James Garner: Hour of the Gun

by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue

Hour Of The Gun opens on the streets of a western town, deserted except for some men with guns. The two groups of men appear to be headed for the same destination, a vacant lot surrounded by fencing. We soon learn that the vacant lot is the O.K Corral and that one of the groups of men consists of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, the other of the Clanton faction. The credits roll over this preface to their showdown as Jerry Goldsmith’s score builds palpable tension. There is virtually no dialogue. It is a powerful sequence leading up to a depiction of the historical skirmish that serves as the climax for many films about the Earps and Clantons, including director John Sturges’s own 1956 Gunfight At The O.K. Corral. For Hour Of The Gun, it is the opening scene. Released eleven years after Gunfight, the film could be called a sequel, though its cast and tone are distinctly different. It stands on its own as the melancholy tale of the tight-lipped friendship between two stubborn men, one filled with rage at the loss of his family, the other sick and dying but refusing to show it.

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The on-screen type at the end of the credits boasts, “This picture is based on fact. This is the way it happened.” The film does adhere, for the most part, to the facts. The court room scenes following the opening shootout are based on the points of the real-life trial. The ensuing shootings of Wyatt Earp’s brothers and the revenge quest that follows are more or less accurate. The trial and set-up comprising the first act of the film make for a deceptively lackluster half-hour. The courtroom scenes are stiff and at times over-acted. Scenes of Ike Clanton addressing roomfuls of henchmen with stilted dialogue that sounds like it could be out of a history book from his future are highly speculative and more than a little absurd. But soon after Wyatt’s brother Morgan is shot to death, a viewer will realize that the film has ventured undetected past the point of no return into the haunting terrain that is really its substance. Once it arrives there, it can’t turn back. Stick with the movie for forty-five minutes and you will forget to stop watching until the end credits roll.

Wyatt Earp is played against type by James Garner; he is not a fun guy. The actor’s usual laid-back nature seems to come into play only when Earp is dealing with public officials and civic-minded business types, as if he is politicking by deliberately misrepresenting himself. To his brothers and comrades, he is flat-faced and joyless. This is clearly deliberate, as it is against Garner’s type. It rings true that Earp would behave with the tightly contained control of the western man of action. I’ve never seen it done quite so honestly as here. Under all the woodenness is a devastating rage that seeps in gradually and shows subtly in Garner’s tone and face. Late in the film, when Earp unnecessarily empties his gun into one of the men responsible for the shootings of his brothers, we realize that Garner has been playing him like a snake that we don’t know is coiled until it strikes. We also realize that instead of the traditional white shirt, black suit, and string tie he was wearing at the beginning of the film, Earp is now dressed in a black hat, black vest, black pants, and gray shirt, the traditional garb of the western villain. This has happened without us noticing, but once it shows, we don’t question its logic. That is because Garner has seamlessly and invisibly depicted a transformation.

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This transformation is the primary concern of Doc Holliday, who refuses to leave Earp’s side for the duration of the story. This dedication is a usual element of the many films made about these characters, but the source of Holliday’s concern in Hour Of The Gun is not usual at all. Holliday is portrayed as the voice of Earp’s conscience; it is almost like role reversal. He is a drunk, gambling gunfighter telling his straight-arrow friend that the violent revenge quest upon which he has embarked is no good for his soul, not because violent revenge quests are bad, but because they are bad for a man who has always played by the rules. “They’re the only rules there are. They’re more important to you than you think. Play it that way, Wyatt, or you’ll destroy yourself. I know you. You can’t live like me.” Edward Anhalt’s script, here, is brilliant and unique. It is the most interesting take on these characters I have seen. Jason Robards plays Holliday as subtly as Garner plays Earp, sometimes with a drunken twinkle in his eye, always with eyes figuring odds and working angles, never too histrionic. When he turns up on the train Earp rides into Mexico after the last of his enemies near the end of the film and Earp curtly tells him to turn around and go home, Doc simply answers, “No thank you,” and stares into space. Forget about Robards not being drunk enough or consumptive enough or southern enough; these are the kinds of characters who would never admit their attachments to one another, let alone show their drunkenness or sickness. These men show nothing. These two actors play these kinds of men in that kind of relationship as well as I’ve seen it done.

That is the heart of Hour Of The Gun.

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The film is visually pleasing as a western can be. Sturges and director of photography Lucien Ballard make excellent use of the Mexican locations, mountains in backgrounds, deserts, and forests full of stark, gray tree trunks. Old Spanish architecture. A night-time shootout amidst moving trains. Ballard has always been an excellent cinematographer (he shot my favorite film, The Wild Bunch) and Sturges’s compositions as pertains to natural beauty are consistent across his work with various DP’s, especially the tree trunks and the mountains in the background. Together, these men create a beautiful film. The score by Jerry Goldsmith, which is mostly variations on one haunting theme, is perfect for the sad, lonely tone of the film. It builds to violence like the opening gunfight as well as it expresses the emptiness of someone dealing with deep loss and trapped by his own compulsion for vengeance.

Robert Ryan as Wyatt’s arch nemesis Ike Clanton, who here is portrayed as a calculating robber baron, is an excellent actor with some terrible dialogue. His role in the film, at times, seems to be solely to provide commentary and context. Despite this, he acts with his body and face to effectively portray a man callously indifferent to the deaths of his brothers, a man so cheap, he won’t even pay the stooges who have already done his dirty work to get out of town. In the film’s final showdown, he does not say a word and his presence speaks volumes.

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Just before this gunfight, Earp tosses his badge away and Holliday catches it. Sturges is a master of this kind of visual symbol, things you won’t catch until you watch the film again. Once all the men who have hurt him are dead, Earp leaves tubercular, coughing Doc Holliday in a sanitarium with no deeper words of goodbye than “So long.” Doc has already told him, “Get out of here.” Whatever these men share will never be spoken. Doc will die alone because that’s how he wants it. Hour Of The Gun is a unique, powerful telling of a story that’s been told a thousand times by veteran filmmakers and masterful actors giving unexpected performances so antithetical to the conventions of such stories, it did not work on me until after the film was over. I then had to go back and watch it again. The film’s intensity grew as I learned to speak its language; this would not have happened if the seed had not been planted by that very first viewing. It has one of James Garner’s most complex performances. It is insidiously, unexpectedly angry and violent and it portrays the truth of the kind of male friendship that should drive many westerns, but that very few westerns so accurately portray.

– The Acolyte