Wyatt in the Movies

With the first book (Adobe Moon) of my new historical fiction trilogy on Wyatt Earp spreading out into the world, I am meeting a lot of people at author events, many of these folks with questions about the real story of the Earps vs. the movie versions. These questions are pretty easily answered, and it surprises the public at large that movie makers feel no particular allegiance to the absolute truth. After all, screenwriters, producers, and directors are creating entertainment . . . not giving a history seminar. What surprises the public most is the revelation that the so-called O.K. Corral fight was spawned by a clandestine deal brokered by Wyatt to Ike Clanton and a few of his crooked cronies. In short, Wyatt offered Clanton the reward money if Ike gave up the location of a group of stage robbers who had killed two men on the coach.

I suppose a movie maker cannot bring himself to let Wyatt stoop so low. How can the heroic protagonist get away with talking terms in the dark of a Tombstone alley with the likes of Ike Clanton? Such a shadowy contract would destroy the intended image for a “movie Wyatt.”

Yet, in our time, a police detective might be praised for using a confidential informant. It’s a case of the ends justifying the means.

The Earp-Clanton deal was portrayed once – and only once, as far as I know – in the movie Doc. But this movie’s agenda was all about exposing Wyatt Earp as an opportunist politician and an unsavory lawman without ethics. Try to imagine any of the other Earp films showing such a scene and getting away with it. Kevin Costner? Kurt Russell? Randolph Scott? James Garner? This is probably why, in Doc, a relatively unknown actor (at the time) was chosen to play Wyatt. We, the movie-goers could allow ourselves to see a stranger lower himself in such a manner. Poor Harris Yulin. He’s a very fine actor and, in my opinion, did an excellent job with the material he was given in Doc. But the result was our first villainous Wyatt . . . and a script, no doubt, influenced by Frank Waters’ book, which also contrived to embarrass Wyatt and dismantle the Earp legend.

Perhaps the more interesting question I get is this: Which actor best played Wyatt? Or Doc? Or Bat Masterson?

No actor, in my opinion, has nailed Wyatt’s demeanor. I did admire Kevin Costner’s approach. There was a lot he got right . . . after Lamar, Missouri. (Before Lamar, Costner’s Wyatt showed hints of a wide-eyed, “golly-gee,” gangling youth. Never was Wyatt a “golly-gee” kind of guy.) But after his wife’s death, we see Costner’s Wyatt turn grim, bluntly honest, and terse to the point of being asocial. This true to life performance is probably what sank the movie. (Which might illustrate the prudence of a screenwriter’s tweaking of the truth.) This movie used Wyatt’s Lamar tragedy as the springboard for his personality change. In fact, this pivotal point is intended to apologize for Wyatt’s annealing into the stoic persona that follows.

I don’t believe it happened that way. Wyatt was always Wyatt.

James Garner’s Wyatt in Hour of the Gun was tough and determined, two legitimate qualities well-portrayed. But the distortion of the Earp-Holliday relationship dominated the movie. It was a good device for a script, but it was far from history. We have a dissolute Doc serving as Wyatt’s conscience, constantly appraising Wyatt’s motives and feelings. This interaction put Wyatt’s image off balance, always defending himself against Doc’s barbs.

Kurt Russell’s Wyatt was, for my money, too expressive, emotional, and lively. The real Wyatt couldn’t claim creativity as an asset. He was too straight-ahead. Kurt’s roller-coaster performance made for a great movie character; it just wasn’t Wyatt’s character.

The BBC production of The Wild West includes a feature-length Wyatt Earp segment. Liam Cunningham presents a chillingly good representation of Wyatt, though the actor’s physical appearance is so far off the mark that it is difficult to sustain the image as one of Wyatt. (A similar reaction is experienced watching robust Victor Mature play consumptive Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine.) Mr. Cunningham traded some of Wyatt’s toughness for sophistication. Perhaps not accurate, but this may be what makes the film so watchable.

The PBS American Experience program, Wyatt Earp, though a documentary and not a feature film, must be mentioned. Here we don’t have an actor to appraise, but we hear in the first ten minutes one of the best character sketches of Wyatt ever recorded on celluloid.

For a Wyatt portrayal, I’ll have to give my nod to Mr. Costner, at least for the second half of Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp. I fervently wish that the epic story they tried for had succeeded. It had almost everything: freight hauling, laying down the rail lines, buffalo hunting, the emergence of the cowtowns, the search for a better life in Tombstone, and the Shakespearean tragedy that followed. It could be argued that the movie Tombstone excelled in the last two items on that list, but the ending was hyped up into an Earp revenge ride that bordered on Armageddon, if judged by the body count. Rambo goes West.

For Doc Holliday portrayals, it’s an easy rating for me. Val Kilmer gave us one of the most delightful and charismatic characters of any Western. It didn’t hurt that he had some of the best lines of any Western, too. He won over a lot of movie-goers, who would later be curious about the real Doc. (This is a big plus for Tombstone.) However, Mr. Kilmer’s Doc was not history’s Doc. Dennis Quaid, in Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp, probably gave us our best look at the man. Seldom have I seen a portrayal that made me completely forget who was playing the role. I never thought about Dennis during the movie. I thought about Doc.

As for Bat Masterson . . . we’re still waiting on that one. No actor has made a serious attempt at that role. Either that or he was terribly miscast and had no prayer in the endeavor. Bat had a lot of personality. Perhaps Kurt Russell should have tackled that role.

Who should have been given the chance at playing Wyatt? I remember mulling over that decades ago and coming up with a very stoic Jeff Bridges. The next year Wild Bill came out. I knew that after playing Hickok, Mr. Bridges would never accept an Earp role. Too déjà vu.

But imagine this: a thirty year old Jeff Bridges adopting the demeanor of Nick Nolte in Extreme Prejudice, and there you have it – the consummate Wyatt Earp on film.