Wyatt Earp on Film:
The young Wyatt Earp at age 21, taken about 1869, probably in Lamar, Missouri; and Kevin Costner as the young Wyatt Earp, in Wyatt Earp (1994).
Wyatt Earp, now an icon in western history, fiction and film, came late to that position. Many in Hollywood had known the aging Wyatt Earp, who had died in 1929 after a few years of working as an adviser on western films there. John Ford claimed to have known the old man, to own his rifle and to have gotten the version of the OK Corral gunfight shown in My Darling Clementine from Wyatt. (The last claim does not appear to be correct; the versions in both Tombstone and Wyatt Earp are much more accurate, according to what is known historically.) Blake Edwards’ movie Sunset is based on Earp’s Hollywood years, although it shows a younger and physically more active Earp than the old man actually was at that time. At the time of his death he was much more remembered for his controversial role as the referee in the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey prize fight in San Francisco in December 1896 than he was for participation in the gunfight in Tombstone in 1881. He died in January 1929 at his home in Los Angeles; he was the last surviving Earp brother and the last living participant in the famous gunfight. The pallbearers at his funeral included old friend John Clum, the former editor of the Tombstone Epitaph, and Hollywood cowboy stars William S. Hart (then retired) and Tom Mix (then still active).
In his current image as courageous lawman and gunfighter, Earp was largely re-introduced to the American public by a quasi-biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, by Stuart N. Lake. This book was an extremely flattering and largely fictional bestseller published in 1931, two years after Wyatt’s death. Josephine Earp tried to get herself and Mattie Blaylock left out of the book, and wanted Wyatt depicted as a teetotaler, which he was not. Lake was the first to refer to “the Buntline special” as Wyatt’s gun; in fact, it appears not to have existed.
Wyatt Earp in his prime, in 1889, a few years after Tombstone; and Kurt Russell as the Tombstone Earp, in Tombstone (1993), with the fictional Buntline special.
Wyatt’s first appearance in film was as an incidental character in William S. Hart’s Wild Bill Hickok (1923), played by Bert Lindley. Movies with Wyatt in a more central role picked up after the publication of Lake’s book, beginning with Law and Order in 1932, in which those taming Tombstone are named Frame ‘Saint’ Johnson (Walter Huston) and Ed Brandt (Harry Carey), rather than Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. It features the first cinematic treatment of the famous gunfight. Frontier Marshal followed in 1934. Due to arguments and lawsuits with Josephine Earp, some of the names were changed, and George O’Brien plays “Michael Wyatt.” This film is now thought to be lost. The Earp story really became part of the Hollywood mainstream in 1939, with Randolph Scott as Earp, and it has been present ever since in one form or another. By late 1960s (Hour of the Gun) and 1990s (Tombstone, Wyatt Earp), some of the less savory aspects of Earp’s life, like the Earp brothers’ irregular relationships with women and the quasi-outlaw aspects of Wyatt’s vendetta ride, began to be treated more openly. Unlike other characters and incidents from actual western history, the Earp story has given rise to an unusual number of good westerns, of which six are recommended below.
In 1927, Earp wrote to Stuart Lake: “For my handling of the situation at Tombstone, I have no regrets. Were it to be done over again, I would do exactly as I did at that time. If the outlaws and their friends and allies imagined that they could intimidate or exterminate the Earps by a process of murder, and then hide behind alibis and the technicalities of the law, they simply missed their guess. [A line in Wyatt Earp echoes this language explicitly.] I want to call your particular attention again to one fact, which writers of Tombstone incidents and history apparently have overlooked: with the deaths of the McLowerys, the Clantons, Stillwell, Florentino Cruz, Curly Bill, and the rest, organized, politically protected crime and depredations in Cochise County ceased.”
Wyatt Earp in 1928, during his Hollywood period as he nears 80, still with more than a hint of flintiness about him; and James Garner playing Wyatt Earp during his Hollywood period in Sunset (1988).
Wild Bill Hickok–Hart (1923): In Wyatt’s first appearance on film, he is played by Bert Lindley as an incidental character in the larger story of Hickok, played by William S. Hart.
Law and Order—Huston, Carey (1932; Dir: Cahn): Written by John Huston, this features the first example of the OK Corral gunfight on film, albeit with the leads Walter Huston and Harry Carey (in a top hat) using other names: Frame “Saint” Johnson and Ed Brandt. This is sometimes available on YouTube. It was Carey’s 97th western (he started in 1910), and he had a few more to go.
Frontier Marshal—O’Brien (1934): Silent star George O’Brien, who subsequently shows up in many John Ford films in character roles, here plays “Michael Earp” or “Michael Wyatt” in a film now thought to be lost.
