Wyatt Earp and his brothers Morgan and Virgil ride into Tombstone and leave brother James in charge of their cattle herd. On their return they find their cattle stolen and James dead. Wyatt takes on the job of town marshal, making his brothers deputies, and vows to stay in Tombstone until James' killers are found.
There's not much history in this version of the events leading up to the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral — there was no Clementine Carter; Virgil Earp wasn't gunned down in cold
blood; and Old Man Clanton died weeks before the showdown, which Doc Holliday survived.
Yet, while on the surface this is clearly a paean to a lost era, some critics have identified allegorical parallels to the world in 1946, a world very much tainted by Ford's experiences making combat documentaries overseas. Wyatt Earp thought he'd done enough as marshal of Dodge City to justify his retirement (post-Great War US isolationism). But he needed to strap on his six-shooters again (World War II) to wipe out the threat to civilisation posed by the Clantons (the Axis). However, victory was to come at a price and a happy ending was by no means guaranteed (the looming Cold War). Instantly conjuring a sense of freedom and opportunity, the action opens in Monument Valley — Ford's first visit since Stagecoach in 1939—with the familiar landmarks and the vast expanse of sky prompting critic-director Lindsay Anderson to claim that this single scene marked Ford's stylistic transition from prose to poetry.
But Wyatt Earp's terse conversation with Pa Clanton establishes a new blend of brooding themes and Expressionist compositions that give this tale of treachery and revenge the texture of a Western noir. It's easy to see Chihuahua (Darnell) as the femme fatale who lures her lover, Doc Holliday (Mature), to his death. Embittered, tubercular and clad in black, he is a classic noir anti-hero, repenting too late a wasted life after he fails to save Chihuahua when she is shot by Billy (John Ireland), the man with whom she two-timed Doc while he was terminating his engagement. The Earp side of the story seems much more straightforward. Wyatt (Fonda), Virgil (Holt) and Morgan (Bond) agree to become Tombstone lawmen after their younger brother is murdered in a cattle raid. But, while his mission is vengeance pure and simple, Wyatt's character is anything but clear-cut. Setting more store by family than community and by the unspoken code of the plains than the written law, he gives the impression of being a wanderer. Yet he derives immense satisfaction from a game of cards and being able to lounge on the back legs of a porch chair. His dress may be neat, his walk deliberate and his actions invariably clinical (viz the citizen's arrest of the drunken Indian shooting up the town), yet when it comes to avenging his brother's death he stalls. Hence drunken actor Granville Thorndike's rambling rendition of "To be or not to be..." for Wyatt is the Hamlet of the West — a man seeking revenge, but too easily deflected from his purpose by the tide of events.
When he does finally act, it's with ruthless precision. He strides down the main street with a murderous intent that his cursory reference to an arrest warrant barely conceals. His aim is unerring and Clantons fall around him, along with Holliday. Yet he registers no emotion as he sees his friend's corpse nor as Morgan shoots Pa in the back. Wyatt had already condemned him to a life haunted by the knowledge that he led his boys to their deaths. The scene is played out to the sounds of gunfire and whinnying horses. The lack of music ensures that we see it as a battle to the death and not a cinematic set-piece.
Violence on this scale was unusual for a Ford film, and the fact that it climaxed what had been a largely meditative narrative makes it all the more disturbing. What's also intriguing, considering his obvious affinity for the character, is how briefly Ford dwells on Doc Holliday's demise. He may be a womanising, gambling rascal, but he has a dignity and a sense of duty that chimes with the principled brusqueness of so many other Ford heroes.
Earp (whose relationship with Doc has, of course, been interpreted as homoerotic) is less flawed and, therefore, less human. Ford would return to Wyatt and Doc (this time played by James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy) in his farewell western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Their depiction as cynical, self-interested rogues could not be more different, however, and suggests that he had drastically revised his opinion of the legend.
John Ford was only interested in the myth that this story represented, not the reality, and the portrait of the Old West he paints ranks among the most evocative ever produced.