In real life, their stories intersected a few times, with the lawman and dentist most famously meeting up in Tombstone for the legendary “gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Most agree the actual fight only took thirty seconds (and not exactly at the O.K. Corral), with the “good guys” (Earp, his two brothers, and Holliday) dominating the outlaws (the Clantons and McLaurys). But later on it was embellished and expanded considerably, especially in the dozens of films made featuring Earp and Holliday.
There a few stories about both Earp and Holliday playing poker, although they’re mostly lacking detail other than perhaps mentioning a location and/or the stakes or amount won or lost. Rather than stay back in the 19th century chasing down historical tumbleweeds, for the column I focused on a few of the more interesting films featuring the pair -- My Darling Clementine (1946), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), and Tombstone (1993).
I focused mainly on how poker is used in those films, both to help shape the characters of Earp and Holliday and to reflect larger themes of the films and their portrayals of the Old West. The parallel between poker and gunfighting is unsubtle in most westerns, really, both being presented as high-stakes “games” in which the players have to make their own rules and agree to abide by them. In the “Wild West” that agreement is always quite tenuous, which means like the gunfights the poker games also tend to end violently.
My Darling Clementine is my favorite of these films -- by far, really. Both Henry Fonda as Earp and Victor Mature as Holliday are terrific. Fonda has that light touch at times (as usual), but is also great when exerting his authority and getting mean. Mature, meanwhile, is dark and full of foreboding, well presenting that film’s version of Holliday with all of his existentialist dread. (Those photos up top, with Earp on the left and Holliday on the right, kind of reverse the light-dark symbolism.)
But all the films mess with the characters and the history. With Clementine, director John Ford even wanted to change all the character names since the script had gravitated so far from reality, but the studio wouldn’t let him.
Here’s the column, if you’re interested to read more about these cinematic portrayals of Earp and Holliday: