Wyatt Earp


“Some people say it didn’t happen that way…..”

I want to preface this piece by saying that Wyatt Earp is a film for which I’ve never had any particular fondness. However, having said that, I’ve just watched it again after making a conscious decision to try and keep an open mind, and hopefully be as objective as possible. I first saw the film during its initial theatrical run and then later on DVD. I can’t honestly say that I was relishing the prospect of another viewing but I didn’t feel I could round out my series without revisiting this movie. For most film fans any discussion of Wyatt Earp almost always leads to its being compared to Tombstone. Given that both films featured the same lead characters and came out so close together, such comparisons are inevitable but not necessarily fair. While Tombstone focuses on one particular time and place, Wyatt Earp is a sprawling epic that attempts to cover the course of the man’s life. I used to wonder if the fact that I saw Tombstone first colored my opinion in any way, but I don’t now believe that’s the case. I thought Wyatt Earp was a flawed picture on my initial viewing and I still feel the same.

The story begins during the Civil War when Wyatt was helping look after the family farm in Iowa while his older brothers James (David Andrews) and Virgil (Michael Madsen) were off fighting. He is shown attempting to run away to enlist only to be caught and brought back by his father (Gene Hackman). This event, and the subsequent return from war of the brothers, is the cue for some heavy-handed speech making from Hackman. The point of this is to show how Wyatt’s views and attitudes were formed from an early age but I’ve never been keen on this technique for showing character development, it’s always struck me as a lazy way of making a movie. Anyway, having bludgeoned home the point that blood ties are the major motivating force in the young man’s life, the film follows the family on their long trek west to the promised land of California. From there we get snippets of Wyatt’s time as a teamster and how he gained experience in facing down bad men. A fair amount of time is spent on his move to Missouri in order to marry his childhood sweetheart, who succumbs to typhoid soon after the marriage. I found this part of the film dragged a lot although the purpose of its inclusion is to provide an explanation for Wyatt’s later emotional detachment. The pace does pick up when Earp moves to Wichita, Dodge, and ultimately Tombstone, all the while building and expanding his reputation as a fearsome lawman. This is certainly the strongest section of the film and it has to be said that the producers went to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of those wide open frontier towns. It’s also the part of the film that introduces some major characters Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), his woman Big Nose Kate (Isabella Rossellini), and Bat and Ed Masterson (Tom Sizemore & Bill Pullman).

Everything builds towards the fateful confrontation with the Cowboys in Tombstone and its aftermath. The O.K. Corral scene is filmed well enough but it just doesn’t carry the punch that such a defining event should; after all, had this not taken place no one would ever have thought to make films about these characters. The resulting vendetta is nowhere near as exciting as it should be and never conveys the sense of the righteous settling of scores that one expects. One major gripe that I had was in the scene showing the climactic gunfight at Iron Springs. Before this the character of Johnny Ringo had barely been mentioned, let alone portrayed. Yet here we have the Earp posse riding into a hail of gunfire, and Doc shouts out the name of Ringo before blasting a faceless man high up in the rocks. If the writers hadn’t wanted to use this character, that’s fair enough – just ignore him. But the way it was handled made me feel that they were sitting around and suddenly realised that here was another name they had to check off the list before things could be wrapped up. In a sense this sums up a serious weakness in the movie, namely the portrayal of the villains. If you’re going to make a big film then you need to ensure that the bad guys are big and bad too. In Wyatt Earp the Cowboys are poorly defined and never provide any real feeling of threat, they’re just a bunch of grubby, unshaven guys who look vaguely mean. Of course I’m aware that this may be closer to the truth but the point is that such realism does not make for a good film. Let’s just say it’s never good news when one of your principal baddies is played by Jeff (straight-to-video) Fahey.

So, for me, the greatest flaws in the movie are the acting and the scale. Costner’s acting style may well be an acquired taste, if so I have yet to acquire it. I could be generous and say that his is a restrained performance but the truth is that he simply comes across as wooden. Every line, no matter what emotion lies behind it, is delivered in the same careful, measured tone. Even if this is true to the character it makes it impossible for the viewer to connect in any way. Dennis Quaid’s Doc Holliday definitely comes off the best but, again, it’s hardly an endearing performance. The real man may not have been a charming figure, but Quaid gives us an irritable and irritating jerk that even Wyatt Earp would have had a hard time considering a friend. There’s also something forced about his interpretation; he certainly looked the picture of bad health but I always had the sense that I was watching an actor in a role, not a real person. The support cast are largely disappointing but the best of the bunch is probably Bill Pullman as the ‘affable’ Ed Masterson. Michael Madsen’s Virgil Earp is generally colorless, but then I’ve always thought that Madsen is a rather limited actor who’s nowhere near as tough as he’d like to think. In general, the cast is filled up with too many nobodies and TV actors, which means too many flat and lifeless performances.

