When will it be “The Hour of the Gun”?

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

The passing of James Garner this past week gave rise to a spat of mini-retrospectives on this beloved actor’s career. It was nice to learn that “The Americanization of Emily” was Garner’s favorite film. It was a typical Garner role–a charming wheeler-dealer who finds himself in a sticky situation.

One film that was NOT mentioned was John Sturges’ magisterial revisionist western “The Hour of the Gun.” In it Garner played famed western lawman Wyatt Earp without an iota of warmth, without an ounce of charm. Garner’s Earp is a cold-eyed killer who methodically hunts down the enemies who killed one Earp brother and left another crippled. At the start, when he must stand trial for his actions at the O.K. Corral, he just seems a bit stiff, a bit self-righteous. On the other hand, the Clanton gang who oppose him are clearly no angels themselves. But once Earp blood is spilled, a change takes place. The self-righteous lawman resorts to witness intimidation to get a few names. Those names will become his hunting list. When Jason Robards’ sardonic Doc Holliday volunteers his services, Earp priggishly points out that the warrants he has obtained are for “arrest and conviction” not “dead or alive.” Holliday’s response, “For $5,000 I can be as law-abiding as you are” is a priscient one. Earp has no intention of trusting the fate of his quarries to a jury. Earp blood has been spilled.

As the hunt goes on, each killing becomes a bit easier and Garner’s eyes go a bit deader. The first killing of Stillwell could almost be called self-defense. The man knew Earp was stalking him and he was armed. The second, Spence, is a bit dicier–yes he has a gun but he knows that Earp is the faster draw. You see the fear in Michael Tolan’s eyes and the thousand-mile stare in Garner’s as he calmly guns him down. Number 3, Curley Bill Brocius–played by a young Jon Voight at his most punkish–is drunk when Garner shoots him off his horse.

By the time he catches up with the final Clanton flunky–Steve Ihnat’s curiously likable Andy Warshaw, who merely served as a lookout and took no part in the shootings–Garner’s Earp is like a man possessed. His actions even turn the stomach of Holiday as the once-righteous lawman goads the poor fool into drawing. Warshaw would like nothing better than to be taken into custody, but Earp is having none of it. First he offers him the chance to make more money off of Ike Clanton by killing Earp, then he offers to let Warshaw draw on the count of two while he’ll wait for three. Warshaw wants none of it, but Earp kills him anyway, literally emptying all six chambers of his long-barrelled revolver into the already-dead cowboy.

When Garner finally faces his arch nemesis, steely-eyed Robert Ryan’s Ike Clanton, it’s clear that there is no difference between the two men. Clanton won’t draw until Earp removes his marshall’s badge–but by this time the audience knows that that badge is nothing but a technicality.

The film ends with Earp visiting the dying Holliday at a sanitarium–a melancholy farewell, as Earp leaves him with a lie concerning his future plans. For my money, James Garner’s depiction of Wyatt Earp is one of the best.

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