Growing Up with Movies: The Revisionist West Through the Eyes of a Nine-Year-Old
(This examination of Frank Perry's Doc (1971) contains SPOILERS.)
My local theater’s poster for Doc (1971) promised something familiar, yet challenging. To anyone viewing this one sheet in 1971, the color contrast was eye-catching. In bold yellow text against a black background, the upper third of the poster proclaims, “For the past 90 years these three people have been heroes. Until now!” The bottom third depicts a shootout between two groups of men, reversing the colors with black text and male figures on a yellow background. As movie posters go, this one was somewhat standard, yet even casual observers could not ignore its striking middle third: Faye Dunaway, her face frozen in fear, anger, or indignation; Stacy Keach, unblinking, unmovable, and unafraid; Harris Yulin, skeptical, uncertain, or perhaps simply cautious. Viewers might certainly wonder, “What are they looking at?” but the more urgent question was “Why do their faces look like that?” All three actors appear to have had their images superimposed over a mountainside filled with fissures and crags, missing several pieces that were chiseled away. Perhaps that’s exactly what happens to these people.
I was mesmerized by this poster in 1971, drawn in by its colors and the mystery behind the middle image of the three actors. There was only one problem: I was nine years old and couldn’t see this R-rated film. Had I seen Doc upon its initial release, my enjoyment of it would have been severely hampered by my lack of understanding of what the film was trying to do. Like other “revisionist” Westerns of the time, such as The Wild Bunch (1969), Little Big Man (1970), and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), I would not have grasped that director Frank Perry and writer Pete Hamill were attempting something beyond a rollicking shoot ‘em up saga that ends with victory for the good guys, justice served, and the townspeople celebrating what was very likely only a momentary sense of peace and freedom. As I recently watched the film for the first time, nearly five decades after its theatrical release, I began to look at it through the eyes of a nine-year-old.
What I would have understood was that that Doc was one of many retellings of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a story I’d seen depicted in films such as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Hour of the Gun (1967), and even the Star Trek episode “Spectre of the Gun” (1968). I would not have understood that the Western genre was changing, that its cinematic traditions of good triumphing over evil, the punishment of criminals, and an immovable sense of morality were all riding off into the sunset. It would have been difficult for someone to explain those things to a nine-year-old from a middle-class family, a boy whose only worry was whether he would get his hands on the newest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man before his friends did. My world contained few problems, and I had not yet begun to seriously question my parents or any other figures of authority. I didn’t know the world was changing, but Frank Perry and Pete Hamill knew it.
Had I been able to slip into a theater to see Doc, I would’ve instantly felt something was amiss during the film’s opening scene. Doc Holliday (Stacy Keach) enters a bar that resembles a shack whose nails are in danger of coming loose at any moment. This tenuous structure stood in stark contrast with the saloons I was used to seeing in conventional Westerns: bright, spacious places teeming with activity and possibly a floor show featuring an out-of-tune piano and a beautiful young woman wearing a red-and-black saloon dress, singing, dancing, or both. In other Westerns you might see a smaller saloon with the obligatory card game going on, weary gunfighters leaning against the bar shouting “Whiskey!” to a nervous bartender, and some old-timer sitting alone nursing a beer, his eyes focused on the stranger who just walked through the swinging wooden doors. But this place was a wreck and so were the people in it.
A group of men who seemed to have spent the better part of the day rolling around in dust and dirt play cards at a table. One man, while holding his cards, has his other hand busy inside the bodice of the woman sitting next to him. Her face smeared with dirt and grit, she also appears to have been invited to the aforementioned dust-and-dirt party from earlier in the day. Yet none of these people can compare to the disheveled, dusty Doc, who appears to have spent the best part of his waking hours fighting his way out of a barrel filled with rancid flour. If this is trail dust, Holliday must have crawled on his hands and knees over every inch of it.
This scene was far removed from my experience of what a Western should look like. I wouldn’t have known it, but the filmmakers were attempting (quite successfully) to desanitize the Western, which was only a part of the overarching act of deconstructing the genre. Even during these opening moments, the traditions of my Western world were being turned upside down. John Wayne, James Stewart, and Randolph Scott were nowhere to be found. Slim Pickens, Edgar Buchanan, and Jack Elam? Forget it. Even mainstay Western character actors R. G. Armstrong or L. Q. Jones were absent. The only onscreen presence I would have recognized was Faye Dunaway, the woman with the card player’s hand down her shirt. Playing Kate Elder, Dunaway was the woman I’d fallen in love with inBonnie and Clyde (1967), only to watch her being shot full of holes at the end of that film. So she’d survived that bloodbath to wind up here?
Things get interesting when Doc begins talking to the man at the card table who’s getting a little too friendly with Kate. This is none other than Ike Clanton (Michael Witney), but Doc doesn’t care. He challenges Clanton to a card game with the winner getting Kate. The game is played with a complete lack of fanfare and not much suspense, a big disappointment to a nine-year-old who’d seen enough Western card games to know this isn’t a very effective or satisfying method of storytelling.
My disappointment would’ve continued as Doc and Kate travel through the desert. Actually “travel” is the wrong word. Their sojourn is a struggle through rough country, with each labored step forward a muscle-wearying slog for Doc’s horse. Yet upon reaching the town of Tombstone, the two characters emerge jubilant. I couldn’t understand why. This town was no destination to yearn for, but rather an expansion of the filthy surroundings Doc and Kate had just escaped. Tombstone is a town teeming with people moving in a chaotic menagerie of dust, dirt, and mud, headed toward merchants, stables, saloons, and bordellos. Doc and Kate part, at least for the time being, she to go whoring, he to meet Wyatt Earp (Harris Yulin).
It is here, my young mind thinks, that Doc and Wyatt will renew their friendship, talk over old times, and make plans for taking down the crooked Clanton gang. Things looked promising. Earp tells Doc of the Clantons and their criminal activities in Tombstone. “They’re bad people, John.” Since the local sheriff John Behan (Richard McKenzie) is so ineffective, Earp plans to run against him in the upcoming election. Earp tells Doc, “You organize the gambling, I run the law. We’ll both end up rich. Very rich.” Doc mulls over the proposal and says, “We sound like bad people, Wyatt.” Earp waits a beat and responds, “We are, John.”
I could not have known that the Pete Hamill script reflected the Nixon White House just prior to his 1972 reelection and the Watergate scandal, painting Earp as a man hungering for power and control, justifying his actions by an urgent need to tame the West. When Doc opens, Earp hasn’t yet gained such control, but his fingers can lightly touch it. Hamill’s script draws parallels to Nixon’s promises of a better America as our cities burned, college campuses fell into chaos, and inflation ran rampant. As to foreign policy, need we look any further than Vietnam? Tombstone may not look much like Saigon, but Earp’s cold-blooded platitudes and humorless dedication to avarice must have felt eerily familiar to audiences who could read between the lines in 1971.
Earp’s attempt to lure Doc into his schemes with promises of money and power don’t exactly fall on deaf ears. Holliday could see himself enjoying both money and power, yet neither hold much attraction for a man whose time is limited. If Earp’s primary focus is empire-building, Doc’s is staying alive. Like all stories of Holliday, Doc does not hide the fact that the good doctor is dying from tuberculosis. Even a nine-year-old knows this.
But a nine-year-old may not have grasped the fact that Doc and Kate’s rough and ragged journey prepares the audience to abandon thoughts of anything sugar-coated or sentimental. Neither Doc’s relationship with Kate nor his friendship with Earp venture into sentimentality, at least not for very long. Reminders of approaching death follow Doc everywhere in the form of coughing fits, sometimes bringing up his own lifeblood, which could be hacked up by tuberculosis or spilled out through the bullets of the Clantons.
Yet even a character known only as “The Kid” (Denver John Collins, brother of singer Judy Collins), the youngest member of the Clanton gang, is eager to learn the ways of death from Doc, imploring Holliday to teach him how to shoot. “So you can kill me?” Doc asks, knowing that he could be giving this boy the tools to kill either himself, Earp, or one of Earp’s brothers Virgil (John Bottoms) or Morgan (Philip Shafer). Yet teach him he does. It matters little whether Doc draws his last breath from TB or a bullet from the Kid’s gun.
The specter of impending death proves difficult for Doc to outrun. Moments with Kate certainly help (at least when they’re not fighting), but Doc often feels the need for further escape via his opium habit. In a scene that is both comedic and tragic, a furious Kate finds Doc laid out at a local opium den and literally burns down the house. The scene lends credence to the fact that as long as Doc is allied with Earp, destruction will follow him. Yet I would not have known what to think of this moment.
Holliday knows that he has no real future with Kate, but he insists that she take herself “off the line,” abandoning her life as a whore, a concept my young mind understood only in theory. Earp observes this relationship from a distance, disgusted that Kate is compelling Doc to live out what’s left of his life in quiet domesticity. Earp’s eventual battle with Kate is one of allegiance to Doc. Kate wants him, and Earp needs him. There’s even the suggestion that the relationship between Doc and Earp - at least in Earp’s mind - may be more than one of friendship. Again, such thoughts are way beyond those of a kid.