Frontier Marshal—Scott (1939): The first of the modern versions of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone features Randolph Scott as a Wyatt with no brothers and Cesar Romero as a credible Doc Holliday.
Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die—Dix (1942): An aging Richard Dix as Wyatt Earp, with Kent Taylor as Doc Holliday. Edgar Buchanan as Curly Bill Brocious?
My Darling Clementine—Fonda, Mature, Brennan (1946; Dir: John Ford): One of John Ford’s masterpieces, this features Henry Fonda as a superb Wyatt Earp. Characterized by beautiful black and white cinematography, dazzling use of Monument Valley and one of the most robust-looking tubercular dentists on film (Victor Mature). It’s not strong on historical accuracy, though.
Winchester ’73—Geer, Stewart (1950; Dir: Anthony Mann): Will Geer plays Wyatt Earp as the judge in a shooting contest in Kansas early in the film. James Stewart is the main character hunting his brother in this excellent western that has almost nothing to do with Wyatt Earp.
Masterson of Kansas—Cowling, Montgomery (1954; Dir: Castle): Bruce Cowling is a curiously ineffective Wyatt Earp during his Kansas years, playing a distant second fiddle to the wooden George Montgomery as Bat Masterson.
Wichita–McCrea (1955; Dir: Jacques Tourneur ): An aging Joel McCrea plays the young Wyatt Earp in Kansas, before Tombstone. Director Tourneur and star McCrea usually make a good combination, but this isn’t their strongest outing.
Gunfight at the OK Corral—Lancaster, Douglas (1957; Dir: John Sturges): A glitzy Hollywood treatment is given to Earp and Holliday in Kansas and Tombstone by excellent director John Sturges, featuring two of the biggest stars of the time: Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.
Cheyenne Autumn—Stewart (1964; Dir: John Ford) A very miscast and aging James Stewart is a quasi-comic Wyatt Earp during a misconceived interlude, showing that even a master like John Ford is not infallible.
Hour of the Gun—Garner, Robards (1967; Dir: John Sturges): This is the better of director John Sturges’ two Wyatt Earp movies, with James Garner and Jason Robards both excellent as Wyatt and Doc Holliday.
Doc—Yulin, Keach, Dunaway (1971; Dir: Frank Perry): A revisionist 1970s take on Earp and Holliday, not seen a great deal these days.
Sunset—Garner, Willis (1988; Dir: Blake Edwards): This is a buddy-movie/mystery, focusing on Wyatt Earp’s days in the late 1920s as an adviser to Hollywood westerns. It features James Garner playing Wyatt Earp for a second time (after 1967’s Hour of the Gun), with Bruce Willis as his partner Tom Mix.
Tombstone—Russell, Kilmer (1993; Dir: George Cosmatos/Kurt Russell): One of the very good recent retellings of the Tombstone story, with an excellent Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer dazzling as Doc Holliday.
Wyatt Earp—Costner, Quaid (1994; Dir: Lawrence Kasdan): The most historically accurate retelling of Wyatt Earp’s story on film. Overlong and often slow, sometimes dour, this is nevertheless worth watching.
Hannah’s Law—Holt, Kennedy, Canning (2012; Dir: Rachel Talalay): This highly anachronistic made-for-television story of a female bounty hunter also features an anachronistic young Wyatt Earp and young Doc Holliday in Dodge City.
Wyatt Earp’s Revenge (2012): A direct-to-video story, supposedly about the young Wyatt Earp. With Val Kilmer briefly playing an older Wyatt Earp, this makes him the only actor to have played both Doc Holliday (Tombstone) and Wyatt Earp (here).
Bert Lindley as the first Wyatt Earp on film, an incidental character in Wild Bill Hickok (1923); and Kevin Costner as a more recent cinematic Wyatt in Wyatt Earp (1994).
The Best Movies Based on Wyatt Earp’s Story:
The Best Wyatt Earps on Film:
1. Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine (1946)
2. Kurt Russell in Tombstone (1993)
3. James Garner in Hour of the Gun (1967)
4. Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp (1994)
5. Burt Lancaster in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)
6. Randolph Scott in Frontier Marshal (1939)
The Best Doc Hollidays on Film:
1. Val Kilmer in Tombstone (1993)
2. Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp (1994)
3. Jason Robards in Hour of the Gun (1967)
4. Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine (1946)
5. Kirk Douglas in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)
6. Cesar Romero in Frontier Marshal (1939)
Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp in 1939’s Frontier Marshal; and the poster from the lost 1934 version of the story of the same name, featuring George O’Brien as “Michael Wyatt.”