Kirk Douglas Had To Carefully Choreograph Every Cough In Gunfight At The O.K. Corral

Leon Uris’ screenplay for “O.K. Corral,” based on George Scullinwas’ 1954 article “The Killer” in Holiday Magazine, was a far cry from the real historical events. A handful of features have chronicled the showdown between the Earp brothers, Holiday, and the cattle-rustling Clanton gang, each one the definitive version of the story until the next one emerged. There’s Allan Dwan’s 1939 monochrome effort “Frontier Marshall,” followed up by John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” in 1946. Following “Gunfight” in 1957, further accounts include “Hour of the Gun,” “Wyatt Earp,” and the widely lauded “Tombstone,” the latter starring a wan but lively-in-spirit Val Kilmer as the deadly Doc.

In his memoir, Kilmer looks back on his iteration of Holiday as “defiance in the face of death,” an attitude that crops up through his color-drained face, similar to Douglas’ resolute stoicism through sheens of sweat. The latter’s autobiography “A Ragman’s Son” explains that Douglas took pains to ensure that his character’s hacking didn’t dominate his own brand of stoicism:

“I had to cough a lot in ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,’ and I had to choreograph every cough. Since movies are not shot in sequence, I had to plan where I was going to cough, how lightly or deeply, and where I was going to have an attack. In some scenes, I didn’t cough at all. Nothing would be more annoying than to be coughing in every scene. A movie is not real. You create the illusion you want to create.”

The result was one of distance and unflagging valiance, like the William Holdens and Montgomery Clifts of the era, occupied not so much with winning an audience over as delivering “the illusion” and, like Holiday paying off his life debt to Earp, getting the job done.

Leave a Comment