The Crack of Dawn
The Crack of Dawn
I will now try again. My first attempt this morning, Newsletter #281, was telling the story of General Lew Wallace, about whom I’ve written 250 pages of an unfinished historical novel. Pretty quickly I was over my head. After 400 words – these newsletters average 800 words – I was still at the beginning of Wallace’s career, and just arriving at the first major event. My ability to summarize vanished. General Lew Wallace is best remembered as the author of Ben Hur, but was also the third highest-ranked Union general (after Halleck and Grant) during the Civil War. He was the first governor of the New Mexico/Arizona Territory, during the time of the Johnson County War, the shoot-out at the OK corral, and the bloody antics of Billy the Kid (Lew tried to talk sense to him, but he wouldn’t listen).
I was the film critic at True West Magazine for a couple of years, and they really covered the hell out of Billy the Kid, the Johnson County War, and the shoot-out at the OK corral. These events have also always been favorite topics for movies. True West so deeply scrutinized Billy the Kid, and the one extant photograph of him, that they realized the photo had always been printed backward – they zoomed way in on the photograph to some writing on a rifle or something. Therefore Billy was not left handed, as one might assume from Gore Vidal’s TV play that became a feature film starring Paul Newman called, The Left-Handed Gun (1958). Gore Vidal liked the character so much he revisited him in Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid (1989) with Val Kilmer.
A truly oddball film is Billy the Kid (1930), poorly directed by the great King Vidor, and fatally miscast with the soon-to-be-forgotten Johnny Mack Brown. What makes this creaky old version interesting is that it was shot in the extremely short-lived film format called Real Life-Grandeur that was 70mm. Only a handful of films were shot using this system. One of them was The Big Trail (1930) starring the youngest John Wayne you’ll ever see.
Regarding the shoot-out at the OK corral, which True West analyzed from every possible angle, including overhead diagrams, that’s a Hollywood evergreen. There was Tombstone (1993) with Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp (1994), with Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp and Dennis Quaid as Holliday. As a kid I went to the theater and saw Hour of the Gun (1967) with James Garner and Jason Robards, and was sadly disappointed. But on TV there was Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as Holliday that was pretty good, and oddly written by Leon Uris, the man who brought you Exodus (1960).
But the best version by a mile is John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature as Doc Holliday. Every Doc Holliday in every other version is pale, thin, coughing and emaciated, because he’s dying. John Ford cast the most handsome, virile actor in Hollywood, and he’s dying, too. Handsome, virile guys also die. But the way the story is structured, that Wyatt Earp encounters the Clanton gang, led by Pa Clanton (Walter Brennan at his best), and takes the job as marshal, and doesn’t meet Doc Holliday until the end of act one, in a great meeting and confrontation, is brilliant. It’s one of my favorite movies. I reviewed a special edition that came out with seven extra minutes, and that was interesting. But it changed the ending, and the ending is way too good to mess with.
My column in True West, which was about the length of these newsletters, was always positive. I only reviewed western movies that I liked. Thus, I was able to avoid what Jean-Luc Godard said of film critics, “They are soldiers who fire on their own men.”
Dawn has yet to crack, but it shall momentarily.
Zen says, “The universe never makes a mistake,” and that includes everybody. But Zen could be wrong, maybe it’s all a mistake. Either way, this is it.