Wyatt Earp and Tombstone, A Comparison – Movie Review – Part 1
Kevin Costner was originally going to be Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. But he and the director/screenwriter disagreed on how much of the movie was supposed to center on Wyatt Earp and his background. He left the production and decided to make the movie “Wyatt Earp” instead.
Wyatt Earp is a sort of biography of Earp. It starts with Wyatt as a teenager trying to run away to fight in the Civil War, shows him falling in love, marrying and losing his young wife to typhus. Giving in to a drunken despair he commits some capital crimes and has to flee his old life never to return. He went out to the frontier and worked first as a buffalo skinner and then as a lawman. These chapters effectively chronicled the background and events that formed the man that we recognize in the various versions of the legend. And it shows his links to other characters of legend like Holliday and Bat Masterson and his brother Ed. And we get the particulars of all of the Earp brothers and their wives. And what does Wyatt Earp end up as? He’s a man hardened to the realities of life in the West. And someone who trusts his family and very few others. This sets up the events that transpire in Tombstone and afterward.
Costner plays the part with his typical understated style. The supporting cast is interesting and probably the best of them is Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday. The production is done in high style with excellent cinematography and a full musical score. The direction and scene selection seemed well thought out and deliberate and didn’t produce any confusion over plot elements which was important considering the length of years and progression of different characters covered in the film. It is a very long film coming in at three hours. And the deliberate pace and varying importance of the scenes probably was too much for some viewers who really came to see the Gunfight at the OK Corral. In fact the film was neither a financial or critical success.
So, what do I think of it? I like it. I think it comes closer to the actual facts of the story than Tombstone. And I think despite his unflamboyant acting manner Costner does a much better job of portraying Wyatt Earp as he actually was. Where I would fault the effort is being so unreservedly faithful to the facts. Neither The Gunfight at the OK Corral or the subsequent vendetta appear as grandiose and mythic as they do in Tombstone and other descriptions.
It’s a shame when a critic complains about an historical account being too accurate. It almost seems like nostalgia for mendacity. But that’s an occupational hazard when dealing with the Old West. In fact, there’s Holy Writ that covers it. In the western epic “The Man Wo Shot Liberty Vanlence,” one of the characters who I believe is a newspaperman says, and I paraphrase, When the legend becomes the facts, print the legend.
In Part 3 I’ll tie these two films together and ramble on about all thing cinematically Earpish.
Wyatt Earp and Tombstone, A Comparison – Movie Review – Part 3
We’ll start with Tombstone. It’s a thoroughly entertaining movie but with a major flaw. Namely, Kurt Russell does not have the gravitas to portray Wyatt Earp. So, while I enjoy watching Tombstone more than Kevin Costner’s “Wyatt Earp” I think he made a much better Wyatt than Russell did. So much so that whenever Russell is speaking I’m annoyed. Whenever someone else is in the spotlight I’m happy again. It’s very distracting. So, there it is. I’m conflicted about this movie. Let’s look at the other portrayals. Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday is the true star of the movie. Almost every scene, almost every spoken line he has is memorable and immensely entertaining. Almost all of my favorite scenes in the movie are his. His interaction with Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo is pure gold. His mockeries of Ike and Billy Clanton are extremely funny, each in its own way. And all of it together with this portrayal of a deadly gunfighter who is also a highly complicated dying man is a fascinating character to watch. I keep wishing the movie was called Doc Holliday and that it would flashback to Doc’s earlier life and extend the movie far beyond the Tombstone chapter.
After Kilmer’s Holliday, I think Powers Boothe’s Curly Bill Brocius is my next favorite character. The first time I saw this movie I did not recognize Boothe at all. He seems much thinner than I ever remember him in even earlier movies. And he is a jolly villain. Always laughing and joking even as he is committing murder and mayhem. When he is finally dispatched by Wyatt during the famous creek battle I was sorry to see him go. I think I was secretly hoping that he’d get Russell somehow. After these two I’ll lump all the rest of the cast together and call out just some of the fine performances.
Stephen Lang Played Ike Clanton as a vicious killer who would cower and run if the fight turned against him. My favorite scene with Ike is his card game with Doc Holliday. Holliday’s long winning streak makes Ike question his honesty. Holliday suggests maybe the better game for Ike was a spelling bee. This didn’t make Ike very happy.
Thomas Haden Church plays Billy Clanton to great comedic effect. In one scene Doc Holliday pulls a gun on Billy and tells him to put his hands up. When Billy says that Doc is so drunk that he’s probably seeing double Doc pulls out another gun and tells Billy he’ll shoot both of them.
Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton play Virgil and Morgan Earp and provide workmanlike portrayals. The rest of the large cast provide varying levels of interest to the story. Charlton Heston has a small part as the rancher Henry Hooker who comes to Wyatt’s aid. It’s a good moment and ties the movie to the old western tradition. For me the weakest part of the story is Wyatt Earp’s romantic life. His common law wife with the laudanum addiction and his girlfriend the actress don’t seem to really add much to the story. The feud with the Cowboy gang doesn’t really seem to mesh with the other parts of Wyatt Earp’s life and the ending just seems tacked on.
For me the reason to watch Tombstone is the sequence from the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” through the “Last Charge of Wyatt Earp’s Immortals.” And the high point of the whole movie is the duel between Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo. The two deadliest pistoleros square off and settle the outcome of the war. And of course, Kilmer’s dialog here is very amusing.
So, I’ll have to remain conflicted by this movie. It is full of scenes and lines that I greatly enjoy. My greatest criticism is that it should have been titled for and based on Doc Holliday. He is the star and he provides all the thunder. Poor Wyatt is completely eclipsed and left limping along once Holliday leaves the frame.
Next, I’ll look at the true story of Wyatt Earp. That’ll be Kevin Costner’s film.