As I said, the scale of the film is another problem – and one that seems to dog many of Costner’s projects. In brief, it’s too long and tries to pack in too much. By attempting to chart the life of this man the film has both too much detail and too little. This results in characters coming and going without the audience getting the chance to know them in any way. Having said that, it does look good and there are some beautifully composed shots of the western landscape. Also, James Newton Howard’s score has that soaring, epic feel to it. Ultimately, though, the film disappointed me and left me feeling as cold as the Alaskan landscape in the final shot.

Wyatt Earp is on DVD from Warner in R1 and R2 in its theatrical cut. As far as I know, the extended cut has never been available on DVD – in a sense I’m grateful for that since I’m of the opinion that a few more trims wouldn’t have hurt this one. I know some may see this as a bit of a hatchet job, but I have tried to give my own honest assessment of the movie and what I feel are its flaws. I hope my efforts at articulating my views make some sort of sense.

So, one month and eight films later, I have come to the end of my series of reviews of the Wyatt Earp movies. I have to say it has been enjoyable for me to go through them all back to back, and I can only hope the readers of this blog haven’t been bored witless by it. What I have noticed most in this lengthy perusal, apart from the increasing focus on realism, is how the character of Wyatt Earp evolved – from the generic and uncomplicated western hero of Randolph Scott, to the taciturn and unsympathetic professional of Kevin Costner. Each characterization added a little more depth to the legend and simultaneously stripped away a little of the myth to reveal more of the darkness inside. I still feel that, despite all the inaccuracies, My Darling Clementine is the best of all the films. I would rank Tombstone as the most entertaining and arguably the most accessible. Unfortunately, I would have to place Wyatt Earp far down the list, maybe even at the bottom – it was just too ambitious and ultimately unable to deliver all that it promised.



18 thoughts on “Wyatt Earp

  1. Far from being bored witless, it’s been an interesting series — and I came to it late, so I read most of them back to back! Embarrassingly I’ve not seen a single one of them though (though about half were on my long List Of Things To See), but it’s been interesting nonetheless — and added a couple more to that list.

    Considering Costner, I was quite surprised recently to discover how many of his films I own and/or enjoy. “Prince of Thieves”, for example, is massively flawed in many ways but I still love it. I suspect this primarily comes from having seen it when quite young. That and Alan Rickman, of course. But I even enjoyed “Waterworld”. Maybe I’m just easily pleased… or was, at least, as I haven’t seen the latter for years.

    Re: the DVD, I had a quick read around and it seems that, while the extended edition isn’t available on DVD, many of the additions are included in the deleted scenes.


  2. “In general, the cast is filled up with too many nobodies and TV actors, which means too many flat and lifeless performances”

    I admit the performances were not all top notch, but, if you look at the current movies (and its stars) cranked out by Hollywood, big names do not always equal talent. 😉

    “Let’s just say it’s never good news when one of your principal baddies is played by Jeff (straight-to-video) Fahey”

    And yet many say he was a wonderful western baddie in his first film, “Silverado”.


  3. Yes, I should have mentioned that those deleted scenes are on the DVD. I don’t know if the extended version contains any more material but, having looked at the deleted scenes, I wouldn’t say they added anything much to the film.

    It’s probably clear that I’m no great fan of Costner – I did think ‘Open Range’ wasn’t bad although that was more for the performances of Duvall and Gambon than it was for Costner. I think the age when one is exposed to films/actors does play a part in how much you appreciate them. Since I wasn’t a kid when I first saw any of Costner’s films they hold no nostalgic value for me.

    I guess that crack about Fahey was a bit of a cheap shot but the point still stands that the casting of the villains was one of the most serious weaknesses of the movie.


  4. Jeff Fahey’s a fine actor all too often stuck in DTV dreck. He seems to be making a bit of a comeback at the moment, thanks to Robert Rodriguez/Lost and such, but still. I agree he’s not as good as Stephen Lang in the same part in Tombstone, but Lang really is an exceptional actor, who’s able to transform himself almost unrecognisably with every role.

    Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp does a couple of things very well, and a lot of things badly.

    It wastes Gene Hackman, for a start, but it initially sets up Wyatt as a fairly likeable, naive young chap, with Costner playing the early Wyatt not too removed from his turn in Silverado.

    What the film then does, in its attempt to be myth-busting, is (almost overnight) have Wyatt become a charmless, dour, exceptionally violent man whose interest in the law seems almost purely tied to his need for his family to be entrepreneurial. We see no great belief or respect in the law – in their rivalry with the Clantons, the Earps are essentially portrayed as slightly better-dressed thugs, with no moral superiority, other than a badge, to those they’re putting down. The OK Corral confrontation is depicted as essentially being a blood feud between two gangs – no epic showdown or bringing the law to the lawless. The film also explicitly shows what Tombstone only hints at (i.e. when Ike calls the Earps “pimps” in Tombstone – in Wyatt Earp, we see one of the Earps whoring out his own wife, which Wyatt vaguely objects to, but not particularly vocally). Hence, the Earps are simply protecting their own rackets (prostitution, gambling) in Tombstone under the shield of the law.

    Whilst Tombstone vaguely goes down this route, Kurt Russell’s Earp is significantly more “heroic” and far less mean-spirited. He’s harsh, sure – it’s a tough town in a tough time, but there’s never any uncertainty that the Clantons are scumbags and the Earps are in the right (and that the other brothers countenance Doc Holliday’s viciousness because of his pull with Wyatt). Russell’s Earp also comes out of the Mattie/wife thing considerably better than Costner’s Earp: by this point in the film, we can already see that Costner’s Earp is a fairly disconnected guy (“blood before anything else”, etc). We still think Russell’s Earp is a bastard for running off with his bit of fluff and leaving his wife to die an addled death, but not that much is made of it, whereas Costner’s Earp never gives much of a crap in the first place.

    In Kasdan’s version, the Earps are all pretty brutal, with Morgan quite happily premeditatively advising Doc to “let them have it” (whereas, in Tombstone, outside of Doc, they’re all pretty firmly on the side of right and want to take them in – “It’s not what I want!” exclaims Virgil). Tombstone pretty much lays the blame on Doc provoking the Clantons. I’ve said it previously, but I adore Dennis Quaid’s Doc – I wish he had more scenes, but he gives the film a much-needed shot in the arm when he’s onscreen, and it’s too often moribund and glum when he’s not.

    Johnny Ringo is also virtually unseen in Kasdan’s film – the only time you would even be able to pick him out is when Doc shouts his name before killing him at Wyatt’s famous showdown with Bill Brocious (incidentally, I prefer how this is depicted with Costner and co. than in Tombstone – that slow-motion scream sets my teeth on edge every time).

    It seems bizarre, especially considering the car-crash of a production that Tombstone was (if you read Kurt Russell’s accounts of the making and how much was rewritten on the fly) that the films share so many similarities; not being American and that familiar with the elements of the “legend” that have been changed or blended over the years – like Morgan and Virgil being shot on the same night in both films (they weren’t); Fred White being an old man in both versions (he wasn’t, and he’s pretty pathetically doddery in Tombstone) who was callously shot by Bill Brocious (he wasn’t, it was a genuine accident, although Tombstone bends to this slightly more); that they both carry on well beyond the OK Corral.

    The extended scenes on the DVD add somewhat to Wyatt’s first marriage, which is depicted quite abruptly in the theatrical version, and flesh out the other Earp brothers (and Big Nose Kate) somewhat. You also get a nice showdown in the street where Wyatt faces down a cowboy looking for vengeance. They don’t make it a particularly better film, and their running time doesn’t nearly equal the extra material in the full extended version (which is over 30 mins, I believe).

    I still think it was fairly “brave” of Kasdan and Costner to depict Earp as being so unappealing, and hence a lot of the criticism of Wyatt Earp comes from Costner’s performance being so one-note and grim. He barely changes expression in the last half of the film, even when emptying 20 bullets into the corpse of one of the Clantons.


  5. I think we’re pretty much in agreement on the weaknesses of ‘Wyatt Earp’, although I’m nowhere near as enamoured of Quaid’s performance.

