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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Wyatt Earp

As mentioned in my review of Tombstone, there were competing Wyatt Earp films. Initially, Kevin Costner was attached to Kevin Jarre's script, but exited because he wanted it to be more about Earp, so the result was Lawrence Kasdan's horribly bloated, three-hour-plus film simply titled Wyatt Earp, released in 1994.

I saw the film in first release, but just this weekend watched in again on DVD, which comes in two discs. I watched one disc one day and the second the next, and it occurred to me that one could skip the first disc entirely and miss nothing. Kasdan, and presumably Costner, wanted to use the life of Earp as an American myth, the typical American story, starting in a cornfield and ending on a boat off the Alaska coast. But Wyatt Earp's life was hardly typical. He was a gambler, a part-time policeman, and a boxing referee, but mostly a hustler. That contradicts the golden-hued photography of this film.

The first half details Earp's upbringing with a stern father (Gene Hackman) who tells his boys, "Nothing matters but blood. Everyone else are strangers." This becomes the spine of the film, as the Earp boys stick together, much to the chagrin of their long-suffering wives. We see Earp transitioning from happy-go-lucky to a cold-hearted killer. Dime-store psychology assumes that it's the death from typhoid of his first wife, He becomes a sheriff in Dodge City (alongside Ed and Bat Masterson). The first half of the film ends before he even gets to Tombstone.

The second half is more interesting, if only because we are introduced to Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid). Holliday is the role of a lifetime for any actor, as it was for Val Kilmer and Victor Mature. Quaid plays him as even more hard-bitten and scowling, but a loyal friend.

The whole business with the "cowboys" is handled mostly accurately, although the real reason for the shootout--that Billy Clanton thought Wyatt Earp was going to reveal him as an informant in stagecoach robbery--is not touched upon, probably because it's too complicated for a movie to grapple with. But the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (or just outside of it) is handled correctly, as is Earp's dissolution of his relationship with Mattle Blaylock (Mare Winningham) and taking up with Josie Marcus (Joanna Going).

Honestly, if this film had just cut the first half, except for one or two short scenes with Hackman, it would have been much better. It gets more right about the activities in Tombstone and beyond (including the trial and the brutal murder of Frank Stilwell) than any other film, but goes way overboard in its attempt to make Earp some kind of American type.

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