As she did in Bonnie and Clyde, Dunaway demonstrates that she can play both tough and warmhearted. Keach, displaying rock-solid self-confidence in the midst of the vulnerability of a dying man, walks a fine line showing a mask of boldness as his condition worsens. While their fights are memorable, Kate and Doc also share some tender, playful moments. One such scene is a bit too blatant in its comparison between the sweet life and the carnage that will come at the film’s conclusion. Doc gifts Kate a beautiful white dress which practically shines as a beacon of purity in this world of filth and mud, a wonderful, yet obvious contrast to Kate’s former life and the upcoming blood-soaked finale at the O. K. Corral. These scenes of blissful love are the film’s only concession to the conventional Hollywood western, a breath of fresh air to a young viewer, something I could finally understand. Yet this moment serves as a brief reminder that those older, safer movies were pleasant dreams devoid of the harsh realities of the real West.
Leading up to the inevitable gunfight, the main characters draw near to their own showdown in a three-way power struggle. Kate, tired of the scorn heaped upon her by Earp’s wife Alley (Hedy Sontag), wants nothing more than to leave Tombstone with Doc. Earp engages in a shouting match with Kate, claiming that she’s changed Doc, while Doc claims that Earp is not the man he once knew. Earp calls Doc on his behavior, suggesting that Kate is the problem: “There was a time when my trouble was your trouble and yours was mine.” Doc’s reply is simple: “Times have changed.” It doesn’t get much clearer either for Doc or the implications Hamill presents of American leadership.
The gunfight itself, at least according to this film, came about due to a complex set of circumstances. Ike Clanton was supposed to turn over Johnny Ringo (Fred Dennis) to the sheriff for a stage coach robbery early in the film. In return, Earp would give Ike both the reward and the credit for turning in a criminal, thereby showing everyone that Ike is on the side of justice. But since the Kid murdered a man in cold blood on the streets of Tombstone, Earp holds the boy in jail, until, unbeknownst to Earp, Doc springs for the Kid’s bail. Serving as both a personal vendetta and a political stunt, Earp forces the gunfight, making it a showcase for the entire town to witness. Doc and the three Earp brothers may be outnumbered, but they’ve brought shotguns, whereas the seven Clantons and McLaurys carry only pistols. According to legend, the actual gunfight lasted less than 30 seconds. In Doc the event doesn’t last much longer. Compared to The Wild Bunch, released just two years earlier, the violence here is less brutal, but much quicker.
When the dust settles, Doc and the Earps (minus a dead Morgan) walk away victorious. There’s not even enough time to catch your breath before Wyatt seizes a prime political opportunity, delivering to the onlookers the justifying statement, “We’re going to build a better Tombstone!” Although the townspeople may not realize it, a power shift has just taken place. Under the guise of acting in their best interests, Wyatt Earp has taken the first step in gaining and securing the control and power he’s yearned for, not necessarily the type of justice a young viewer would have sought out in a Western.
But what of Doc? During the gunfight, he kills the Kid, the same Kid who begged Doc to teach him to shoot. The Kid is the only character a younger version of me could identify with. How would I feel about the death of a character so close to my own age? How is this a scene I could enjoy? What could the Kid have become? What would I become?
This part of Doc’s legacy has breathed its last, and he realizes that in killing the Kid, he has killed a part of himself, the part tuberculosis can’t touch. As he and Kate ride away in the film’s final shot, Doc has successfully separated himself from any further dealings with Wyatt, which also guarantees that any restraining force against Earp is also departing. In traditional Westerns, riding into the sunset is normally a sign of victory, implying new beginnings and rebirth. Not here. The people of Tombstone can look forward to corruption, deception, and suppression of any thoughts and opinions contrary to those of the new order. To rephrase The Who’s anthem “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” (released just months before Doc), meet the new boss, worse than the old boss.
There’s very little of Doc that would have registered with me as a nine-year-old viewer. Had I been able to gain access to a theater showing it, I would’ve come to see a Western and instead walked away with hard lessons in human nature, corrupt politics, and both small and large-scale deception, lessons I was unprepared to handle. How many such films did I see, pictures I could not truly digest? Probably several. While I would not have understood the significance of the film as a third grader, I can see it as an adult, recognizing that some things really haven’t changed. People in positions of power still lord it over everyone else, get away with all manner of crimes, and callously fail to help those in need. Doc had something to say in 1971, and unfortunately it still does.
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