Fact and fiction: the shootout at the OK Corral

I inherited a stack of books and DVDs at the weekend because my dad is having a pre-moving clear out. Among them was a set of books about the American West given to my dad by my grandparents in 1976, and a DVD of Tombstone, the film about the Earp brothers and the OK Corral fight.

Little known fact about me: I loved Westerns as a child. I blame both my parents for this. Mother has a major thing for John Wayne, for a start. Bored on a Sunday afternoon? McClintock!

This evening I sat down and watched what has to be my favourite in the genre, Tombstone (1993). A summary of the film for those who haven’t seen it: the three Earp brothers, Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt (played by Kurt Russell) and their wives (nominally) meet up and head to the new boom town of Tombstone, where they get involved in the gambling, making money hand over fist from drunk miners and cowboys in town for a good time. They’re joined by Wyatt’s friend and professional gambler, John ‘Doc’ Holliday (here played by Val Kilmer – the only time I’ve ever found his acting to posses much life) and his wife. Tombstone is not a quiet town however, it is essentially run by John Behan, county sheriff, and the Cowboys, a gang of red sash wearing thugs. A feud breaks out between the Cowboys and the Earps which results in the OK Corral fight. Then, after Virgil is badly injured and Morgan murdered, Wyatt and Doc go on a killing spree, destroying the Cowboys.

I then picked up Gunfighters to check details. It appears that far from being part of a large and organised gang, the McLearys and the Clantons were local rustlers and ranch owners. They sold meat to the U.S. Army. They also had a tendency to steal cattle and horses, and the Earps had tried to arrest them a few times for rustling and holding up stagecoaches. County Sheriff Behan, newly appointed, had his own feud with the Earps. Wyatt was his rival for the affections of a young actress, and his position as County Sheriff. He also knew that to be reelected to his position, Behan would need the support of miners and cowboys, so he supported them against the Earps in matters of law and anything else.

The Earps and Doc Holliday were fairly young. The eldest, James who doesn’t appear in the film was 38, while Morgan the youngest was 28. Doc Holliday was also only 28, an alcoholic with tuberculosis. In the film Virgil is in his late forties or early fifties, while Wyatt and Doc are meant to be similar ages, about 40, and Morgan in his twenties.

The first part of the film is fairly accurate, or as accurate as possible – except their ages, but the second part, the Reckoning, is not so. After Morgan Earp’s murder by Frank Stillwell, Virgil left for California where the Earps Senior had settled, while Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday went on a revenge spree, starting with Stillwell who was seen lurking in the shadows at the train station. As the train left he was shot dead. Wyatt Earp then collected some friends to continue dealing with friends of the McLearys and the Clantons – one of whom, Ike, had instigated the fight at the OK Corral, and survived by running away. Behan then organised a posse to round up the group and Wyatt Earp had to escape with Doc Holliday across state lines to prevent their arrest.

People like a good myth and the American West is a part of US myth, even though it really wasn’t a place to mythologise. Gunfighters, whether cowboys or lawmen, often worked both sides of the law depending on  circumstances and need. Wyatt Earp was a horse thief before he was a peace officer. Stories told in newspapers aggrandised the exploits of the gunfighters and later films carried on the tradition. Early film actors in Hollywood could have spoken to people who’d lived through the early settlement of the western states if they’d wanted to portray the truth – early cinema as in the 1920s, the ‘American West’ really only opened up after the US Civil War, and can really only be said to have existed as a way of life from the 1870s to 1890s. The truth however didn’t matter, a mythology of their country’s founding and expansion into land already inhabited (for 10,000+ years) did, whether conciously produced or not.

Westerns are fun films, but don’t rely on them for history lessons (Especially not John Wayne films).

I might watch another film from the stack of DVDs tomorrow; there’s one called ‘Wyatt Earp’ (1994) starring Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid, which I think I’ve seen once before. It could be an interesting exercise to compare the films, considering they were made only a year apart and used the same ‘source material’ – the life of a famous gunfighter.

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