Review: the anti-western Doc

[frame align=”left”] [/frame]I love movies about the 1881 showdown in Tombstone, AZ between Wyatt Earp and the Clanton gang. My favorite is Tombstone, but I won’t sleight Gunfight at the OK Corral, My Darling Clementine, or Hour of the Gun (which actually starts with the gunfight and follows the events afterward). I can’t stand Kevin Costner’s epic, sprawling Wyatt Earp, which demythologizes the central character to the point that you actually wonder why anyone would make a movie about him, yet still holds him up as a hero.

But it ain’t nothing compared to the demythologizing in Frank Perry’s 1971 film, Doc. Even the poster brags about the tear-down:

Stacy Keach plays Doc Holliday, former dentist and current tubercular gambler, drifting across Arizona to join his friend Earp in Tombstone. Earp is played by Harris Yulin, a ubiquitous character actor who you’ll instantly recognize even if the name doesn’t register (he even played a Cardassian in Deep Space Nine). Also co-starring is Faye Dunaway as Kate Elder, aka “Big Nose” Kate, Doc’s mistress.

With Doc as the central character, we’re given the legend from the side. Earp may be the marshall, but he recognizes that in Tombstone, it’s the sheriff who runs things. He runs for that office, and makes a deal with the Clanton gang to turn over one of their own at the appropriate time to secure Earp’s victory. This view of Earp as not just a brutal man but a corrupt one leaves Costner’s arrogant misanthrope in the dust. Doc is Earp’s friend, but when he realizes what Earp’s done he’s caught in a quandary. How that resolves is one of the most cynical depictions of human nature I’ve seen; it makes Glengarry Glen Ross look like Amelie.[frame align=”right”] [/frame]
Stacy Keach and Faye Dunaway.

But unlike the Costner film, which seems to think Earp is still deserving of heroic status even after he’s shown to be pretty much a total prick, Doc earns its cynicism. Doc is a flawed man who sees himself honestly, and allows himself a brief respite of thinking his life might be salvageable despite his tuberculosis. When he realizes it isn’t, he goes with the flow and accepts his fate. The story takes place in a Western world that goes Sergio Leone one better: everyone is dirty and dusty, and at times you can almost smell their unwashed bodies. And the music, by songwriter Jimmy Webb (“MacArthur Park”) is low-key and based in period sounds; there’s no Elmer Bernstein flourish here.[frame align=”left”] [/frame]

Harris Yulin as Wyatt Earp.

Doc isn’t a feel-good Western, for sure, nor a flawless one: many scenes seem cut too early, as if they needed another few moments to play out. But Keach’s performance is so open and minimal that it draws you in, and Yulin’s take on Earp never fails to surprise. If you’re a fan of Westerns, or just of familiar tales told in new ways, I highly recommend it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *