John Ford, who in his youth had known the real Wyatt Earp, claimed the way the OK Corral gunfight was staged in this film was the way it was explained to him by Earp himself, with a few exceptions. Ford met Earp through Harry Carey.
Walter Brennan disliked John Ford so much that he never worked with him again. One time when Brennan was having a little trouble getting into the saddle, Ford yelled, "Can't you even mount a horse?" Brennan shot back, "No, but I got three Oscars for acting!"
John Ford wanted to shoot in Monument Valley, UT, which had proven to be the perfect site for Stagecoach (1939) and would quickly become his favorite location and the landscape most closely associated with his vision of the Old West. The real town of Tombstone, AZ, however, lies at the southern end of the state, closer to the Arizona-Mexico border. So he had a set for the complete town built at a cost of $250,000. Ford also chose Monument Valley because he wanted to bring some business to the economically depressed Navajo community there.
Jeanne Crain was scheduled to play Clementine. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck ruled against her, writing in a memo that the part was so small that Crain fans might be disappointed by not seeing her in more scenes. That's how contract player Cathy Downs got the part instead.
Walter Brennan, John Ireland, and Grant Withers were required to do their own riding and shooting in the scene where the clan rides into town during a dust storm. John Ford used a powerful wind machine and told the actors to fire their guns close to the horses' ears to make them ride wild.
John Ford was asked by a film historian why he changed the historical details of the famous gunfight if, as he claimed, the real Wyatt Earp had told him all about it on a movie set back in the 1920s. "Did you like the film?" Ford asked, to which the scholar replied it was one of his favorites. "What more do you want?" Ford snapped.
An alternate "preview" version of this film exists. In the 1970s 20th Century-Fox donated some film to the UCLA Film Archives. In 1994 it was discovered that the UCLA print was different from the one being shown on TV. It was about eight minutes longer with minor variations throughout and a slightly different ending. Both this archival 103- or 104-minute version and the 97-minute release version are included on the Fox DVD released on January 6, 2004, and the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray and DVD editions released in October 2014.
Darryl F. Zanuck insisted that the film be recut and felt there was enough raw footage to make most of the changes. He also insisted he be allowed to do it himself without John Ford's input, saying, "You trusted me implicitly on The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). You did not see either picture until they were playing in the theaters and innumerable times you went out of your way to tell me how much you appreciated the editorial work."
Either because John Ford objected or was unavailable, Darryl F. Zanuck had Fox contract director Lloyd Bacon shoot the scene of Wyatt standing at his brother James' grave. It's an emotionally affecting scene and closely approximates Ford's pictorial style, but it violates Ford's presentation of Wyatt as a laconic man who doesn't explain or justify himself. It bears connection and comparison with similar scenes Henry Fonda played in earlier Ford movies: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
Nights on location were very peaceful and quiet in this remote area of Utah. The only sound that could be heard most evenings, as on many other John Ford pictures, was the accordion music played by Danny Borzage, the musician brother of director Frank Borzage and a Ford favorite.
As the Earps are finishing dinner, James Wyatt pulls out a Celtic Cross and Morgan, from a distance, notices and comments to Wyatt, "There goes that chingadera again". "Chingadera" is a Spanish word that has several meanings: (1) an immoral or illegal act, often with the idea of treason or deceit; (2) A thing of little value or quality, or an unspecified object; (3) Nonsense, stupidity, false statements. Morgan probably was referring to the second definition.
When the Arizona location shoot was completed, John Ford and 20th Century-Fox donated the Tombstone set to the Navajo tribal council to be disposed of as they wished. It remained there until 1951, when it was sold and carted off for salvage.
Henry Fonda did the same slightly awkward high-stepping dance in his earlier appearance for John Ford, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). According to Winston Miller, Ford deliberately included the dance number again because "he thought it would make a good shot."
The only reported instance of John Ford's famous temper flaring up during the writing phase involved the scene where Wyatt rides out after Doc to accuse him of killing his brother. Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck suggested Ford have Doc on his horse rather than riding shotgun on a stagecoach (as scripted and eventually filmed). Zanuck thought it would be better just to have the two men confront each other and made the mistake of noting that, with the stage driver present, the scene might feel too "cluttered." The remark launched Ford into a ten-minute tirade about his ability to direct scenes with any number of people in them that never felt cluttered. "He was volatile," Zanuck recalled. "He could be the nicest guy in the world and he could be the meanest. You never knew which was going to happen."
