Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Wyatt Earp (WB, 1994)


Slow, and not very compelling


Wyatt Earp, released six months after the rival movie Tombstone, was an even bigger picture. At 3 hours 32 minutes (in one cut) it was as third as long again as the already lengthy Tombstone and its budget was well more than double ($65m as against $25m). The rather self-congratulatory making-of documentary on the DVD compares it to epics like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments, forgetting, perhaps, that it wasn’t only scale that made those pictures successful – though star Kevin Costner does enthuse about How the West Was Won, with which Wyatt Earp did have something in common (that too was an overblown and poorly written Western).



This was partly because Wyatt Earp was conceived as a six-hour mini-series. Somewhat like the 1957 Hal Wallis production Gunfight at the OK Corral, but unlike Tombstone, it would attempt to tell the whole life story of Wyatt Earp. The picture goes from Wyatt as a boy in Missouri through to his old age in Alaska. Still, most of the episodes in this long life are illustrative vignettes, while the main action of the picture, the core of it, is the time in Tombstone, notably the so-called gunfight at the OK Corral, the shooting of Wyatt’s brothers Virgil and Morgan and the subsequent ‘Vendetta Ride’.


The consequent length and unwieldiness of the film may have been partially responsible for its poor critical reception and its box office flop. It only grossed $40m on its $65m budget on opening (though has done quite well as TV fodder subsequently).


It does seem interminable, especially on repeat viewings, but in many ways it’s a pity it wasn’t a bigger success. A huge amount of work and enthusiasm clearly went into its making, as well as massive attention to detail and desire for authenticity. And the lead cast was pretty good too. Costner was a classic, steely, if perhaps slightly one-dimensional Wyatt, in the Burt Lancaster mold, while Dennis Quaid was outstanding as Doc Holliday. He said he lost 48 of his 182 lbs for the part (21 kilos for European readers) and he looks excellently cadaverous. OK, he was 40 as against the real Doc’s 30, but I don’t think that matters.


One of the better Docs


Some (though not all) of the support cast was strong too, with Gene Hackman as Earp père, Isabella Rossellini as Big-Nose Kate, Michael Madsen as Virgil, and Mark Harmon as John Behan, notable. Despite the great length of the film, though, they are each accorded very little screen time.


Gene only gets ten minutes screen time though


It sought to be the definitive Wyatt Earp movie, I think, and its simple title stated that aim. Tombstone was more colorful, and more fun, while this one was more earnest and more serious – and maybe more self-important. Allen Barra, in his book, Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends, made the point that the movie “piles so much history into three hours that there’s never enough time to stop and explore the characters.”


The picture was directed and co-written (with Dan Gordon) by Lawrence Kasdan. Mr Kasdan may be accounted a lover of the Western, and deserves eternal praise for making Silverado, which, along with Pale Rider, brought the big-screen oater back in 1985 after a long period of drought. Silverado (which included a young Costner in a ‘kid’ part) was a wonderful, enthusiastic, fun Western. It’s perhaps a pity that Kasdan couldn’t quite manage to bring some of that joie de vivre into Wyatt Earp. Kasdan has said, “You can tell any story in a Western. How can you not be fascinated by them?” He has also said, “I want everything I do to have humor in it, because it seems to me that all of life has that.” Perhaps humor is what was most missing from Wyatt Earp. It’s all too solemn. As the New York Times review said, “a film that tries so hard to offer intelligent entertainment too often forgets to entertain.”


Among the many producers (the list includes Costner, Kasdan and Gordon) was Jim Wilson, who has been a close collaborator of Costner and notably, in 1990, produced Dances with Wolves, another long and earnest picture – though Dances with Wolves was, like How the West Was Won, an Oscar-winning film, which was certainly not the case with Wyatt Earp.


Director, producer, writer


Casey Tefertiller, author of the authoritative Wyatt Earp: The Life behind the Legend, said of Wyatt Earp, the movie, that it “seemed based more on past Earp movies than the story of Earp himself.” And indeed, the opening scene is of Wyatt drinking coffee in a saloon when Virgil and Morgan come in and tell him that the Clantons and McLaurys are down at the OK Corral, and ask him, “How do you wanna handle this, Wyatt?” Wyatt, the boss, obviously, says commandingly, “Let’s go.” Wyatt Earp movies always struggle with this. Ever since Stuart Lake’s sensational and laudatory biography Frontier Marshal in 1931, Wyatt was portrayed as the chief Earp, and usually Marshal of Dodge, Tombstone, Wichita, or wherever. It is he who gives the orders and disposes his troops, and his brothers are usually reduced to minions or sidekicks.
Wyatt’s the boss. No change there.


