Wyatt Earp (1994)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 27, 2014

Wyatt Earp—Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Michael Madsen, Gene Hackman, Mare Winningham, Catherine O’Hara, Linden Ashby, Mark Harmon, Joanna Going, Jeff Fahey, Bill Pullman, Isabella Rosselini, Tom Sizemore, JoBeth Williams, Jim Caviezel, Annabeth Gish, James Gammon (1994; Dir: Lawrence Kasdan)

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In the 1980s, director Lawrence Kasdan was riding high, with successful movies in a variety of genres:  neo-film noir (Body Heat), Boomer nostalgia (The Big Chill) and even the deeply unfashionable genre of westerns, with Silverado.  By the mid-1990s, Kevin Costner was at the peak of his acting/directing career, having appeared in Silverado and having directed and starred in Dances With Wolves, which accomplished the then-unthinkable—Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for a western, the first to be awarded a Best Picture Oscar in sixty years.  So if Kasdan and Costner were to join forces on another western, revisiting the ever-popular Wyatt Earp story, how could that be anything but great?

It’s not a failure, exactly, but it did not turn out to be great.  It was complicated by the fact that this was one of two Wyatt Earp movies in production at the same time.  Tombstone, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, was released first and turned out to be the better (and more enjoyable) western.  Even without comparisons with Tombstone, Wyatt Earp feels overlong, sometimes turgid and dour.  It is also perhaps the most accurate telling of the Earp story on film so far (although it has a few inaccuracies of its own), making it worth while to watch, and doubly so if you’re fond of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday gunfight story.

The first hour or more is spent setting up the story, and, although we haven’t seen a lot of this stuff before, it feels slow.  It starts with a brief scene setting up the famous gunfight in Tombstone and then cuts to Wyatt’s childhood in Illinois during the Civil War.  Oldest brothers James and Virgil are off at the war, and we see patriarch Nicholas Earp (Gene Hackman), a lawyer and farmer, instilling his own version of family values.  “Remember this, all of you.  Nothing counts so much as blood.  The rest are just strangers.”  After the war Wyatt spends some time out west, freighting in Wyoming and refereeing the occasional bareknuckle fight.

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Young Wyatt (Kevin Costner) freighting out west in Wyoming; and the tubercular dentist-gambler-gunfighter, Dr. John Holliday (Dennis Quaid).

Returning to Missouri, Wyatt plans to study law with his grandfather, a judge, and to marry Urilla Sutherland. He succeeds in the second, only to see Urilla (Annabeth Gish), who is expecting their child, succumb to typhoid.  Wyatt goes off the rails, and we next see him as a drunk, robbing a man and stealing a horse in Arkansas.  Thown in jail, he is bailed out by his father, and he is next seen as a dour teetotaler, hunting buffalo on the southern plains, where he employs Ed (Bill Pullman) and Bat Masterson (Tom Sizemore) as skinners.

Nicholas Earp: “You know I’m a man that believes in the law.  After your family it’s about the only thing you’ve got to believe in.  But there are plenty of men who don’t care about the law. Men who will take part in all kinds of viciousness.  Don’t care who gets hurt.  In fact, the more that get hurt, the better. When you find yourself in a fight with such viciousness, hit—hit to kill.  You’ll know, don’t worry….you’ll know when it comes to that.  The Earps always know.”

When he takes care of a violent man the marshal won’t handle in Wichita, Wyatt is hired as a deputry.  He develops a direct way of dealing with disorder and shows a talent for handling disorderly groups.  Hired away as a deputy by Dodge City, he brings along the Masterson brothers and his own brother Morgan as deputies, too.  Some think he’s too quick to bust a rule-breaker over the head, but he tells Ed that talking too much and being too affable can get a man killed.  While on the outs with the Dodge City fathers, he meets John Holliday (Dennis Quaid) in Fort Griffin, Texas, and the two form a friendship.  Then he is called back to Dodge because things have gotten out of hand without his firm approach.

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Bad guys hanging out in Tombstone. That’s Ike Clanton (Jeff Fahey) in the middle in the long duster.

Eventually, Wyatt talks his brothers into moving to Tombstone, to get out of the law enforcement business and take up new opportunities in mining and gambling.  He does this against the wishes of his brothers’ wives and quasi-wives.  He himself brings along Mattie Blaylock (Mare Winningham), to whom he is not married.  His older brother James’ wife Bessie (JoBeth Williams) is a prostitute, and Virgil’s wife Allie (Catherine O’Hara) is not fond of Wyatt’s influence in the family.  Doc Holliday follows along, with his paramour Big Nose Kate Elder (Isabella Rosselini).