As production neared, John Ford's good mood grew, and he even displayed his humorous side in a letter to fellow director Frank Capra, who was using Ford regular Ward Bond in his latest picture, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Ford reminded Capra that Bond had already been contracted to appear as Morgan Earp and jokingly told Capra that members of the "Clementine" cast wholeheartedly approved of Bond working for Capra instead, even to advancing a collected $890 if that would help get Bond out of the Western. "Hank Fonda . . . offers to throw in a Radio Victrola, hardly used. A Mr. Victor Mature also offers in compensation . . . the phone number of a very interesting young lady." Joking aside, the two directors arranged their schedules so that Bond could work on both films back to back.
Darryl F. Zanuck had sunk about $2 million into the movie's production and was concerned when he saw John Ford's cut. "You have a certain Western magnificence and a number of character touches that rival your best work, but to me the picture as a whole in its present state is a disappointment," he told Ford. "If the picture does not live up to my own personal anticipation, it will not live up to the anticipation of a paid audience."
"Sooner or later he wanted to dominate you," Winston Miller later noted of working with John Ford. One day during the scripting phase, Ford asked him if he thought it would hurt him in the business if the film didn't turn out well. "No, I've got other credits I can fall back on," Miller replied, failing to recognize that Ford was actually fishing for a compliment. "Ford kind of dummied up for a while . . . He kind of froze; he wanted me to say, 'Oh, no!'"
Tyrone Power was an early possibility for Doc Holliday, but for some unknown reason his name was dropped from consideration early in the pre-casting stage. John Ford was enthusiastic about Douglas Fairbanks Jr., telling Darryl F. Zanuck in a memo, "He might be terribly good in it. He would look about the same age as Henry and as it's a flamboyant role it is quite possible he could kick hell out of it. Think it over well." He was not happy with Zanuck's choice, Victor Mature, and he began pressing for Vincent Price instead. However, after meeting with Mature, Ford told Zanuck he was not at all worried about the actor's performance. He was never very happy, however, with Linda Darnell as Doc's Mexican spitfire lover.
John Ford's changes to Winston Miller's script characteristically consisted of paring down several elements. Dialogue was cut, not only for Earp (whom Ford wanted to portray as laconic as Earp was in real life) but also for Doc, whose first appearance wearing an opera cape was also eliminated. He also cut a long speech at the church service and a catfight between Doc's two women.
John Ireland, who plays Billy Clanton, also appeared in a different version of the story, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), playing another Western legend, Johnny Ringo, who was known as the King of the Cowboys.
Following the production, Darryl F. Zanuck offered John Ford $600,000 a year to remain at the studio, but Ford, displeased with Zanuck's changes to the film and determined to be more autonomous than ever, decided to make his subsequent films under the banner of Argosy Pictures, the company he and Merian C. Cooper formed in 1939.
Winston Miller didn't go on location, so minor dialogue changes were made as needed by producer Sam Engel, who later successfully petitioned for a writing credit, a move that angered both John Ford and Miller. "I asked him once why he was trying to muscle in on my credit," Miller said. "He said, 'On a John Ford picture a producer credit doesn't mean a thing. Everybody knows he's the producer.'" Ford turned his anger back on Miller, accusing him of not thinking "a Ford credit was worth fighting for."
Danny Borzage can be seen playing the accordion in the saloon band. The brother of director Frank Borzage, he was frequently employed by John Ford to play his accordion on the set as background or mood music, or simply to entertain cast and crew. An important member of Ford's stock company, he appeared in 14 of the director's films between The Iron Horse (1924) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The first draft of the script is fairly close to the final movie, with some crucial differences: the draft has Doc Holliday killed before the gunfight; the Clantons never overtly confront Earp; Chihuahua is killed but it is another wounded girl who is operated on by Doc, and Wyatt leaves at the end with no final parting words to Clementine.