That’s just a prologue. We don’t see the gunfight yet. We now go back to Missouri and see a young Wyatt (Ian Bohen) wanting to run away to the Civil War and being stopped by his stern pa, Nicholas Earp (Gene Hackman, doing his bearded paterfamilias act). Daddy Earp instills in his brood the importance of family, and the law. They are the only things that count, apparently. The Earps move West, and Wyatt gets all sort of suitably Western experiences, on a wagon train (most scenes cut), working the railroad (ditto), freighting, buffalo hunting, and so on, eventually lawing in Kansas cow towns. He referees a prize fight (the contestants seem to be wearing modern gloves). He’s getting his Western apprenticeship, you see.


Then it’s back to Missouri where he falls for and marries the fair Urilla (Annabeth Gish – no relation), who, however, dies of typhoid when pregnant, causing Wyatt to go all bitter ‘n’ twisted and burn down their idyllic home. Then he goes off the rails, drinks, steals a horse in Arkansas, and lands up in jail. Daddy Earp comes and gets him out and then aids and abets Wyatt’s bail-jumping escape. This is all reasonably accurate historically.


But the accuracy doesn’t last. While buffalo hunting Wyatt hires on two kids, Ed and Bat Masterson (Bill Pullman and Tom Sizemore), and teaches them how to do it.


In Wichita, when the marshal resigns so as not to have to go into a saloon and grab the drunken and violent man (Indian Charlie, of course, though not named) inside, Wyatt does the job, dragging the fellow out, and the mayor appoints him a deputy. This scene is usually shown in Wyatt movies in Tombstone, but Wyatt Earp moves it to Wichita. Larry Deger (David L Stone), Marshal of Dodge, comes to Wichita to recruit Wyatt; he needs tough lawmen there.


Immediately on arrival in the new cowtown, Wyatt stops cowboys hurrahing the street, and it’s the Clements boys. “I’m Wyatt Earp!” he shouts, as if they are all supposed to stop what they are doing instantly. Once again, if this happened at all, it happened elsewhere, but anyway. Now Wyatt hires young tyros Bat and Ed as assistant lawmen. This business starts to get annoying here. As you know, in the fall of 1877 Bat Masterson became County Sheriff and Ed Masterson Marshal of Dodge. They were not ‘Wyatt Earp’s deputies’.


Wyatt meets Mattie (Mare Winningham), not specifically defined as a prostitute and not yet a hophead, but he seems pretty ambivalent about her, and indeed for most of the movie you never really know what makes Costner’s Wyatt tick.


Next we see Wyatt in Fort Griffin, Texas, “working for the railroad” (actually he was on a temporary commission as US marshal) by tracking down Dirty Dave Rudabaugh, who has robbed a train in Kansas. It is here that Wyatt first meets Doc. While he is away, deputy Ed, whom Wyatt has called “too affable”, gets shot dead in a Dodge saloon, dying in Bat’s arms, and Wyatt gets a cable, “Request you return at once.” Clearly they need the boss lawman back.


Back in Dodge, Wyatt is joined by Doc and Kate, and he meets ‘Josie’ (she’s never called Sadie) Marcus, played by Joanna Going, who is appearing in HMS Pinafore, and it’s lerve. There’s no Dora Hand affair, or killing, or posse, or Buntline Special, come to that, but Wyatt is just sick of Dodge. He hears the siren call of Tombstone, Arizona and though the Earp wives disapprove, takes the whole family there (as usual, no mention of Las Vegas, New Mexico).


In Tombstone all the Earp brothers wear lawman’s badges. Curly Bill (Lewis Smith) ambushes Fred White (Boots Southerland, shown as usual as an older, bearded man) and does the border roll on him, but is acquitted of murder. Sheriff John Behan caddishly shows a photograph of his unclothed fiancée to his male friends, and who should this fiancée be but the same Josie who had done Gilbert and Sullivan in Dodge. But in a trice she has abandoned Behan (in an outtake she tells Behan that she can’t marry him because not only does she not love him, she doesn’t even like him) and there she is in Wyatt’s bed. Mattie rails at the “Jewish whore”, slides into laudanum addiction and tries suicide. Wyatt tells her that he doesn’t care anymore.


