‘Doc’ (1971)    3 Stars

“For the past 90 years these three people have been heroes. Until now!”


'Doc' (1971)

Director: Frank Perry

Cast: Stacy Keach, Faye Dunaway, Harris Yulin

Synopsis: One night of 1881, Doc Holliday, a famous poker gambler, enters the ‘No Name Saloon’. There, he challenges a man to poker, betting his horse against his opponent’s wife.







Commonly referred to as a ‘revisionist’ western, ‘Doc’ was made when Hollywood was exploring reality with the over-zealous attitude of a kid who’s just discovered sex. The opening scenes of’ Doc’ see our anti-hero (Stacy Keach — American History X, Nebraska) striding out of a storm and into a hovel of a saloon where he runs into one of them no-good Clanton boys trying to find out what’s inside a grubby Faye Dunaway’s (Network) blouse. The scene pretty much sums up what the film is all about: the melding of the conventional genre template with the new realism that was the legacy of the new era of permissiveness that followed the passing away of the Hays Code. For the Western genre at least, it was also a transformation initiated and inspired by Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns.

There’s enough of the old Western hero about Stacy Keach’s Doc Holliday for him to be recognisable. He has an air of silent nobility and a sense of what is right and wrong, even though he doesn’t always differentiate between them too closely. His friend, Wyatt Earp (Harris Yulin — St. Ives, Scarface), is not so conventional here, and it’s interesting to see his character grow increasingly darker as the story unfolds. I don’t know enough about the true story of Holliday and Earp to say how accurate this film is, but I’m pretty sure it’s nearer the truth than all the other Hollywood versions that preceded it. A foreshadowing of tragedy hangs over everything: the growing feud between Earp and the Clantons, Holliday’s romance with Kate Elder, his tenuous friendship with the younger Clanton, and the terminal illness that would claim his life six years after the gunfight took place. Dunaway’s beauty is too luminous for the part — even semi-concealed beneath layers of grime — and she perhaps didn’t quite possess the calibre of acting the role required, but she gives a decent account of herself nevertheless.

Everyone appears to be mildly perplexed throughout the film, as if they are being carried along against their will by events they don’t really understand. Again, the complex emotions and soul-searching of the principle characters are a product of the (filmmaking) times, and perhaps lend them a level of intelligence that didn’t exist in the real figures on which they are based. The film suggests Holliday and Kate are better than their surroundings — when they dance in the Tombstone saloon, Kate in her red dress and Doc in his black duds, (the first time we’ve seen them scrubbed up since their trek across the desert) they seem to briefly transcend their surroundings and provide each other with their only hope they have of a better life.

‘Doc’ is a slow, thoughtful, meditative film that doesn’t sit well with the genre or its fans, but if you like character studies and aren’t afraid of a western — about a gunfight, no less — with very little gunplay, then I’d give this one a shot.

(Reviewed 23rd January 2010)