Saturday, March 29, 2008

"You all can kiss my rebel dick"

Or: A Top 5 Movie Doc Hollidays

There are three prime stories of the American West (excluding the many tragedies of the Genocide visited upon the Native American peoples) which are perhaps the basis for more Western movies than any others. The story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the story of Jesse James, and the story of Billy the Kid. The latter pair of stories focus upon outlaws, charismatic outsider figures with an obvious popular appeal. That means that the stories have been consistently popular since the historical facts that they are based upon actually occurred in the last years of the 19th Century.
The story of the OK Corral is different. Its "hero" is a saintly lawman, Wyatt Earp. That gave it a unique selling point when the iconography of the Western was being established in early Hollywood, and Earp was still around then, living in Los Angeles and acting as a sort of salesman for his own myth. The story seems to have it all - a town divided, a gang of ruthless, murderous villains, a family of lawmen uniting behind an unrelenting hero, and, most importantly, a definitive, violent climax. All of that would probably have been enough to sustain it as a foundation narrative for the genre throughout the twentieth century. But the story of the OK Corral became something more - it is possibly the most mythic and resonant of the Western myths, the genre's most archetypal tale. Every story of a good man (usually a Sheriff or Marshall) coming to a town to rid it of bad men owes a debt to the life story of Earp, and more particularly to his time in towns like Wichita, Dodge City and Tombstone. The fact that the story of the OK Corral incident was immortalised rapidly, mostly-fictionalised in pulp novelizations, only served to crystallize its place in the American folk psyche.

But that alone does not explain what has made it so durable. Part of its lasting appeal lies in its status as an ideal slate for allegory - filmakers and novelists have projected their contemporary concerns and worries onto the story for decades, and the ambiguity and starkness of its details and characters serves to make this easy. Thus in the 1950s the dispute between the Earps and the Clanton-McLourys becomes a metaphor for the Cold War, resolved only through an apocalyptically violent confrontation. In the suspicious, cynical Vietnam era of the 1970s, an anti-authoritarian culture views the quasi-fascist Earp as an opportunistic murderer, his heroism a sham. That neither of these interpretations damages the basic appeal of the story reveals its almost elemental power.

Another factor in its continued popularity is the friendship at its centre. Wyatt Earp is a relatively dull figure when viewed in isolation. He is a typical "hero" in most narratives - selfless and square-jawed, courageous and handsomely bright-eyed, a wholesome man of action. He is made vastly more interesting by his friendship with John "Doc" Holliday, the tubercular dentist and gambler who stood alongside the three Earp brothers at the OK Corral. Holliday is a fascinating, modern figure. A tragic antihero, ambiguous, witty and complex, he is always the plum role in any cinematic version of the story. And there have been many great interpretations of the character since the first major version, "Frontier Marshall" (Alan Dwan, 1939) in which Cesar Romero played Doc to Randolph Scott's Earp. I love the story and the character, and every version I've seen is interesting and worthwhile in its own way. But some are more interesting and worthwhile than others.

5. Victor Mature in "My Darling Clementine" (John Ford, 1946)

"My Darling Clementine" is my favourite of Ford's films. Its probably his purest, most archetypal Western, and yet, its shot with a palette of noirish blacks, full of shadow and deep darknesses in the corners of the frame (the lovely photography is by Joseph MacDonald, who went on to work on several seminal noirs including "Call Northside 777", "Panic In the Streets", "Niagara" and "Pickup on South Street"). Its a dark film in more ways than one, however - its tone and themes are shadowed by a melancholy which can most likely be attributed to the recent end of the Second World War. Indeed, one valid reading of the film is as an allegorical account of the nascent United States' history as an International power, the gunfight at the OK Corral representing WW2 in all its calamitous violence. Henry Fonda, in all his upright, optimistic glory, is a perfect Earp. Mature, however, makes for a bizarre Doc. In this version the character is a surgeon rather than a dentist, and his position in the narrative is more ambiguous for much of the film than later versions would allow. He is a feared killer, and he and Earp circle each other warily for the first half of the film. Fonda and Mature make for a fine contrast, both physically and in their acting styles - Fonda plain-spoken and emotionally available, Mature an altogether darker and more difficult propsition. His is perhaps the least consumptive Doc ever put on screen, too - his bodybuilder's frame bulges beneath his shirts and so he approximates T.B. by coughing into an effete little handkerchief occasionally. He is a ham, fond of dramatic pauses and long silences. There is a very 20th Century angst to Mature's screen presence, the sense of a big man struggling with his masculinity and its meaning and responsibilties. And yet it works, his air of modern ennui and the cold bitterness in his dark eyes making him a suitable Doc for this most Noirish version of the story. He never seems to fully like Fonda's Earp, not convincingly, and that gives the film a strange tension absent from some others without diluting the homo-eroticism which is generally present in different interpretations of the story...