It’s lerve


The whole Ike Clanton/Curly Bill/Johnny Ringo bit is done in really quite a cursory fashion. I suppose there just wasn’t time to develop any of the characters. But we get to the gunfight, which is quite well done, and in the street, for once, not the corral. There’s a hearing but the judge says there’s not enough evidence to indict and so Wyatt and Doc are freed. All the Earps move into Virgil and Allie’s, and barricade the place. Virgil and Morgan are shot on the same rainy night. Wyatt goes all cold and ruthless. When Doc asks him what he wants to do now, he replies, “Kill ‘em all.”


In a poorly directed and confusing scene, Wyatt kills Frank Stilwell at the Tucson train station, then he sends Josie back to California along with the wounded Virgil and the women, and sets off on his vengeance quest. He allows Indian Charlie to draw first, as per Stuart Lake and most screen versions, and then kills him. In a white New Mexico canyon Wyatt shotguns Curly Bill and Doc gets Ringo, who stunt falls from the rocks. Then suddenly it’s Alaska.


Screen text tells us that “Members of the Clanton gang continued to die mysteriously for years after Morgan’s murder.” Then more text tells us, as if we didn’t know, that “this motion picture is, in part, a fictionalization of certain events and people involved in the life of Wyatt Earp.”


And then – mercifully, really – it’s finally over.


The music is, like the film, ‘big’, overblown and grandiloquent. Variety said, “Unfortunately, James Newton Howard’s score thunders away almost throughout, giving the film an extra layer of pretentiousness and heaviness that it scarcely needs.”


On the film’s release, Roger Ebert wrote, “Wyatt Earp plays as if they took Tombstone and pumped it full of hot air. It involves many of the same characters and much of the same story, but little of the tension and drama. It’s a rambling, unfocused biography of Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner), starting when he’s a kid and following his development from an awkward would-be lawyer into a slick gunslinger. This is a long journey, in a three-hour film that needs better pacing.” Ebert also observed, correctly, that “Curiously, because the script places such emphasis on family, his brothers do not emerge very vividly. Even the strong actor Michael Madsen, as Virgil Earp, has so little dialogue and screen time that he doesn’t emerge as truly individual. And the brothers James and Morgan are even less visible.” Furthermore, “More to the point, the movie isn’t sure what it wants to say about Wyatt Earp. Was he a hero? A civilized man who became a killer? A gifted lawman? A man who initiated violence? The movie votes for all four choices.”


The New York Times reviewer said that Costner’s Earp was “a cardboard cutout and his story a creepingly slow one”. She added, “Only a fool would underestimate Mr. Costner’s popularity in a period epic, but there isn’t much to redeem this film at such softheaded moments, when it threatens to become ‘Dances With Wyatt’ or ‘Wyatt Earp: Prince of Marshals’.


Emanuel Levy said, “Though handsome to look at (cinematography is by Owen Roizman), the movie is overlong, stately, and too detailed for its own good; director Kasdan claims his version is more accurate, which may be true, but it doesn’t make for a good picture.”


Variety said “If you’re going to ask an audience to sit through a three-hour, nine-minute rendition of an oft-told story, it would help to have a strong point of view on your material and an urgent reason to relate it. Such is not the case with Wyatt Earp, a handsome, grandiose gentleman’s Western that tries to tell evenhandedly more about the famous Tombstone lawman than has ever before been put onscreen.” It added, “Undue length poses a drawback, as do subject’s familiarity and lack of sustained excitement, resulting in brawny but less than brilliant B.O. [box office] prospects.”


Wyatt Earp does have its good points. But I agree with Roger Ebert when he said, “Wyatt Earp has brave pretensions and a large canvas, but it is finally just too slow, and not very compelling.”


And there we shall leave Wyatt Earp in the movies, at least for the foreseeable future. Time to move on to other, even more vital subjects.


3 Responses

  1. How hot is that coffee Wyatt is drinking in the beginning? I like this film but don’t love it. A miniseries would have been better. It tries but so much is missed or rushed through. The color is not there like Tombstone’ the dialogue of Jarre not to be found. Ah well both Josies are pretty and Quaid is not Kilmer but good all the same. Still I like Costner and his keeping the Western alive.

  2. Like you Chris I do like this (although I think we’re in the minority), but don’t love it. I prefer it over TOMBSTONE, but only just. The main reason is Costner’s performance. His journey from naive innocent to hardened lawman bent on vengeance is solidly convincing. Hackman is also very good as pater-familias but his screen time is small. There’s no doubt, however, that it is overlong and somewhat plodding.

    1. Yes it lacks the spark that ‘Silverado’ with Kasdan and Costner had. The Western historians talk about that very thing on the ‘Silverado’ commentary.

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