James Garner is best known for his laidback, iconic anti-heroes with a comedic twist (see Maverick or The Rockford Files for examples). He ditches that persona in Hour Of The Gun, delivering a brutal performance as Wyatt Earp. John Sturges’ western is a pseudo-sequel to his own Gunfight At The O.K Coral, but this is a harder film, with grim violence and little comic relief.
The gunfight takes place in the opening few minutes and it probably lasts as long as the legendary event did in reality (30 seconds). Hour Of The Gun then displays the aftermath of what took place and how the Clanton gang took revenge on the Earp family and their trusted friend, Doc Holliday (Jason Robards). Sturges stages his film unlike any western of the time, incorporating courtroom scenes and the wilds of Colorado as Garner’s Earp goes on a trail of revenge. It’s the shunning of many of the usual western conventions which help make Hour Of The Gun timeless. This has none of the dated humour of a John Ford film with the darker tone pre-dating many of Clint Eastwood’s films from the coming decades. The shadow of Sturges’ film looms largest over George P. Cosmatos and Kurt Russell’s Tombstone and many shots and scenes in that film are taken directly from this 1967 effort.
Hour Of The Gun features a wonderful score from Jerry Goldsmith which heightens Lucien Ballard’s splendidly rustic cinematography. Ballard gives the film an earthiness which is more in-line with 1970s Hollywood than the studio system of the 1960s. This isn’t a white hat/black hat western – this is a film filled with shades of grey. James Garner’s Earp isn’t the clean cut hero of legend – he’s a flawed character hell bent on vengeance at any cost. Garner’s Earp kills without remorse and he even lies to his trusted friend in order to kill Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan). It’s potentially a career best for Garner, illustrating his range and also his impressive screen presence. This role stretches his likeability to breaking point, but Garner’s strength as a leading man keeps the audience on his side throughout the movie.
Hour Of The Gun may not be as well known as many other westerns from the time. However, John Sturges’ film bucks against convention delivering a hard-hitting drama amongst the shootouts. The subversion of the Wyatt Earp myth is probably one of the reasons why it’s not as beloved as many of its contemporaries and that means it’s ripe for revisiting. Hour Of The Gun is a forgotten classic, a film that takes a well known legend and makes it feel fresh. Now is the time for you to see it.