Story and History

While my wife and I were in Tombstone the first weekend of October, we realized we’d never seen the 1957 film, Gunfight at the OK Corral starring Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. The movie also features DeForest Kelley, best known for playing Dr. McCoy in Star Trek, as Morgan Earp and Earl Holliman as Wyatt’s deputy, Charles Bassett. The year before Gunfight at the OK Corral, Holliman had appeared in Forbidden Planet as the cook on the spaceship C-57D. Much of The Gunfight at the OK Corral was filmed at Old Tucson Studios, where we’ve spent quite a bit of time at the Wild Wild West Con steampunk convention. We bought a copy of the Blu-ray at the OK Corral gift shop and brought it home.

Gunfight at the OK Corral Blu-Ray

I wasn’t expecting a historically accurate retelling of the real gunfight. After all, right there on the cover, Burt Lancaster lacked Wyatt Earp’s epic mustache! What’s more, the real gunfight was a messy thirty-second shootout that resulted from tensions brewing between two factions in Tombstone over the previous months. Most of the story’s drama is in the lead-up and the aftermath. When the movie is titled Gunfight at the OK Corral, you essentially know the gunfight itself is going to be the story’s big climactic scene. What surprised me was how much the movie diverged from history.

The movie opens with Wyatt Earp as a US Marshal on the trail of bad guy Johnny Ringo. In a small town in Texas, he finds a sheriff has let him get away. However, the sheriff points Earp to Doc Holliday, who happens to be in town, for more information. It turns out a gunman has come to town to get revenge for Doc killing his brother after cheating at cards, which gives us the setup for our opening confrontation. After this is resolved, Wyatt returns home to Dodge City, Kansas and continues searching for clues about Ringo. In the meantime, he has a run-in with a lady gambler named Laura Denbow and a romance blossoms between them. Eventually, Wyatt gets a telegram from his brother Virgil in Tombstone. Johnny Ringo has joined forces with a group of ranchers called the Clantons.

I’m not really interested in nitpicking the movie for historical accuracy. It tells a solid, tight-knit tale about a good lawman doggedly chasing down his opponent culminating in a satisfying, cinematic gunfight. What did strike me was how it used a handful of carefully placed historical details to give it the sense of historical veracity, even though it diverged from history at many key points.

Because I spent my weekend in Tombstone working on a dieselpunk story, which was a work of historical fantasy based in a real location and inspired by a true story, I realized this movie did a lot of what I do when I’m writing these kinds of his historical fantasy stories. History may have served as a foundation, but the movie’s writer and director made sure that it told a solid, self-contained story. History is often messy with many unresolved threads. Real-life romances and relationships aren’t always easy to understand. The big difference between Gunfight at the OK Corral and the stories I write is that I typically signal my story isn’t literal history by including fantastical or science fictional elements such as airships that didn’t exist at the time or wandering alien travelers. I enjoyed Gunfight at the OK Corral, but might have enjoyed a fantastical take based, for example, on Emma Bull’s novel Territory, even more.

As it turns out, I set a portion of my Clockwork Legion series in the area around Tombstone, but I deliberately decided I didn’t want to retell the story of the gunfight at the OK Corral. Instead, in my alternate version of history, the Clantons and the Earps are barely aware of each other because the events in this world conspire to keep them on separate paths. Part of the novel Lightning Wolves is based on the story of the Clantons before Tombstone was founded. By Owl Riders, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday have shown up, but their business interests are unrelated to the Clantons. You can learn more about the series at: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion