more character development for James than for Virgil and Morgan combined. We’re told he’s nineteen and that he has a girl waiting for him in California… he might as well wear a name badge that says “Doomed”. It’s almost as bad as being two days from retirement in a police procedural.

That’s right, James is gunned down (to further the action) in the street during a night patrol. Of course, it is a mistake, he changed places with Wyatt at the last minute. It’s a relatively fast plot point in the grand scheme of things but does indeed serve as the emotional fuel propelling the narrative into the final act. The violence must be avenged.

The emotional impact of the shooting lies heavily on Milner’s shoulders and luckily, his persona works well in the role. At the time, the actor was a young-looking twenty-six and still possessed a good deal of the schoolboy quality he brought to his earlier work. This clearly contrasts with the more hardened Kelley, Lancaster and Hudson. In fact, Milner was often still billed as ‘Marty’ at this point in his career. As Wyatt Earp recalls after the shooting, James was little more than a boy, and even the audience can see this. So, while the overall course of the narrative didn’t thrill me (I wanted him to have more screen time!), this arc shows just how much of a success Milner’s casting is in Gunfight at O.K. Corral.

*Spoilers Over*

1957 in the grand scheme of things was a very big year for Martin Milner. Gunfight at O.K. Corral hit theaters in the summer, coming very close to Sweet Smell of Success, which once again partnered Milner with Burt Lancaster.

While Martin Milner had been working since the late forties, his roles had largely been on television, or deep in the ensemble of movies. In both works, Milner steps up from the ensemble to play more meaningful, featured roles. The bump he receives with these two Burt Lancaster pictures quickly becomes apparent in his future with roles in Marjorie Morningstar and Compulsion over the next two years.

As everything comes to a close, Gunfight at O.K. Corral really doesn’t handle the legendary gunfight of the title any better than the numerous other films examining the same events. There are some great performances from the movie’s A-list stars, but problems in the script ultimately keep it from reaching its true potential.

Gunfight at O.K. Corral is currently streaming on CBS All Access.

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