Release Date(s)1971 (March 23, 2021)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
Doc, directed by Frank Perry, uses real-life figures to tell a story of relationships in the Old West while upending many previous portrayals of lawman Wyatt Earp and his friend Doc Holliday. The film is a gritty look at a long-standing feud, frontier politics, and the day-to-day life in a bustling town in Arizona Territory.
Doc Holliday (Stacy Keach), former dentist and current gambler, rides his horse across Arizona to join his friend Wyatt Earp (Harris Yulin) in Tombstone. Earp is the marshal, but in this town, it’s the sheriff who has the real power, so he decides to run for that office. As depicted, Earp is far from the legendary hero of previous films. Sly, even corrupt, Earp is not the person Doc remembers and he’s caught in the moral dilemma of whether to help his friend or not. A number of scenes portray Earp as arrogant, sauntering down the street and glaring at men to clear a path for him, and he seems to take particular joy in provoking the volatile Ike Clanton (Michael Witney).
Ike is introduced in the first scene when Doc, en route to Tombstone, stops at the No Name Saloon and encounters him with prostitute Kate Elder (Faye Dunaway). Attracted to her, Doc plays cards with Ike and “wins” her. Kate rides with Doc through the desert to Tombstone.
Director Perry portrays Tombstone as a virtual beehive of activity as Doc and Kate arrive. Men on horseback, scores of pedestrians, wagons, a bar fight that spills into the street, and prostitutes advertising their wares on a balcony greet them.
The film gradually leads up to the famous gunfight at the OK Corral that pitted the Clanton gang against Earp, Doc, and Earp’s brothers Morgan and Virgil. Getting there is somewhat slow going. The dialogue is often stretched out and the pace sags. In keeping with reality, the gunfight lasts only a few seconds, unlike the extended mayhem in earlier screen accounts. Deaths are quick and brutal, and Wyatt Earp comes off as provocateur rather than hero.
Casting is effective. The film is told from Doc Holliday’s point of view and he dominates the action. Dunaway’s Kate Elder is a free-spirited woman who takes up with Doc, thumbing her nose at the townsfolk who are scandalized that she and Doc are living under the same roof, unmarried. Wyatt Earp is introduced about twenty minutes into the film. Character actor Yulin has been cast most likely because of his resemblance to the real Earp. Solemn and humorless, Yulin’s Wyatt Earp is cold, brutal, calculating, given to pistol whipping men who cross him, and power hungry. More than a flawed hero, he’s downright corrupt.
Doc sees himself honestly and is appalled when young Billy Clanton (Denver John Collins) says he wants to be like him. Finding solace in opium, Doc believes his life and bad choices are capable of salvation even though he’s dying of tuberculosis. Everyone in the film is dirty, both literally and figuratively. There are no pure good guys, giving the film its cynical tone.
Fans of westerns might be interested in this view of Earp and his part in the famous shootout. Director Perry combines actual events with fictional ones and anchors the film with solid performances. Holliday’s relationship with Kate Elder, the death of a stagecoach driver that figured in the bad blood between Earp and the Clantons, and the gathering of Doc and the Earp brothers prior to heading to the OK Corral are historically accurate. Other scenes rely on dramatic license in Pete Hamill’s screenplay.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the new 2K Blu-ray release of Doc from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The color palette tends toward warm earthy tones, with variations of brown dominating. The image is sharp, with details nicely delineated. The cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld is beautiful, with warm tones on the faces of Kate and Doc in the first scene. The No Name Saloon is filthy, and its lantern-lit interior with its yellow, cracked walls plus Kate and Ike’s slovenly clothes accentuate the squalor. By comparison, Doc, who’s just come in from a severe dust storm, is impeccably dressed. In a few compositions, two actors face toward the camera, one in the foreground, the other in the background, but both in focus. This is a dramatic way of staging a static dialogue scene. Kate’s red dress in a sea of cowboys clothed in earth tones stands out. Director Frank Perry makes excellent use of the surrounding hills, with interesting rock patterns creating shadows from the sun. The desert crossing is especially impressive, and production designer Gene Callahan realistically recreates the town of Tombstone on location in Spain.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional subtitles in English SDH are also available. Dialogue is crisp throughout, even when delivered by surly Ike Clanton. Yulin adopts a cold, deliberate manner of speaking for Earp. He chooses his words carefully, and even when campaigning amid townspeople, is not garrulous. The entry into Tombstone features excellent mixing of many typical Western sounds—horses’ hooves, wagon wheels, the hubbub of folks going about their business, a street fight, and cowboys whooping it up when they see Kate. Director Perry uses silence dramatically in the lead-up to the gunfight as Earp, Doc, Morgan and Virgil make their way from the saloon through empty streets to the corral. Gunshots are sharp and several shotgun blasts in the climactic scene break the silence with their cannon-like explosive discharges. The score by Jimmy Webb, used sparingly, is serviceable and underscores dramatic moments.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Filmmaker and author of the book Tombstone Rashomon Alex Cox notes that Doc was filmed in Spain in August and September of 1970, and deals with the most famous gunfight in western history, which became the subject of many films. Frank Perry was “the ultimate New York director” but brought many different kinds of films with a “European exoticism” to the screen. Doc was Pete Hamill’s first screenplay. He based the script on his experience following the Lyndon Johnson presidential campaign trail. Credited for the film’s lush look are cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld and production designer Gene Callahan. Doc is an American film with an American cast and department heads but a crew almost entirely Spanish. Many of the locations were also used in other American or Italian westerns. Temperatures were brutal in the Spanish summer and the men had to wear heavy wool clothing. The film addresses levels of machismo and sexual aggression. Cox refers to the filming technique of “negative space,” in which actors are framed looking away from each other. Doc Holliday was trained as a dentist but was also a gambler and a killer. Wyatt Earp had no actual police powers in Tombstone. It was his brother Virgil who was the marshal. Kate Elder was a prostitute and hotel owner. Actors who played Earp in other films include Burt Lancaster, Kevin Costner, and Henry Fonda. The scene in which Earp goes “mano a mano” with Ike Clanton is sheer invention. Clanton is portrayed as pure evil; there’s no nuance to the character. Cox recommends a number of books, including his own, that deal with the gunfight at the OK Corral, and lists several films that deal with the events surrounding the deadly confrontation, among them Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Tombstone, and Wyatt Earp.
Trailers – Six theatrical trailers are included: Doc, The Long Riders, Street People, The Thomas Crown Affair, Narrow Margin, and Ladybug Ladybug.
A revisionist western, Doc deconstructs the legend of Wyatt Earp fostered by previous films. It also differs markedly from other westerns because of its downbeat, pessimistic tone that reduces men’s stature, emphasizing their flaws and moral shortcomings rather than elevating them to history’s pedestal.
- Dennis Seuling