The last shot fired at the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was the deadliest.
Martha Knight pulled the trigger. We boys stood in the playground, pumped from the TV showing of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas gunning down them vermin in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. And here came Martha telling us it didn’t happen that way at all. The Knights, of course, had traveled across the U.S. the summer before, hitting all the hot spots in the family camper, including Tombstone, Arizona.
She killed our recess. Destroyed our dreams. Shattered reality. I wasn’t so disappointed until 16 years later when I went to Tombstone myself and paid to walk through the O.K. Corral and its mannequins, thinking, “Where’s Henry Fonda when you need him?”
Yet since Martha’s history lesson, I’ve been obsessed with the truth and the O.K. Corral, and I’m not alone. For a 27-second shooting in a vacant lot that happened 126 years ago this October, that gunfight and Wyatt Earp are ubiquitous, from history books to Star Trek (remember episode 56, “Spectre of the Gun?”) to Thom Ross paintings. This year, Hugh O’Brian (TV’s Wyatt) hosted the SASS event “End of Trail” and film historian Michael F. Blake released a rip-snorting new book examining the film versions of the gunfight (Hollywood and the O.K. Corral). So we might as well stay on the bandwagon with a best and worst list of the West’s most famous showdown.
Best Wyatt: Film lovers point to Fonda (above), historians might pick James Garner, but my money’s on Will Henry’s depiction in his 1954 novel Who Rides With Wyatt. “Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord—and Wyatt Earp!” (Of course, I’m also fond of Will Geer’s portrayal in Winchester ’73.)
Worst Doc: Picking the best (Vic or Val? Kirk or Quaid?) can be tougher than having Holliday as your dentist, but the lamest is easily Douglas Fowley in O’Brian’s TV series. Fowley looked and acted more like a used-car salesman than an alcoholic killer suffering from tuberculosis.
Best Virgil Earp: Sam Elliott from Tombstone. Everybody loves Sam Elliott. My older sister loves Sam Elliott. So does her husband.
Worst TV Scene Never Shown: Beam us back to Star Trek. The story goes that one scene from the aforementioned 1968 episode had Bones (DeForest Kelley, above right) offering medical advice to Doc Holliday (Sam Gilman) to treat Doc’s TB. They never filmed it, but wouldn’t that scene have been a hoot!
Best Novel: You can’t err with Will Henry, but I’d bet on Oakley Hall’s Warlock (1958). Wyatt is Clay Blaisdell, Tombstone is Warlock and Doc (or maybe Joe McCarthy) is Tom Morgan. Besides, the film adaptation of the novel included DeForest Kelley, also on hand for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Star Trek.
Worst Movie: Revisionist filmmaking at its worst, 1971’s Doc is dreadful, despite a top cast including Stacy Keach and Faye Dunaway and Harris Yulin as a rotten-to-the-core Wyatt Earp. Like the Statler Brothers would say, “Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?”
Best Gunfight: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was the longest, My Darling Clementine the most poetic, Who Rides With Wyatt the best written but, surprisingly, the closest to history probably comes in the last season of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Now Hugh O’Brian (opposite page) won’t come gunning for me.
Worst Historian: So many great ones have told the story of the O.K. Corral gunfight. Historians and Earp buffs owe a great deal to scholars like Paula Mitchell Marks, Casey Tefertiller, Allen Barra, our own Bob Boze Bell, even Stuart Lake. But the worst pick is too easy: Martha Knight.
She ruined everything.