Last week the legendary actor Kirk Douglas passed away at the remarkable age of 103. Such longevity combined with a prodigious and notable career made it no surprise when Douglas was prominently honored at the end of the “In Memoriam” segment at Sunday’s Academy Awards.
While his portrayals of Vincent Van Gogh in the biopic Lust for Life (1956), of a WWI colonel in Paths of Glory (1957), and of the title character in the Roman Empire epic Spartacus (1960) are all high on the list of memorable roles for Douglas, his turn as Doc Holliday in the John Sturges-directed western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is also a much-cited favorite.
In the film Douglas arguably provides one of the best portrayals as Holliday among the many film adaptations of the story, rivaled primarily by Val Kilmer‘s bravura performance in the role in Tombstone (1993).
It’s an especially interesting character to play, with Holliday much more complicated than your average horse opera hero, and in the movies often made over into a kind an existential figure who knows he is dying of tuberculosis (the real Holliday died at age 36).
Given to drink and generally unfettered fatalism, Holliday’s relationship to his own death distinguishes him from other characters. Not only does he not fear dying, he seems to draw a needed strength at times from the way that freedom liberates him to act in ways others would not.
Holliday was a poker player in real life. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral incorporates this detail, too, while using the game occasionally to emphasize larger themes in the film, especially with regard to Holliday.
Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, an Old West Odd Couple
Gunfight at O.K. Corral plays fast and loose with the story of the gunfight as well as with the characters Holliday and Wyatt Earp (here played by Burt Lancaster), altering numerous historical details throughout while setting up the (also embellished) climactic dramatization of the titular gunfight. The story finds the pair meeting up in three different locations — Fort Griffin in Texas, then Dodge City in Kansas, and finally in Tombstone in Arizona. Each location is in a nearly constant state of siege, with multiple outlaws turning up, all motivated to settle gripes with Holliday, Earp, or both.
Earp and Holliday form an unlikely pair, with Earp a committed lawman and Holliday essentially an outlaw himself. In Fort Griffin, Wyatt saves Holliday from a lynch mob after he kills a man looking to avenge his brother’s death, a man Holliday killed after he cheated at cards versus Holliday and then pulled a gun on him. Then Holliday returns the favor in Dodge City, saving Earp’s life by killing three men about to ambush him.
Those events forge a bond between the two, leading Holliday to be motivated to team up with Earp and his brothers in Tombstone to confront the Clanton gang, Johnny Ringo, and other henchmen. Tense moments precede the shootout, with one of Earp’s brothers killed and Holliday’s persistent and worrisome cough suddenly turning grave at he appears at death’s door.
Holliday recovers, however, and joins the Earps for the final fight. Historians say the gun battle actually lasted only about 30 seconds, but the film dramatically stretches it out over several minutes, considerably heightening the suspense.
Disturbing the Peace
There are a few fleeting poker scenes along the way, including a couple of quick hands of five-card stud. One involves a female gambler, Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), who turns up at the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, prompting the marshal Earp to break up the game on strictly sexist grounds.
“Every time there’s a woman at the table there’s trouble,” Earp explains. When an inebriated observer mentions Earp isn’t treating Laura like a lady, he has a line ready he directs to her: “You’re in a saloon playing in a man’s game. Why should you be treated like a lady?”
The drunk grows more desirous to defend Laura’s honor and challenges Earp, but he proves no match. Earp then decides to arrest her for “disturbing the peace”!
Later Laura and Earp are able to reconcile their differences, partly thanks to Holliday’s intervention. Doc and Laura end up at a poker table together not long after where she deals a hand of five-card stud. On fourth street he bets with three tens up and she calls with three deuces showing, but when she deals herself the fourth deuce on the end, Holliday shows he is capable of folding when necessary.
Holliday demonstrates a similar ability in another scene shortly after that when after promising Earp he won’t disturb the peace himself with any gunplay, he resists allowing Johnny Ringo (John Ireland) tempt him into a duel.
Lady Luck, Both Good and Bad
Both Earp and Holliday have relationships with women that provide meaningful subplots. Earp actually ends up in love with Laura the gambler, and they even decide to marry though plans get set aside when Earp gets called to Tombstone.
During their courtship, Wyatt tries to read Laura for possible tells. “You’ve lost your poker face,” he says at one point. “You look like a scared little girl.” “I’m not scared,” she replies, “and I’m certainly not a little girl.”
Meanwhile Holliday’s destructive relationship with Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet) is much less pleasant to follow, marked as it is by her multiple betrayals of him. He does express forgiveness at one point, though, and like Earp employs a card-playing metaphor to make his point.
“It’s not your fault, Kate,” says Holliday. “It’s not my fault, it’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just the way the cards fall.”
Playing Without Fear
Such resignation might well be caused in part by Holliday’s illness, which at times seems to strike others as having given him almost a death wish.
Early in the film he enters a saloon knowing full well there is a man inside who wishes to kill him. “Doc, you’re walking into a stacked deck,” says someone before he enters. “You act as if you want to get killed.” “Maybe I do,” he replies.
Here’s that scene, one of several in which Douglas exhibits Holliday’s coolness under pressure, with Lee Van Cleef portraying the revenge-seeking Ed Bailey.
Later Earp reiterates the idea when remarking on Holliday’s ill health and his seeming refusal to seek remedy. “For a smart gambler you sure play sucker odds,” he says. “You’re gonna be dead inside of a year.”
But the best poker-related articulation of Holliday’s perspective comes during a light-hearted scene when he manages to convince a skeptical Earp to back him in a poker game, explaining to the marshal how “like a lawman needs a gun, I’m a gambler” and “money’s just a tool in my trade.”
“Of course, you guarantee you won’t lose,” answers Earp warily.
“I never lose,” laughs Holliday. “You see poker’s played by desperate men who cherish money. I don’t lose because I have nothing to lose, including my life.”
The Game Goes On
Unlike Tombstone where the film ends with a final, sad reunion between Earp and Holliday as the latter struggles on his deathbed, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral ends the pair’s story shortly after the gunfight. Having bid Earp farewell, Holliday marches over to a poker table, digs a wad of bills from his jacket pocket, and takes a seat.
“What’s the name of this game?” he asks. Fatalistic Holliday may be, but he’s still in the game, whatever it is called.
Kirk Douglas lived as long and productive a life as anyone could hope for. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral doesn’t pretend Doc Holliday’s life is going to last much longer, but it lets viewers imagine him living on nonetheless, continuing to play as though he has nothing to lose.
More “5-Card Fiction”
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