The third draft of the script being done, I’ve immediately embarked on the fourth — mainly because of some very good feedback from Frank Cottrell Boyce. (Frank is the screenwriter of REVENGERS TRAGEDY and the author of many other novels and screenplays, a man of impeccable taste and discernment). Frank felt that Ike Clanton’s interview – or at least the part where he brings out the family Bible and identifies the participants in the Gunfight, who lived, and who died – should be at the very beginning. Because, of course, not everyone knows what the Gunfight at the OK Corral was, or who Doc Holliday was, or that there ever was a town called Tombstone.
Frank and I are of the same generation, and we grew up with Westerns – on television, playing at the cinema. Since then, another generation has acquired its media foundation myths elsewhere: courtesy of George Lucas, and Disney, and Marvel Comics.
What images should accompany Ike’s testimony? Black screen (symbole de qualite!)? Portraits of those involved? Shots of southern Arizona policing circa 2016? There’s that temptation — to have Doc and the Earps emerge from Hafford’s Saloon and get into a squad car and drive to the gunfight; to have the Clantons and the McLaurys be young black guys… But our story is complex and multi-faceted already. It’s about a police action, which resulted in three deaths, with class and politics in the background. I think it might be wrong to be too on the money…
Two books are very interesting in this context. One is No Duty to Retreat, by Richard Maxwell Brown (OUP, 1991). For an academic tome, it’s hard to pin down: part law text-book, part history, part “comment is free” section. The author makes the interesting observation that American law forked significantly in this area. In English common law, the ordinary person’s obligation – if threatened with fighting words or violence – is to get the heck out of there. You’re expected to avoid a fight, even to the extent of running away. A homicide in your own defence is only justified if you have no other way out; if your back is against the wall. Whereas American jurists developed the notion of “no duty to retreat” – whereby, essentially, if you feel threatened, you can legally respond with equal or greater violence.
This, at its base, is TOMBSTONE RASHOMON. Two groups of men – whose grandparents came from England, or Ireland, or Scotland – both relying on the “no duty to retreat” doctrine, standing their ground. When Maxwell Brown wrote his book, Bernard Goetz – the “subway shooter” had relied on the doctrine to avoid an attempted murder charge. More recently, a stand-your-ground law allowed Trayvon Martin’s killer to go free.
The other, very contemporary, aspect of our confrontation is that both parties had such ready access to firearms. The Earps’ attacks on Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury stemmed from the latter packing pistols and a rifle, in defiance of the city of Tombstone’s anti-carry law. Bad words had been spoken by both sides, and Virgil Earp, the city marshal, was under pressure from its better elements to “take action.”
Maxwell Brown devotes a fascinating chapter to Western gunfighters, and Western gunfights. I’m not so sure there were as many straight on, stand-in-the-street-facing-your-adversary-type gunfights, as the author is. He writes:
“By about the end of the nineteenth century, there had been, according to an authoritative tabulation, 255 professional gunfighters, who were involved in 587 gunfights, resulting in 181 deaths. This is, however, a drastic undercount of gunfighting, for it includes only the glorified gunfighters: Hickok, the Earps, Billy the Kid, [J.W.] Hardin, and the rest.”
That figure of 587 gunfights is footnoted as “O’Neal, Encyclopedia, 3-16 and passim.” The reference is to one Bill O’Neill, author of an Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters (U of Oklahoma, 1969), but if the figure is limited to celebrated individuals it seems extremely large. How many “glorified” (in the sense of storied, and once legendary) gunfighters were there? Fifteen? Twenty? Surely not more than thirty, and that would mean that each one of them was involved in almost 20 face-to-face gunfights.
This cannot be. In my research for a project about Western showdowns, called GUNFIGHTER NATION in homage to Richard Slotkin’s fine book, I found a serious shortage of genuine, face-to-face gunfights. The vast majority of these affairs were ambushes. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Morgan Earp, Virgil Earp, Belle Starr, and Wild Bill Hickock were shot, not face to face, but by a hidden assailant. The prototypical scene of Western gunplay is thus the pre-credits sequence of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, in which a rider, his saddlebags jingling with money, is shot from his horse by an unseen assassin.
Prior to the Gunfight outside the OK Corral, in what gunplay had the participants been involved? Frank McLaury was said to be a well-practiced shot, and the McLaurys and the Clantons were alleged to have taken part in a massacre of Mexicans in Skeleton Canyon. But those are simply allegations; none of them had any kind of violent “rap sheet” at the time, and Frank had taken strong public exception to being called a mule thief in pages of the Daily Nugget.
As for the Earps and Holliday, only the dentist had a reputation as a gunfighter. He exchanged shots with a saloon keeper, Charles Austin, in Dallas in 1873; was alleged (by Bat Masterson) to have killed a soldier at Jacksonboro; killed a gambler, Bud Ryan, with a knife in Denver in 1876; was alleged (by Masterson) to have killed a former army scout, Mike Gordon, in Las Vegas, NM in 1879; and got in a shooting scrape with saloon keeper Milt Joyce in Tombstone in 1880. He was by nature reckless, bad-tempered, and confrontational, and he drank to excess.
The Earps’ preferred method of law enforcement was to buffalo the suspect and drag him before the judge. They were less geared towards gunplay than Doc. In 1878, as an assistant marshal in Dodge City, Wyatt drew his pistol and fired on a group of fleeing Texan rowdies. Several others fired as well, but Wyatt insisted it was he whose bullet hit cowboy George Hoy and knocked him off his horse (Hoy later died of gangrene). As Wyatt later told it, he and Doc Holliday later faced down an angry Texan crowd with pistols. Wyatt also later claimed that he had beaten a Texan gunfighter, Clay Allison, to the draw, but spared his life. The same year he pursued and shot the horse of an escaping killer, Mifflin Kennedy. Such was the extent of Wyatt’s prior gunfighting, by his own admission.
In 1777, Virgil Earp fired on a pair of escaped fugitives, Wilson and Tallos, outside Prescott. He was one of several shooters; both men died. In Tombstone, he was one of several lawmen (including Johnny Behan) who faced down a lynch mob and saved the life of a gambler, Johnny Behind-the-Deuce. (Wyatt claimed to have overpowered the mob alone, but the newspaper did not mention his presence.)
Morgan rode in posses and worked as a shotgun messenger for Wells, Fargo, but doesn’t seem to have any recorded experience as a gunfighter, “glorified” or otherwise.
The other book that has my current attention bears the somewhat clunkety title Sacrificed Sheriff. By Bob Alexander (High Lonesome Books, 2002), it’s a good history of Johnny Behan, often portrayed as a buffoon or villain, by a former peace officer who clearly sympathizes with Behan’s approach on the day of the difficulty. As Alexander observes, while Wyatt Earp was running saloons and gambling operations in Alaska, John Behan went from one well-paid public service job to job to another: he was the warden of the Territorial Prison at Yuma, Chinese Exclusion Officer (!) for the Customs Service, and head teamster for the US invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Alexander’s book could use some proof-reading, but it’s essential material for the actor who plays the Sheriff!