It’s among the mild ironies of film history that this film, a movie I don’t hesitate to call a masterpiece, is actually the lesser of director John Sturges’s Westerns about the (wait for it) gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Fortunately, despite being about the same historical moment, and concerning the same people, both films are also so different their existence as separate entities actually makes sense, particularly since the two films have quite different views of these people and these events. The later Hour of the Gun is most probably the slightly more historically accurate one (at the very least with a more realistically morally grey Wyatt Earp, where Lancaster’s Wyatt really does seem to go for the halo, though without ever being able to reconcile it with being a human being like we all are), though both films really aren’t about attempts to recreate history.
I don’t think it is necessary for me to go over Sturges’s virtues as a Western director, nor the particularly inspired quality of his efforts here, for that would be stating the very, very obvious. Instead, let me spend this sentence salivating about Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster (two of the very finest of their generation in Hollywood) doing what they do best, the fine rest of the ensemble, the often awe-inspiring photography, as well as Sturges’s artful sense of staging.
Beside being a film about a certain legendary shoot-out, Gunfight to me really seems to be a film about poisonous relationships, the way people tend to wallow in them, and the generally horrible consequences that come with them. Why, if you look at what’s happening in the film from a certain angle, you might even begin to think somebody involved in the film might have been of the opinion all human relationships in the end become poisonous and destructive, family ties strangling people in the end, and friendships not leaving people happier or less lonely and self-destructive (or would anyone want to argue that Holliday and Earp are good for each other any more than Holliday and Kate are?), at best giving them one thing more to die for.