Wyatt Earp & Doc Holliday in ‘Hour of the Gun’: a legendary friendship.

This blog post is a contribution to Legends of Western Cinema Week.

The dust has settled following the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The Earps and Doc Holliday stand trial for the shooting. The courtroom is crowded, jumpy, hostile. Doc Holliday takes the witness stand.

“I don’t need a badge to kill,” he says, in response to the prosecutor’s barbed questions.

“Only the word of Wyatt Earp,” the prosecutor sneers.

“I’d go to hell and back on the word of Wyatt Earp,” Doc snaps. Little does he know that that is exactly what he will do: follow Wyatt into the hell of one man’s relentless, bloodthirsty hunt for vengeance.

But let’s go back to the beginning…

Hour of the Gun is a tense Western, unique in that it deals with the aftermath of an event that most films would instead build to as the finale: the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. That narrative choice makes for a fascinating look at the character of both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and their friendship. And that’s because we see Wyatt and Doc essentially switch roles as they each deal with the consequences of the gunfight.

At the beginning of the film, Wyatt is shown to be a law-abiding, law-upholding man. He is one of the most respected men in Tombstone. He follows the letter of the law and the dictates of his own conscience, the two working together in unison. Doc admires Wyatt’s honesty and sense of honor, even though he might sometimes scoff at Wyatt’s (relative) uprightness.

Wyatt begins to change, however, when Ike Clanton’s men cripple Virgil Earp and kill Morgan Earp, Wyatt’s brothers. The case against Clanton’s men is thrown out of court, so Wyatt and Doc form a posse to bring in Clanton’s gang. (It’s legal for them to do so, though I’m fuzzy on the details.) They are supposed to bring in the men alive, if they want the bounty money, but the first three members of the gang end up being killed—by Wyatt.

Each time, it’s a case of self-defense. Each time, Wyatt had no choice but to shoot. Each time, there were ‘extenuating circumstances.’

And by the third time, Doc begins to suspect something is wrong.

When Wyatt’s posse finds the last member of the gang, Wyatt forces the outlaw into a draw and then loses all self-control, shooting the man multiple times. And Doc sees the truth about his friend.

“Those aren’t warrants you’ve got there. Those are hunting licenses.”

Wyatt has become vicious. Vindictive. Vengeful.

It’s a difficult scene that follows, one where Doc tears into Wyatt for stooping to what is basically (if not technically) murder, for turning his back on law and order.

It’s a scene in which Wyatt says nothing, the truth of Doc’s words clearly shown by his silence.

“Five minutes after we left the OK Corral, I wanted to say, ‘Get Clanton, Wyatt. Get him before he gets you.’ But I didn’t. You don’t speak that way to Wyatt Earp. You’ve got too much respect for him.”

I think on some level, Doc’s bitter rant against Wyatt’s actions is due to the fact that Doc has always looked up to Wyatt a little. Respected him, definitely. And now to see that Wyatt has been engaged in a vengeful killing spree the whole time, that he’s been eaten up by cold, calculated hate…it rattles Doc. Doc has always been ‘the wild one,’ if you will. The one who drinks too much and gambles too much—and kills too much. But now the roles have been reversed. Now Doc is the level-headed one, the man standing on a higher moral plane than Wyatt.

Wyatt was a hero, in Doc’s eyes. But not anymore. And Doc’s anger and regret and even sadness boils over into a tirade that is almost as painful for us to hear as it is for Wyatt. Why? Because Wyatt and Doc are friends. We know this. They know this. So as much as Wyatt needs to hear what Doc has to say, it still hurts.

It hurts so much, in fact, that Wyatt ends up hitting Doc. (I hate that. So much.)

“That’s all right,” says Doc as he fights off a coughing fit. “This stops.” But Wyatt’s mission of vengeance won’t.

Wyatt is offered the job of Chief U.S. Marshal by men who have no idea that he’s turned vengeful. Instead of giving an answer right away, Wyatt heads down to Mexico to seek vengeance one last time—against Ike Clanton, the man who orchestrated Virgil’s injury and Morgan’s death. Wyatt intends to go alone, but Doc figures out what he’s doing and gets on the same train. Wyatt doesn’t want him along (for obvious reasons), but Doc doesn’t care.

“Buy a return ticket and go take care of yourself.”
“No thank you.”