    I didn’t mind that both ‘Wyatt Earp’ & ‘Tombstone’ compressed the timeline when they depicted the Cowboys shooting Morgan and Virgil, it was clearly done to help the narrative run smoother and was more effective than sticking to the real dates would have been.
    I can’t imagine why both films decided to turn Fred White into an old man except that it may have been seen as a way to elicit more audience sympathy – “Look at that S.O.B. gunning down that poor, harmless old guy!”
    Mind you, I’m kind of glad it worked out this way in ‘Tombstone’ since I’m always happy to see Harry Carey Jnr.


  6. Wyatt Earp is somewhat of a wasted opportunity because it aspires to epicness and profundity, and Kasdan doesn’t really have the directorial chops to pull it off, imo. It’s still an interesting film, and somewhat underappreciated. Tombstone’s an entertaining (messy) romp, I grant you, and it’s always fun to watch, but it’s fairly trashy: it’s the B-pic next to Wyatt Earp’s A-feature. Although Tombstone whupped Wyatt Earp’s ass at the box office.


  7. There is one major problem with Kevin Costner movies, and that is Kevin Costner. I feel the same way about most Gary Cooper movies, but he was still a better actor than Costner.
    I read that Costner’s, uh, underplaying is considered a sign of his “cool” style. . I think they said that about Steve McQueen, where at least it’s true. I’m no fan of 95% McQueen movies, but I can *see* what he’s about – it just doesn’t happen to be my style. I watch Costner and I think “who did he sleep with to get that part?”


  8. Paul again. Have you reviewed The Hour of the Gun with James Garner as Wyatt Earp? Been thirty + years since I saw it. Maybe Jason Robards in it too. Also I haven’t seen a review of Kasdan’s Silverado. Outstanding cast, exciting story,Kevin Kline,Danny Glover,John Cleese,Scott Glenn,Jeff Goldbloom,Brian Denehy,Glenn Close,Linda Hunt,even Costner was good. Thought maybe Jeff Fahey was a villain. Kasdan built an entire town to film in.


    • Yes, Paul, I did look at Hour of the Gun years ago – you can find it here. At the time I was going through a number of movies concentrating on Earp.
      You can find a list of links to all the films I’ve covered on the site here.


  9. Pingback: Wichita | Riding the High Country

  10. I prefer Quaid’s interpretation of Holliday more than any other because he seems closer to what the real person was. Kilmer’s interptreation is considerably more charitable and shows a charming and likable person ( as long as you didn’t cross him). Other than the gunfight, the best Holliday scene in any Earp movie occurs when Holliday confronts Clanton in the saloon. You truly get the actual Holliday there, as Masterton recalled him

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Colin
    Your “Let’s just say it’s never good news when one of your principal baddies is played by Jeff (straight-to-video) Fahey” crack had me laughing. As it so happens, he made a cop show called THE MARSHAL here in Calgary back in 1995. He played a lawman with the US Marshal’s service. They filmed several episodes in my area of town including one with Robert Mitchum as a guest player. Lots of older houses and apartment blocks etc in the area at the time, that fit the look of the series. It lasted 25 episodes and I thought it was quite watchable. It was the last television bit Mitchum made.


    • That sounds snappish, doesn’t it? The thing is though it’s been so long since I saw that movie that I remember practically nothing about it now. I suppose I should try it again to see if I react the same way, but it’s a long film and I can find it hard to be enthused about reassessing stuff that demands that kind of investment of time.
      Never heard of that TV show, but I’ll look it up.


  12. Colin
    I find myself watching films over 2 or even 3 days to be no problem. I was avoiding films with long runtimes before it dawned on me to just break it up into segments. Might not work for everyone, but it does the job for me. I saw the film in the cinema and I must agree with you that I do not recall much of it.



    • That’s an interesting approach, and not one I’ve tried as I generally like to watch something through in one go, or at least in the same evening. It depends on the movie too, I guess but I might try it out next time I’m eyeing something that strays well over the two hour mark.


  13. I like ‘Wyatt Earp’ I just don’t love it. Still I like the attempt and respect the audacity of the thing. Lots of good actors and actresses just not the color of ‘Tombstone’. For a long take of Western legend I think ‘The Assasination of Jesse James by the coward Robert ford’ is far superior. In fact I find that film a masterpiece.


    • That’s maybe a fairer assessment of the film than I provided back when I wrote this piece. I’ve a feeling I might look on it more kindly nowadays.

      I have not watched the Jesse James film since it’s theatrical run so I’m not sure what kind of rating I’d assign it these days. I remember a guy who used to visit this place many years ago and who felt about the film as you do.


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