Bessie Earp:  “We are your wives.  Don’t we ever count more than the damn brothers?”
Wyatt: “No, Bessie, you don’t.  Wives come and go, that’s the plain truth of it.  They run off.  They die.”

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Heading to the OK Corral:  Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), Morgan Earp (Linden Ashby), Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner) and Virgil Earp (Michael Madsen).

In Tombstone the film is finally entering familiar territory.  The brothers acquire some mining and gambling interests, and Virgil signs up to be the town marshal when Fred White is killed by Curly Bill Brocius.  This brings in three of the brothers, including Wyatt, and they begin to run afoul of the Clanton-McLaury faction and slippery Cochise Co. Sheriff Johnny Behan (Mark Harmon).  Wyatt slips away from Mattie Blaylock and takes up with Behan’s young Jewish paramour, Josie Marcus (Joanna Going).  While attempting to disarm the Clanton group, the famous gunfight erupts, with three Earps and Holliday taking on two Clantons, two McLaurys and Billy Claiborne.  It ends with all of the Clanton group but Ike Clanton dead.

In revenge, the Clanton group shoots Morgan Earp in the back with a shotgun blast, killing him, and on the same night bushwhacking Virgil as he does his rounds.  (Those events actually happened three months apart.)  Virgil’s arm is crippled.  Wyatt takes his father’s words to heart, and the vendetta ride is on.

Strangely for such a long movie, not so much of the vendetta ride is shown, just the killing of Frank Stilwell in the Tucson railroad station, the shooting of Indian Charlie and the fight at the river where Brocius is killed.  The implication is that Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo were both killed there as well, which was not the case.  Neither Brocius nor Johnny Ringo is developed much as a character, making the end of the vendetta seem inconclusive.  Doc’s death in a sanatarium in Colorado is not shown as it is in some cinematic versions of the story (Hour of the Gun, Tombstone).  For the rest of Wyatt’s life, there is just one scene on a boat heading into Nome, Alaska, where a young man asks about Wyatt holding off a mob that wanted to lynch his uncle, Tommy Behind-the-Deuce.  There is nothing about Wyatt’s subsequent career as a prospector, a prize-fight referee or even as an adviser on Hollywood westerns in the late 1920s.  For such a long movie, there are a lot of loose ends remaining.

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Wyatt (Kevin Costner) taking back the streets.

Costner and Quaid are very good in the two main roles of Wyatt and Doc.  Unfortunately Costner isn’t as good as Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine) or Kurt Russell (Tombstone), and Quaid is second to Val Kilmer (Tombstone) as a cinematic Doc Holliday.  Quaid lost thirty pounds for this role, and he’s excellent, managing to convey a sense of meanness under the tubercular exterior.  Costner shows the relentlessness and direct nature of Wyatt, but less the charisma and leadership.  He makes Wyatt seem dour even when he takes up with Josie Marcus, and the part needs lifting somehow.  Still, Costner has a flair for westerns, as he showed later in directing and starring in Open Range.  The film has a huge cast, many of whom have worked with Kasdan before and many of whom are very good.  Among the casting notes that don’t seem to work is Joanna Going as young Josie Marcus.  She doesn’t have the dramatic heft to balance Wyatt, as the story seems to call for.  Bill Pullman as Ed Masterson and Linden Ashby as Morgan Earp are good in smallish parts, and Mark Harmon is suitably distasteful as Johnny Behan.

Among westerns strongly grounded in history, the Wyatt Earp story has generated an unusual proportion of good films and successful retellings:  Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Hour of the Gun and Tombstone.  Although this is not the best of them (probably My Darling Clementine and Tombstone), it does belong in that excellent company.  It keeps closer to the actual events than most, but don’t look for complete accuracy here, either.

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Wyatt (Kevin Costner) romances Josie (Joanna Going) in Tombstone.

Much of what doesn’t work so well here probably has to be chalked up to Kasdan’s direction and editing.  The cinematography by Owen Roizman is elegant, but it contributes to the slow moving of the first hour, with drifting shots of corn fields, flowering trees and extended plains.  There is excellent music by James Newton Howard, but it feels in some ways like it lacks a western connection.  The movie is more than three hours long at 191 minutes, although there is also an extended cut at 212 minutes.

If you’re interested in the real history of the Earps, in addition to the sources cited elsewhere there is a recent biography of Josephine Marcus Earp, often referred to as Wyatt’s wife or common-law wife since there is no record of them having been married:  Lady at the O.K. Corral by Ann Kirschner (2013).

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  • Jacob Sorensen

    I didn’t realize Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel were in this, so maybe I will finally watch it!

  • Mark

    Costner ruined the film. Both he and Quaid were too old for their characters.