(director: John Sturges; screenwriters: based on the article The Killer by George Scullin/Leon Uris; cinematographer: Charles B. Lang Jr.; editor: Warren Low; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: Burt Lancaster (Wyatt Earp), Kirk Douglas (John H. “Doc” Holliday), Rhonda Fleming (Laura Denbow), Jo Van Fleet (Kate Fisher), John Ireland (Johnny Ringo), Lyle Bettger (Ike Clanton), Frank Faylen (Cotton Wilson), Dennis Hopper (Billy Clanton), John Hudson (Virgil Earp), DeForest Kelley (Morgan Earp), Ted de Corsia (Shanghai Pierce, cattleman), Earl Holliman (Charles Bassett), Whit Bissell (John P. Clum), Martin Milner (James ‘Jimmy’ Earp), Lee Van Cleef (Ed Bailey), Jack Elam (Tom McLowery), Mickey Simpson (Frank McLowery), Lee Roberts (Finn Clanton), Ken Tobey (Bat Masterson); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hal Wallis; Paramount Pictures; 1957)

“At best an effective Western.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Sturges’ (“Last Train From Gun Hill”/”Bad Day at Black Rock”) retelling of the famous real-life Earp/Clanton family shootout is surprisingly flat and empty, hardly looking authentic. Sturges resented that this version of the gunfight got the accolades and box office and not the film he made ten years later on the same subject, a much better film, Hour of the Gun, though receiving the critical acclaim did so poorly at the box office. “Gunfight” is at best an effective Western. Sturges was known for being a great action film director, and this film winds down after much tedious yapping to its last six minutes of the obligatory climactic showdown before it comes to life (in real-life the gunfight took a minute and wasn’t anything like the film’s version). But even the shootout is not sensational, it’s only adequately done. It’s based on a magazine article “The Killer” by George Scullin and scripted by Leon Uris. It also hints at a latent homosexuality to the Doc Holliday character, as played by Kirk Douglas, but stays clear of adding any insights or depth to that possibility raised.

Burt Lancaster plays Wyatt Earp, a decent frontier lawman who runs a tight ship and has rep for cleaning up troublesome towns. The story opens in Fort Griffin, Texas, where Marshal Earp saves cardsharp gunslinger Doc Holliday from a lynch mob. His girlfriend Kate (Jo Van Fleet), a tart with a heart of gold, helps the gunfighter get out of town. Doc is a dentist turned gunslinger, who is an embittered man and suffering from an incurable tubercular disease and even though Kate offers her unquestionable love he turns it down. Wyatt’s in town to see the crooked and cowardly marshal, Cotton Wilson (Frank Faylen), about the outlaws Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) and Johnny Ringo (John Ireland) being held in custody because of outstanding warrants. But Cotton released them three days before, and Doc won’t rat them out–something about honor among thieves and that Wyatt’s marshal brother Morgan (DeForest Kelley) once threw Doc out of Deadwood and impounded $10,000 of his gambling winnings.

Back in Dodge City, Kansas, Wyatt’s deputy, Charles Bassett (Earl Holliman), informs him Doc and Kate have arrived in town. Wyatt tells Doc that he can stay only if he doesn’t get into any gunfights. Beautiful gambling lady Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming) comes to town, but Wyatt refuses to allow a woman to gamble in a saloon because that means trouble. But after an incident with a drunken cowboy trying to showoff for Laura, Wyatt becomes more liberal about where Laura can gamble. Next follows a bank robbery and the killing of the cashier, with Wyatt’s deputies all out of town with a posse Doc volunteers as a deputy to back Wyatt as payback for saving his skin. After stopping the three robbers cold in their tracks, Doc comes back to town to learn Kate has run off with his enemy Ringo and Doc swallows his pride by refusing a gunfight remembering Wyatt’s warning. In the meantime Wyatt falls in love with Laura and the two plan on marrying with Wyatt promising to give up his badge to become a rancher in California. Wild cattleman Shanghai Pierce (Ted de Corsia) disobeys Wyatt’s ban on firearms in town and he shoots Wyatt’s deputy Charlie, and his cowboys ride into town and take over the saloon. Wyatt confronts them alone and when they won’t budge, Doc gets the jump on them from the rear and they are arrested. Then Wyatt gets a telegram from brother Virgil (John Hudson) asking for his help in cleaning up the town of Tombstone, Arizona, and he goes there despite Laura saying choose between Tombstone or her. Wyatt is joined by Doc and his brothers Morgan and the 19-year-old Jimmy (Martin Milner). The problem is that Ike Clanton and gang are rustlers and Wyatt won’t let them take the stolen Mexican cattle through town to be sold in the market. When Ike kills brother Jimmy in an ambush, all the Earps and Doc come after Ike, Ringo, Finn Clanton (Lee Roberts), Cotton Wilson, Billy Clanton (Dennis Hopper), Tom (Jack Elam) and Frank McLowery (Mickey Simpson). After the fight, Wyatt goes back to see if Laura is still waiting for him.

The film served as a great influence at the time and encouraged the making of big-budget adult Westerns with known actors. Nevertheless, it was still a disjointed venture despite its box office success and the pleasing performances by Burt and Kirk.