Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Doc (1971)

Doc Holliday, the notorious western gunfighter and gambler, has fascinated me since, as a child, I saw him portrayed by Victor Mature in John Ford's My Darling Clementine.  Although beefcake Mature was physically miscast as the consumptive Holliday, and the film's writers seemed to assume that the 'Doc' nickname meant he was an MD (he was actually a dentist), his characterisation was far more interesting than Henry Fonda's straight laced Wyatt Earp.  Mature's Holliday is an enigmatic figure who, despite having suffered a fall from grace at some time in the past, redeems himself when his innate nobility finally reasserts itself and he chooses to do the right thing by supporting his friend Earp at the OK Corral, even though it costs him his life.  As I said, I was immediately gripped by this character (the 'Doc' in 'Doc Sleaze' is a homage to Holliday) and sought out every film I could find that featured him.  In the course of this I learned that whilst probably the most dramatically satisfying telling of the events surrounding the Gunfight at the OK Corral, My Darling Clementine is also amongst the least historically accurate, (Holliday survived the gunfight and died of TB several years later, for instance, also, he and Earp already knew each other, having become friends in Dodge City) .

Other film versions were often equally inaccurate - 1959's Gunfight at the OK Corral in particular - but the portrayals of Holliday and Earp all followed a clear theme: the troubled, but noble, gentleman gunfighter fallen on hard times, but ultimately rescued by his friendship with upstanding lawman Wyatt Earp.  Even Hour of the Gun, which promised a different take, focusing on the aftermath of the gunfight and Earp's quest to avenge the shootings of his brothers, didn't offer any radical reinterpretation of the characters, simply trying to portray them real, flawed, people rather than stereotypes.  However, one film on the subject always eluded me: Frank Perry's 1971 production of Doc, which, as the title suggests, puts Holliday centre stage rather than portraying him as the sidekick.  Not only was the film difficult to see, but it came with a reputation for being a travesty, reviled by western afficiondos for allegedly debasing an American legend.  Indeed, from what I could make out, it had been Perry's intent to make a film which stripped away the myths surrounding the events in Tombstone and instead tell the 'true' story of what happened.  As the trailer indicates, the impression I got when researching the film was that it rejected the heroic status of Holliday and Earp, portraying them instead as the villains of the piece.  (Not an entirely original idea: the 1969 episode of Star Trek, 'Shadow of the Gun', had already portrayed the Earps as the villains and the Clantons the heroes in Tombstone).

Having finally caught up with Doc, I can't help but feel that the trailer is somewhat misleading.  As played by Stacy Keach, Doc Holliday still emerges as something of a hero, reluctantly drawn into his friend Wyatt Earp's political schemes, he still comes over as some kind of down-on-his-luck knight errant.  He might have won Kate Elder (Faye Dunaway) in a poker game, but he still treats her with respect.  He might end up despising Earp's machinations, but he still fulfils his obligations as a friend when it comes to the gunfight.  What, I suspect, western fans in 1971 hated about the film was its portrayal of the west as being gritty and filthy dirty.  Everything looks grimy - the buildings, the interiors and most definitely the characters.  Even worse, from their point of view, was the film's portrayal of the Earps and their conflict with the Clantons.  Harris Yulin's Wyatt Earp is a glad-handing politician who will stop at nothing in order to further his ambitions - even using the murder of one of his brothers as a basis of a rallying call to help him clean up Tombstone by electing him Sheriff.  The aforementioned brothers are sketched in as a bunch of redneck simpletons, the Clantons are likewise sketched in as a band of small time crooks whose elimination becomes key to Earp's campaign to be elected Sheriff.

Despite setting itself up as presenting the 'true' version of the events leading up to the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Doc is no more historically accurate than its predecessors (indeed, we'd have to wait until the 1990s and Tombstone for a more historically accurate telling of the story).  That said, it is accurate in portraying the conflict between the Earps and Clantons as a part of a wider political struggle for the control of Tombstone and its various lucrative rackets.   These rackets included gambling, alcohol and prostitution, all of which the Earps were deeply involved with: Wyatt co-owned a saloon and worked there as a Faro dealer, whilst his older brother James also ran a saloon and a brothel.  With Virgil Earp already appointed Town Marshall by the town council, Wyatt's election as County Sheriff (the encumbant he was trying to depose was Johnny Behan, an associate of the Clantons), was the next logical step, as it would cement their control of the surrounding area and allow them to curtail the disruptive behaviour of cattle rustlers and bandits like the Clantons.  The movie also includes an aspect of the whole Clanton-Earp conflict which I've never seen portrayed in any other film (apart from a BBC docu-drama from a few years ago): the fact that Wyatt Earp had employed Ike Clanton as an informant in an attempt to apprehend the robbers of the local stagecoach - Earp believed that catching the robbers would enhance his chances of becoming Sheriff.  Clanton's fears that Earp would make this arrangement public was one of the main triggers for the confrontation at the OK Corral.

But, ultimately, it's Doc Holliday's film.  Stacy Keach's softly spoken and subtle performance provides a welcome contrast to enervated turns like Kirk Douglas or the flamboyant, yet decadent, Southern gentleman of Val Kilmer's take on the character.  Despite the trailer's claims to contrary, Doc's misplaced loyalty to Wyatt Earp and his inability to escape his reputation and image make him a tragic hero, forever caught in the middle of other people's fights.  The real villain of the piece is Harris Yulin's manipulative Wyatt Earp, a portrayal which continues to enrage many western fans.  Yet it is probably closer to the truth than the portrayals of the character presented by the likes of Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster and Randolph Scott.  By all accounts, the real Wyatt Earp was something of a rogue who outlived anyone who could contradict his version of what happened at the OK Corral.  (He died in 1929 at the age of eighty, by which time he'd pursued various careers including gold prospecting, traded on his notoriety in order to act as a celebrity referee in a championship boxing match and wound up acting as a technical advisor on western movies).  The closest to Yulin's portrayal we've seen since was probably Kurt Russell's ambivalent Earp in Tombstone, more interested in pursuing his business interests than becoming involved again in law enforcement.

In the final analysis, Doc stands as an enjoyable, if sometimes roughly assembled, revisionist western, boasting two outstanding performances from Stacy Keach and Harris Yulin.  It's weakened by an often confused narrative and its failure to anything more than sketch in the other main players in the drama: none of the Clanton-McLowery gang or any of the other townsfolk emerge as memorable characters with convincing motivations for their actions.  It certainly doesn't deserve its poor reputation and contemporary obscurity.  Whilst it comes no closer than other films to the 'truth' of the Gunfight at the OK Corral in purely factual terms, it does come closer to grasping the underlying causes: political ambitions and the pursuit of profit, rather than a clear cut conflict between right and wrong.  All of which brings us back to my lifelong fascination with Doc Holliday, triggered by Victor Mature all those years ago - just why does the character, (the mythic version of film rather than the real man who was, according to contemporary accounts, a crude and ill tempered itinerant gambler and gunslinger), fascinate me so?  Perhaps it comes down to the fact that, from Mature through to Keach, he's shown as a man who, deep down, knows what the right thing to do is, but finds it difficult to do, although he eventually always does do the right thing - something I can personally identify with (although, obviously, I don't identify with the TB, gambling, alcoholism and killing). 



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