You have to understand that this isn’t just a friend refusing to leave another friend (though it is that). It’s a dying man refusing to go home and get the treatment that could, if not save his life, then at least prolong it. Doc is dying of tuberculosis, but he won’t leave Wyatt alone. Even if he can’t stop Wyatt from taking his revenge one last time, he’s not going to desert his friend. He’s not going to stop trying to bring Wyatt back to the right side of the law and common morality.

Doc points out that when Wyatt killed Clanton’s gang, it was at least under cover of the law. But tracking Clanton to Mexico and killing him will be a completely lawless act.

“You’re throwing away all the years you’ve lived by the rules.”
“I don’t care about the rules.”
“They’re the only rules there are. And they’re more important to you than you think. You can’t live like me.”

But Wyatt doesn’t listen. “Go back to the hotel. Take care of yourself,” he tells Doc, as he fingers the badge that doesn’t seem to mean much to him anymore.

“No thanks,” Doc says again. In his own way, he’s as relentless as Wyatt.

They find Clanton. And as Wyatt prepares for a shoot-out with the man who killed his brother, he pulls his badge from his pocket and throws it aside. He won’t dishonor the badge, won’t hide behind it any longer.

Whether Wyatt intentionally threw the badge to Doc or not, Doc does catch it. It’s a small moment, but one loaded with meaning. Consider this exchange between Wyatt and Doc from the beginning of the film:

“Doc? Did Virg deputize you?”
“I swore to something he was muttering about.”
wear the badge.”

Throughout the course of the film, Wyatt has stepped further and further outside the law—maybe not always judicial law, but certainly moral law. And Doc has, from the moment he decided to go to the O.K. Corral, been driven toward the law and justice and doing what’s right…all for the sake of his friend. As Wyatt’s moral compass corrodes, Doc’s begins to work again.

And now Doc catches Wyatt’s badge. He has gone from having to be ordered to wear the badge, to safeguarding that symbol of law and order—just as he has tried to safeguard Wyatt’s sense of law and order throughout the film.

Wyatt does kill Clanton (it’s a fair draw…but still vengeance). A few days (weeks?) later, Doc gives Wyatt back his badge and, in effect, gives Wyatt his blessing in regards to continuing to work as a marshal. Wyatt takes the badge, but he won’t work for the law again.

I like to think that Wyatt makes that choice because he has seen how wrong he’s been, that Doc was right all along, and that it wouldn’t be honorable for him to take up his old job (or a new one, as Chief U.S. Marshal), with the trail of vengeance killings stretching behind him. I like to think all that because it means that Doc did get through to Wyatt and helped re-align his skewed moral compass.

Doc may not have been able to save the lawman, in the end, but he did save the man. He stuck by Wyatt and remained his friend even when they disagreed so sharply, even when it would have been easier and safer to return home and let Wyatt continue to spiral downward.

Hour of the Gun may be bleak at times. But in the middle of the killings, the thirst for vengeance, and the fracturing of a legendary hero, you’ll find a loyal man trying in his own feeble, sarcastic way to rescue his best friend. And that is something worth seeing—worth emulating, even.

Have you ever watched Hour of the Gun? What did you think of it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!



4 thoughts on “Wyatt Earp & Doc Holliday in ‘Hour of the Gun’: a legendary friendship.

Add yours

  1. This is beyond brilliant. I am agog. Your analysis of how Doc and Wyatt gradually trade places is spot-on and perfect and really just… brings out all the wonderful depth of this film in ways I’ve never managed to articulate. Good, good stuff.


    1. I’m so glad you loved this post! It was such fun writing it (and taking all the screenshots *wink*). John Sturges created such an amazing film, and it’s firmly in my top ten (if not top five) favorite Westerns after doing all the research for this post.


  2. Great analysis here.

    It’s always interesting to see a guy who progresses from “You have to be ‘the good one’ so I won’t have to,” to “Well geez, I guess I WILL be ‘the good one’ after all, if you won’t.” It’s one thing to idealize another person’s moral code (or perceived moral code), and quite another to shoulder the responsibility for that moral code yourself.

    Character growth… we love to see it. ❤


    1. Thanks!

      YES. I love that dynamic between characters. Done right, it’s so good and juicy and thought-provoking. (As is clear from this monster of a post. XD)

      Liked by 1 person

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