4. Kirk Douglas in "Gunfight at the OK Corral" (John Sturges, 1957)

"Boot Hill, Boot Hill,
So cold, So still,
Wyatt Earp, They say,
Saved Doc Holliday
Boot Hill"
- from "Gunfight at the Ok Corral" by Dimitri Tiomkin & Ned Washington, sung by Frankie Laine

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Earp and Doc is almost insultingly obvious casting. As such, it works marvelously well. And provides the perfect evidence that Doc is invariably the better role. Lancaster gets marginally more screen time, but he never has anything interesting to do, really. His Earp is the hero. He just needs to be square-jawed, courageous and implacable. Lancaster had all those qualities effortlessly in his grasp, and so he breezes through the movie, meaning that he leaves little impression. Douglas, on the other hand, plays a legitimately frightening Doc, bringing the barely-controlled fury of his screen presence to bear upon the character. He could do a slow-burning seethe better than any actor of that era, and Holliday provides plenty of scope for that. When not ferociously angry, he plays Doc as sardonically amused by fate and by the expectations and delusions of others. His relationship with Earp involves him fondly needling the Marshall by calling him "Preacher" while Earp lectures him that he should leave the desert for the good of his health. In contrast, his relationship with his woman, Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet) is based upon an almost sado-masochistic dynamic of abuse and comfort. And he is open about his death wish, admitting that his only fear is dying slowly in bed.
John Sturges' film is a great example of the big, prestige Super-Westerns common in the 1950s. Sturges is great with a widescreen frame and his Westerns are always entertaining, this one climaxing in a thunderous version of the titular gunfight, after an iconic walk through tombstone by Doc, Wyatt and Morgan and Virgil Earp. Sturges revisited the material in "Hour of the Gun" (1967) with James Garner as Wyatt and Jason Robards as Doc. Its a sequel of sorts, beginning with the events at the OK Corral and focusing upon the messy, bloody aftermath. Its a surprisingly dark, violent film, too, and Robards makes for a fine Doc, weary and cynical and ever-loyal to a morally-disintegrating Earp. Another fine version of the story from the 1950s is "Warlock" (Edward Dmytryk, 1959), based on the fantastic novel by Oakley Hall. Here Henry Fonda plays Earp again (altough all of the characters have different names) with Anthony Quinn as Doc. They end up on opposing sides, their highly homo-erotic relationship poisoning the town they have come to save, and pitting both against local lawman Richard Widmark. Its an intriguingly modern take on the material, with good performances and great direction by Dmytryk.

