Costner-athon Part Nine
This past week I went back to 1994 by way of 1881 for an arduous viewing of Costner’s sprawling epic on the legendary old west crime boss… sorry, I mean the legendary old west lawman known as Wyatt Earp.
Although a noble attempt was made to watch this as a teen when my parents rented it one time, I’d never actually seen it in its entirety before, and to tell you the truth, it never much interested me. There’s a few reasons for this; for starters, it clocks in at just over 3 hours, which isn’t a problem for a story that moves well and has a good rhythm—but Wyatt Earp is an extremely slow moving behemoth that at times engages one in their own epic struggle to stay fully awake. I did not need to see Wyatt Earp engaging in morning pillow talk with his lifetime collection of various sweethearts. I needed to see him chasing down bad guys, brooding darkly like Bruce Wayne over his terrible responsibilities, and riding like the fourth horseman of the apocalypse across the open prairie. This brings me to my second point—there was another movie about Wyatt Earp that came out only 6 months prior to Costner’s movie which shows him doing all the things just mentioned. Tombstone was not only a great film, but it was clearly the better of the two. It had a much more streamlined story, focused on a narrow section of Earp’s life instead of attempting to explain the entirety of his existence, and it sold the story with action sequences that were probably the best western style, carefully choreographed, and superbly filmed gunfights that had ever appeared in the movies up to that point. In Wyatt Earp, the infamous “gunfight at the OK Corral” is a confusing mess of closeups capturing quick snaps of men shooting guns followed by cutting quickly to closeups of other men falling down. In Tombstone it’s filmed with wide shots of the action that make it look like a dance performance—you can see where everyone is and you never lose track of what’s actually happening during the sequence. Tombstone was also first out of the gate, first to the finish line, and first to capture my imagination when my dad took the family to see it during the winter of ‘94. Lastly, in regards to why Costner’s version never really drew enough interest for me to watch it—our family had just gone on vacation to Arizona that Christmas break before, and I had actually walked through the streets of the real Tombstone—albeit the depressing leftover husk of a tourist trap that had been constructed amidst the bones of the original town. Even so, it was a memorable experience, especially walking through the cemetery connected to the old part of the town. All this to say, that in my mind at the time, watching the movie Tombstone was like the grand finale capping off the experience of seeing the place in person, and regardless of its historical inaccuracies and dramatic licensing, it cemented my perceptions of the characters. As far as I was concerned, Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer were Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. By the time Costner’s version of the story and characters hit theaters 6 months later I was too full. There was simply no room for it in the belly of my brain.
That’s not to say it’s a bad film. It’s just nowhere near as good as its competition. And there was a great deal of competition between these two movies. Costner was originally signed on to play Wyatt Earp in the Tombstone movie, but he clashed with the director’s vision of sacrificing historical accuracy for greater cinematic pay-off. Unable to resolve their differences, Costner jumped ship and began production on his own version of the film with his friend Lawrence Kasdan as the principal screenwriter. As a result, the Costner version does really well at presenting Wyatt Earp, his brothers, their wives, and Doc Holliday as real people, more closely rooted in historical accounts. But the result is that Costner gives us a portrayal of the man that is about as exciting as reading a description of him in a history textbook. On the other hand, Dennis Quaid gives us a version of Doc Holliday that is absolutely magnificent and unique in its own right. It would have been the best version of Holliday to ever be put on film—if Val Kilmer hadn’t already sucked all the wind from the character by disappearing completely into the role and giving the best performance of his entire career. In terms of the best Doc Hollidays to be portrayed in the movies—there can be only one. And (I have to mention this as well), Tombstone has one more thing that Wyatt Earp does not—Sam Elliot—the ace up the sleeve of any proper movie about cowboys and the old west.
As a footnote to all this, sitting silently in the background, is the actual history. And firmly planted just beyond the shadow of the actual history, is the legend. Both Costner’s and Russell’s Earps are based mostly on that legend, even with Costner making greater attempts to cut a path more in line with the history. And the truth is, the fiction of Wyatt Earp, American Hero, is much more interesting than who the guy really was—maybe that’s unfortunate, but it’s what we Americans do with our old west legends. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Clint Eastwood… all of them have had movies portraying them as legends who were much more grand, noble, and righteous than they ever could have been. The same is true of Wyatt Earp. We know a great deal more about him from documented historical accounts than what our collective cultural identity has chosen to remember. The truth is that the gunfight at the OK Corral was just one small engagement in a larger war for control of Arizona’s mining, gambling, and legal prostitution businesses at the time. The Earp brothers were in the process of building their own family empire on these endeavors when they ran smack dab into the established interests of the local citizen’s co-op known as the Cochise County Cowboys. At the center of their “disagreement” was money, politics, and women—the same things at the root of just about every disagreement since the dawn of civilization. Just to give you an idea of how crazy this was—at one point, before things got really heated, and tensions completely boiled over between the two groups—Wyatt attempted to run for county sheriff against Johnny Behan (the de facto political leader of the Cowboys), but decided to forfeit the race when Behan offered him a deal that would make him deputy sheriff and cut him into a percentage of the Cowboys’ earning pool. After Behan won the race he reneged on the deal, and Wyatt responded by running off with Behan’s fiancé Josephine. Then after all that happened, dudes began firing bullets at each other. Anyway, that’s just a little side note if you’re interested in history.
In conclusion… While I applaud Costner for his commitment to making the film he wanted to make, and sacrificing box office success in the process—I can’t, in good conscience recommend that anyone intentionally set aside three hours of their lives to watch this film. If you want to see the best movie on the subject, just watch Tombstone. If you want to know the real history, well then you have to do something radical and downright revolutionary in this day and age—read a book.