Comments Off on ‘Doc’

Frank Perry’s revisionist western ‘Doc’ (1971) is about as unromantic a western as one could imagine. For plot, screenwriter Pete Hamill looks to the most famous gunfight in the history of the American West, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But ‘Doc’ is really a film about entering middle age; the time in a person’s life where what’s really important is building stability and partnership.

Chases on horseback and blazing six guns are practically nowhere to be found in ‘Doc’. The title character ‘Doc’ Holiday (Stacy Keach) is tired of pointless killing and wants nothing more than to start over with the free spirited Katie Elder (Faye Dunaway). But Holiday’s friend Wyatt Earp (Harris Yulin) needs Holiday to realize his plan to seize control of Tombstone and solidify his position politically. The famed gunslinger becomes a tired old man while the most infamous marshal in all of history is rendered as a corrupt politician and unsavory opportunist.

The one thing ‘Doc’ has in common with almost every re-telling of this chapter in history is that the film focuses on these two larger than life individuals. But for Perry the myth of the West is a means to reflect on his own entry to middle age as America experiences the social and political upheaval of the Vietnam War, feminism, Black Power, and student demonstrations. The world weariness in ‘Doc’ is palpable, saturating every frame.

Myth and history are equally disposable in a film whose primary focus is to take a genre and reorient it to be relevant to the generation born in the aftermath of WWII. Perry’s disillusionment with his country and with his own mortality is what counts here. It’s why the visual economy of the western has been re-written to include tattered Sunday dresses, worn out flasks, dirty clothes, weather worn cottages, and campaign fundraisers. Keach and Yulin are about as far from Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as one can get, functioning as yet another tool in dismantling the genre.

The queer reading of Earp and Holiday’s relationship that marks most adaptations survives in ‘Doc’. In fact, with the new found emphasis on the domestic sphere on life in Tombstone, it’s made even more palpable than in other tellings. Yulin’s Earp, often helpless and frustrated, looks to his friend with eyes that seem to probe for genuine tenderness as much as a helping hand. Likewise Keach’s Holiday looks on Earp as an ex-lover for whom he still feels somehow responsible. By stressing the queer coding of the western Perry is better able to provide dramatic motivations for Dunaway’s Elder; a character who is all too often relegated to the background.

Perhaps it’s easiest to say that ‘Doc’ is The Swimmer (1968) redressed as a western. Instead of swimming “cross country” pool to pool, Holiday fritters away his chance at happiness of a false sense of obligation and a penchant for self destruction. The men at the center of each of these films is delusional; unable to face the reality brought about by their own shortcomings and limitations.