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.