Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) is a good but not great western, but there is one attribute that makes it watchable over and over again: the conflict/rapport between Hollywood stars of equal magnitude: Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.
In Gunfight, Douglas appears first, his Doc Holliday throwing knives at the door of his hotel room while Kate (Jo Van Fleet) berates him for not skipping town after killing Ed Bailey’s (Lee Van Cleef’s) brother. Bailey arrives, intent on avenging his brother. While Doc makes him stew in the bar, Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) calls on Sheriff Cotton (Frank Faylen) and is perturbed the lawman didn’t arrest Ike Clanton and Ringo when they rode into town. In the saloon, Earp meets Holliday. This is what we’ve waited for: the first meeting of two megastars. One cannot look away. Even though I’d seen this film several times, the first at Chester’s Mac Theater (specializing in second-run films like Horror of Dracula, The Vikings, and I Want to Live!) in the early 60s, I must always watch the interplay if I stumble on the movie on TV. I must watch Lancaster confront Douglas, I must see them spar with each other. They had made one film before Gunfight: I Walk Alone (1948). Lancaster was in the second year of his cinematic career, having debuted as the star of The Killers (1946). Like very few others, he served no apprenticeship and was a star from the get-go. Douglas was rambling around the late forties in significant but often secondary roles, such as Robert Mitchum’s foil in the seminal noir film Out of the Past (1947). His breakthrough to leading man status occurred in 1949’s prizefight film, Champion. It was all up from there.
Lancaster and Douglas made five other films together: The Devil’s Disciple (1959), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963; Lancaster in guest role, Douglas the main star), Seven Days in May (1964; Douglas has the more sympathetic part as the officer who must stop Lancaster’s coup), and Tough Guys (1986).*
Two years prior to Gunfight at the OK Corral Lancaster had another outing versus a superstar. In 1954’s Vera Cruz his uncouth but ingratiating mercenary Joe Erin came up against soft-spoken but wily Ben Trane, played by the legendary Gary Cooper. Allied to protect a shipment of gold through Mexico, they find themselves in a stand-off at the finale. Lancaster was still out for personal booty, Cooper had decided to use it in the service of the rebel Juaristas.
Another 1950s confrontation between heavyweights occurred in 1958’s The Big Country, like Gunfight not a truly great western but entirely watchable. The Big Country’s on-location shooting is better than Gunfight, the gunplay less well choreographed in the big confrontation between the Terrills and Hannassays in Blanco Canyon. However, The Big Country ’s music score by Jerome Moross is the standard against which all subsequent westerns are measured. And like Gunfight, Big Country benefits immeasurably by a conflict between two Hollywood male superstars. Gregory Peck played ship captain Jim McKay come west to run a ranch, and was a mere dude to the Terrill ranch foreman Steve Leech played by Charlton Heston. Like Lancaster, the 6’3” Peck had been a star from his first movie, Days of Glory (1944). Like Peck and Lancaster, Heston (also 6’3”) didn’t have a meteoric rise to stardom; he was a star from his first film, 1950’s Dark City and by 1956 was playing Moses in The Ten Commandments. In the meantime Peck had starred in many quality films in various genres (Gentleman’s Agreement, Yellow Sky, Twelve O’Clock High, The Gunfighter, Roman Holliday, Moby Dick) and amassed multiple Oscar nominations. So when these two got together it was, as with Lancaster and Douglas, a pairing of equals symbolized in this instance by their private nighttime fistfight behind the bunkhouse witnessed only by ranch hand Ramon (played by Alfonso “The Face That Kills” from 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Bedoya). Appropriately, the Peck-Heston fracas ended in a draw.
Four years later Peck had another match with a superstar. In 1962, when he finally won an Oscar for his Southern attorney Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Peck played another Southern attorney, Sam Bowden, in Cape Fear. Bowden had to deal with a vengeance-minded ex-con. That menacing psychopath was portrayed by Robert Mitchum, whose Max Cady was as chilling as his bogus preacher man Harry Powell in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter. There could be no draw in their knock-down, drag-out finale fight. Cady had to be contained, but it took a gun to give Bowden the final say.
One could extend this discussion to other stars of equal stature. For example,
Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, San Francisco (1936)
Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Boom Town (1940)
William Holden, Glenn Ford, Texas (1941)
Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, They Were Expendable (1945)
William Holden, Robert Mitchum, Rachel and the Stranger (1948)
Glenn Ford, William Holden, The Man from Colorado (1948)
John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Fort Apache (1948)
Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953)
Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, The Last Hunt (1956)
Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, The Ten Commandments (1956)
Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, The Defiant Ones (1958)
Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Some Came Running (1958)
John Wayne, William Holden, The Horse Soldiers (1959)
Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston, The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959)
Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot (1959)
Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra, The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961)
John Wayne, James Stewart, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Becket (1964)
John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, In Harm’s Way (1965)
Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, The Great Race (1965)
John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, El Dorado (1966)
John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, The War Wagon (1967)
Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
John Wayne, Rock Hudson, The Undefeated (1969)
Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, There Was a Crooked Man (1970)
Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Papillon (1973)
Paul Newman, Robert Redford, The Sting (1973)
Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, The Towering Inferno (1974)
Sean Connery, Michael Caine, The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, The Missouri Breaks (1976)
Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, HEAT (1994)
As for female stars of equal rank in the same movie, there are fewer examples. What comes to mind immediately is 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Another is 1961’s The Children’s Hour with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.
*Even when their screen time was equal—or even when Douglas had a more significant role (as in The Devil’s Disciple)—Lancaster always received the preferred left-hand spot on the movie posters for the films in which they costarred. However, Douglas’ overall 1950s films were at least as good as his rival’s. Douglas had 24 movies released between 1950 and 1959, Lancaster 22 (including one as an uncredited player). A subjective rating results in a virtual tie as far as quality goes. Among Douglas’ premiere films of the decade were Young Man with a Horn, Ace in the Hole, Detective Story, The Bad and the Beautiful, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lust for Life, Paths of Glory, and The Vikings. Lancaster’s top-of-the-line releases were The Flame and the Arrow, Come Back, Little Sheba, From Here to Eternity, Vera Cruz, The Rose Tattoo, The Crimson Pirate, Sweet Smell of Success and Run Silent, Run Deep. Remember that this is subjective, but Douglas needs reevaluation vis-à-vis Lancaster.