3. Stacy Keach in "Doc" (Frank Perry, 1971)

John Ford claimed that "My Darling Clementine" was an authentic take on the Earp/Holliday legend. He even said that Earp, in person, had told him exactly how the gunfight at the OK Corral had transpired, and that the version in his film was true to this account. Well, either Earp was lying or Ford was. The gunfight in "My Darling Clementine" is a drawn-out affair of stalking and hiding, full of movie tension. In real life, the gunfight was over in a few seconds, all the shots fired at close range in a scramble of dust and blood. Only the two versions of the story from the 1990s really portray it with any historical accuracy. Frank Perry's "Doc" goes to the opposite extreme to "My Darling Clementine". Here, the gunfight is more firing squad than battle. Holliday and the Earps approach the Clanton-McLourys at the Corral, exchange some words, then unceremoniously open up on them with shotguns. The resulting blood-splatters are more Leone and Peckinpah than Ford or Sturges.
But then this film is the most different of the major films on the material - it focuses on Doc as its hero, recasting Earp (Harris Yulin) as a shifty, near-homicidal manipulator with his own agenda. Doc is a tragic lead here, played by a far too-healthy looking Stacy Keach as enjoying a tortured romance with Faye Dunaway's prostitute Kate Elder. The film suffers the identity crisis common in American Westerns of the early 70s - torn between the Classical tradition in American Western filmaking and the revisionist approach to the genre taken by the aforementioned Leone and Peckinpah (the cynical, amoral tone of the spaghetti Western is aped to some extent, but in an American film it makes for an odd, overly talky atmosphere). Its a dichotomy that made for some fascinating cinema, and "Doc" is perhaps the most interesting film of this old story. Keach is fine, altough his position in the narrative makes his character feel less like Holliday and more like a stock Western hero with some of Doc's recognisable quirks. Part of Holliday's appeal lies in his perpetual status as Earp's sidekick, and here hes denied that status, elevated to hero as he is. The only work of art I know of to successfully tackle this problem is Bruce Olds' postmodern novel "Bucking the Tiger" which paints an interior portrait of Doc by impressionistic, fragmented means, through poetry and scraps of narrative, newspaper reports, personal testimony..."Doc" is brave in its insistence on underlining the homo-eroticism of the Earp-Holliday relationship. Earp constantly throws smouldering looks at his friend and his ambivalence to Elder seems based on sexual jealousy more than anything else.

2. Val Kilmer in "Tombstone" (George Pan Cosmatos, 1994)

Probably the most entertaining Doc yet attempted, Kilmer's take on the character is as a sort of murderous Oscar Wilde. His Doc is forever quick with a cutting comment, his wits seemingly sharpened by the disease destroying his lungs. Kevin Jarre's script gives him all of the best lines, ("I know - lets have a spelling contest!","You know Ed, if I thought you weren't my friend... I just don't think I could bear it!", "It would appear that the strain was more than he could bear".) and he gets the most satisfying moments in the narrative, too - his two face-offs with Michael Biehn's Johnny Ringo are the best scenes in the film. He doesn't seem all that tubercular though - puffy faced and sweaty, yes, his lungs decaying, not so much. But he effortlessly steals the film. As Earp, Kurt Russell has to work against not only all that dully heroic baggage, but also a tremendous cookie-duster upon his top lip and some hilarious eye-liner (he also supposedly took over the Direction of the film a little way into the shoot, but goes uncredited). The villains are played by lots of b-movie character actors, and the whole thing is absolutely full of references to other Westerns. Despite that it doesn't feel authentically like a Western to me - its a modern action movie dressed up in a cowboy hat and six shooters and spurs. Kilmer is the best thing in it, and he knows it. He seems to be having a great time, which gives his Doc an unusually jolly tone. The character is generally portrayed as a bit of a rascal, but Kilmer makes him all rascal, camp and teasing and full of himself as he is. "I'm your huckleberry." he tells Ringo just before they go for their guns, the winner never in doubt. Kilmer rarely gets roles this good - his stint as a Leading Man didn't suit him, since he's a character actor in a Leading Man's body, too eccentric for the sometime blandness demanded to appeal to the lowest common denominator hunger of the Mass audience. Kilmer doesn't really do bland. Which makes him perfect for Doc Holliday.

