I deliberately avoided this movie in the past for a couple reasons. One was I was not a James Garner fan, but the big one was that this movie's soundtrack is one of my favorite Jerry Goldsmith scores, and I didn't want to know what was happening in the movie. I write to this score a lot and have my own images, and I didn't want those ruined by reality. (I have quite a few movies I haven't seen simply because I love the music too much.)
Well, too bad I waited so long, because to my surprise, I really loved this movie. And I really really loved James Garner. I've never been that fond of him only because most of what he does seems to be so light-hearted and that's never going to be my go-to. But, dude, there is nothing light-hearted about James Garner's portrayal of Wyatt Earp. Serious, cold, quiet, downright grim sometimes, but absolutely wonderful and exactly what I wanted in this movie. He was MARVELOUS and immediately jumped up to my second favorite cinematic version of Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner's still got the number one position, but Garner's a very close second).
I was fascinated to find that this movie is directed by John Sturges, who also directed The Gunfight at the OK Corral! Not often does one director make two movies about the same topic, let alone two such very different movies. As fond as I am of Gunfight (admittedly, mostly for Kirk Douglas and the theme song), this one has everything Gunfight lacked. Well, that's not quite right. More accurately, they're complementary films. Gunfight deals primarily with the setup and ends on the titular fight. Hour of the Gun opens with the fight and depicts events that occurred afterwards.
And what an opening! It might be one of my new favorite Western movie opening scenes. It jumps right into things with no lead in. There's no talking for the first four minutes, just score. We just watch each side gather, prepare, and head on into the fight. It was so unexpectedly tense and perfect, I had to back up the DVD and watch it again as soon as I'd finished the movie. It also sets the dark tone for what follows. This film is most definitely not treading any ground -- visually, emotionally, or plotwise -- covered in Gunfight at the OK Corral. And I like that a lot.
Now, I'll also state right up front, that I'm not looking for an historically accurate movie whenever I watch a Wyatt Earp movie. I have two biographies of Wyatt Earp on my shelf and I've read them both. I know what really happened. I'm more interested in a movie that works on its own merits, and if facts are changed, I couldn't care less as long as the changes are consistent for that movie. But at the same time, it was quite cool to find a movie that did quite a bit of stuff right. I think this is the only movie I've seen so far that has Virgil and Morgan not shot on the same night. That was cool. (I also understand and appreciate why events get condensed in other versions, cuz having months go by doesn't always keep a plot moving. I'm a writer; I'm quite okay with that.)
I also quite enjoyed Jason Robards' version of Doc Holliday. He had lots of little moments I really appreciated, and one big one, where he lays into Wyatt in a magnificent speech. I may have to pick up this movie on DVD just so I can watch that scene whenever I want. He's the right Holliday for this movie's tone and events, and a good foil/friend for this particular Wyatt Earp.
Robert Ryan plays Ike Clanton and he also gets a bunch of little moments I loved. Like in the beginning, he's wearing his holster, and the minute the fight starts, he ducks into a building and ditches it so he can look all innocent a minute late. Hah! This movie required a focus for the revenge portion, and it lets Clanton be that focus, which works quite well in context. He is quite the scheming, slimy villain in this.
I'm a sucker for those deliberate, open walks/rides into enemy territory, and this one has multiple versions of that. It never gets old for me. I think I like Holliday and Wyatt riding through a Mexican village to face Clanton at the end the best of the lot.
But mostly, I simply loved this movie because I loved Garner's Wyatt Earp. Who thought I'd say that about a James Garner character? But he nails this one.