One of the images key to the Western for many viewers is the “showdown” – two armed cowboys facing each other across the deserted main street of a Western town. Skill with a gun in a Western is based on the real abilities of those who lived during the historical Old West. Men such as Will Bill Hickok (1837-1876), Wyatt Earp (1848-1929) and Doc Holliday (1851-1887) became famous in their own time as “pistoleers”. Earp and Holliday were involved, along with two of Earp’s brothers, in the real “Shoot-out at the O.K. Corral”, a short but intense gunfight with a reputedly outlaw group known as “ The Cowboys” that took place on October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona (territory at the time).

Portrayals of gunfights in Westerns have been varied. One of the dominant images is that of two men squaring off while one waits for the other to make a first move and then draw. Many Westerns deal with the code of not shooting someone in the back. Historically, real gunfights could be spontaneous – perhaps springing from a personal feud – with one man drawing his gun and the other reacting. Shots could be fired wildly (especially when drunk) and each man might duck for cover. Real-life gunfighters such as Billy the Kid (1859-1881) and Will Bill Hickok were killed by ambush – Billy the Kid shot in the dark by his former friend, Sheriff Pat Garrett (1850-1908) while Hickok was shot in the back of the head while playing cards. Historical gunfighters were killed in shoot-outs and some were captured and executed. Others, like Wyatt Earp, lived into old age.

The story of Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, along with Wyatt’s friend Doc Holliday is dramatized in the 1993 film, Tombstone. Wyatt Earp’s reputation as a lawman brings him into tension with “The Cowboys” – outlaws who have operated in the Tombstone area with impunity up to that point. It is tension that will be resolved in part with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Prior to that, however, this Western presents us with another type of “showdown”. With Wyatt (Kurt Russell) and his brothers now operating a gambling hall and saloon, a confrontation at that establishment sees Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) come face-to-face with a true gunfighter rival who rides with The Cowboys, Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). This saloon scene in Tombstone emphasizes the essence of a show-down between two skilled gunfighters in an unexpected way – they are able to size each other up and match abilities (both in terms of intellect and physical dexterity) without a shot being fired.

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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