1. Dennis Quaid in "Wyatt Earp" (Lawrence Kasdan, 1994)

Here is the only Doc on this list who actually seems like he is suffering from Tuberculosis. Quaid lost 40lbs for the role, giving himself anorexia in the process. It adds to the dark heart of this version of the story, though, the fact that Quaid is such a skeletal, hacking creature, spindly-legged, hollow-cheeked, his voice full of phlegm and recrimination. Kasdan's film is perhaps the darkest film about Wyatt Earp, pessimistic in its view of the West as a violent, pitiless place where only the strongest survive. Its an underrated film, too, hamstrung by a dull first hour as we are shown Earp's boyhood and adolesence. But once he reaches Dodge City and becomes a Lawman, Kasdan begins to work his themes - violence and the law and what relationship they bear to justice in America - and "Wyatt Earp" become a serious, Epic Western with some great work in its second half. Costner's Earp is almost as cold as Harris Yulin's from "Doc" - motivated only by the desire to protect his family, and the need for revenge once they have been attacked. After he falls in love, his only other emotional tie in the film is his friendship with Holliday. Kasdan imagines them as kindred spirits, to an extent, both outsiders, both lonely, both aware of how short and brutal life can be. Quaid plays Doc as if he is sometimes desperate in his struggle with life itself, savagely fighting his inevitable early death, at times furious about it, at others sanguine and almost amused. Its a brilliant performance, lacking the staginess that infects most of the other Docs on this list. The other performances, great as they are, all play like characters. They are all playing "Doc Holliday", and that self-consciousness affects the work of each and every one of them. Quaid makes his Doc seem like a real person, as if he were unaware there had ever been any attempts to play Doc before. He seems at deaths door, and his humour feels hard-won and somehow private : "Dave Rutabaugh is an ignorant scoundrel! I disapprove of his very existence. I considered ending it myself on several occasions but...self-control, got the better of me". He is also self-aware, and he uses this to justify his own behaviour, his abusive relationship with Big-Nose Kate (Isabella Rosselini) and his propensity for violence: "What is wrong with me? What have you got? I am dying of tuberculosis. I sleep with the nastiest whore in Kansas. Everyone who knows me hates me, and every morning I wake up surprised that I have to spend another day in this piss-hole world." He welcomes Earp's quest for vengeance and the chance for a quick death it offers, but also the chance to stand by his friend. If the film has a real flaw, that first hour apart, its that there is not enough of Quaid. His scenes are easily the finest and most memorable in the film. But then thats always the way with Doc Holliday.



Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I always kinda thought of Dennis Quaid as a poor man's Harrison Ford. The same way I used to think of Elias Koteas as a poor man's Robert De Niro.

I can remember Tombstone pretty well but Wyatt Earp disappeared from my brain pretty much straight after I watched it. There was a lot of Costner apathy at the time which maybe meant I didn't pay as much attention as I should have.

1:45 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Poor mans Harrison Ford? In his youth, he had a great wild good old boy quality that he has lost in his later career. I think sobriety etc might have something to do with it. But in his early years he had loads of energy and the best grin since Jack Nicholson - he's absolutely great in The Right Stuff, the Big Easy, Innerspace....anything where he has to be cocky and arrogant and a little dumb. But like Kilmer, leading man roles generally don't suit him. They bring out the bland in him. Which is where the Harrison Ford comes in. In saying that, i think he's a far better actor than Ford. Give him a good character and he'll provide a layered, interesting character, even in a so-so film

I'm not saying Wyatt Earp is better than Tombstone, either. Tombstone is a great piece of entertainment, really cheesy and quotable and funny. I just don't think its a real Western. Westerns are supposed to be slow-paced, they're supposed to be long and serious. Tombstone is none of that - its a modern popcorn flick, despite its nods to classic older films in the genre. Its a Western made for a modern mass audience with a short attention span, I guess. Thankfully, more recent Westerns have been long and slow, as they should be. The most commercial, audience-friendly of recent Westerns, 3.10 to Yuma, is so classical paced and structured, it looks like Heavens Gate compared to Tombstone.

1:19 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I guess that makes 'Quick And The Dead' pretty much the 'Shoot 'Em Up' of westerns huh?

11:06 pm  
Blogger David N said...

I guess so. But at least its specific in its Leone-worship/parody. What does Shoot Em Up pay homage to or parody? John Woo? Yeah. Every FPS ever? Probably. 80s action movies? You betcha. The Matrix? Maybe. It might as well be called "Gun Movie", from the people who brought us "Scary Movie" etc etc...

11:54 pm  

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