Faint hearts at the OK Corral: 'Wyatt Earp' - which may turn out to be the costliest flop of all - reeks of compromise
Sunday 11 September 1994
a thumping sententiousness: 'Remember this, all of you, nothing counts so much as blood. The rest are just strangers.' The lines are as much signposts for the audience as for Nicholas's growing sons.
We certainly need some, because the rest of the film is as parched - of ideas and characterisation - as the Arizona desert around Tombstone, where Wyatt becomes deputy in 1879. In the vast terrain of the film, the characters are as well- defined as specks on a horizon. Hackman has his opening salvo and returns once to save Wyatt from being hanged, never to be seen again. When Wyatt's brother Morgan is killed, 160 minutes into the film, we watch his expiring body as if it were a stranger's. It is. Isabella Rossellini plays a whore known as Big Nose Kate. She doesn't explain why she got the name or anything else.
The heart of the film is Kevin Costner's Wyatt, ageing from 21 (when skilful lighting more or less covers his wrinkles) to a brief, grey-haired coda. But it is a heart that beats, at best, faintly. The film is structured around Wyatt's development, in three acts: from rascally innocence, befouled by personal tragedy and the wickedness of the world; to apprentice lawman, finding his toughness and skill; to the unrepentant bruiser who must have the gunfight at the OK Corral. The problem is that these developments are sketched rather than explored. Kasdan, who co- wrote the film with Dan Gordon, relies on a lazy cinematic shorthand - close-ups, for instance, of Wyatt recoiling at his instinctive viciousness.
This is supposed to be a harsher Wyatt than we've seen, so we have a few smouldering looks, the odd tough line, and a perfunctory trial for the shootings at the OK Corral. The scenes are stilted and poorly shaped - the trial slips by - and nothing links up, betraying the film's origins as a projected mini-series. As Wyatt, Kevin Costner, his face growing fleshily into a bland middle age, is flabbily imprecise, no match for lean Henry Fonda, who played the part in John Ford's My Darling Clementine, a rake-thin figure of overweening piety.
By tradition every Wyatt Earp film is stolen by Doc Holliday, the devil-may-care gambler beside Wyatt's steady law enforcer. Dennis Quaid's Doc is no exception, with some choice sardonic blasts. He comes closest to the consumptive original of the character, having shed 43 pounds to leave his face as hard and wrinkled as a walnut. But even his performance seems skimped and stagey, less of a
gas than Val Kilmer's sharp- shooting maniac in Tombstone and less intriguing than Victor Mature's broody sensualist in My Darling Clementine.
One area in which the film does score is the gunfight at the OK Corral, which is carefully built up to, and then short and brutal, no more than a few seconds. As the black-clad Earp brothers march to the fray, like convening undertakers, Kasdan has a camera at every angle. The camera shots match the gun shots. Elsewhere Owen Roizman's photography captures the heat and expanse of the West, especially in the dusty, bleached, slightly overexposed exteriors, as well as the shifting locales of different desert towns, from the rich, burnished colours of Tombstone to the sandiness of Wichita. We always know where we are, even if we don't much care what's happening.
Like all movie disasters, Wyatt Earp - which may turn out to be the costliest flop of all time - reeks of compromise. Earp's murderousness is casuistically justified, to preserve Costner's gleam. Ideas about family, order, civilisation and expansion are taken up and then dropped in the dust. At times it is hard to believe Kasdan's heart was in it. You would expect extras to be better directed in a school play. And in this so-called revisionist reading, the women are so flimsily characterised as to make the twinkling damsels of John Ford and John Sturges seem fully- fledged heroines. It is all a huge folly, barely sustaining interest in the later stages. 'That's what life is all about,' intones Earp Snr to his son: 'Loss.' Warner Brothers, Costner and Kasdan are learning the facts of life right now.
In no other field do movies spout such awesome gobbledegook as in their portrayal of mental illness and its treatment. Madness is either shorthand for vulnerability and sensitivity, a romantic device, or mere wackiness. Psychiatrists are more often than not sinister - tamperers with the mind. This week's Mr Jones (15) and Color of Night (18) contain all the ingredients of the genre. Mr Jones is the better film because of a winning Richard Gere as the manic-depressive hero, who, typically, has a deep intuitive gift with people and unfulfilled musical talent (sensitive and arty). When Lena Olin, his shrink, tells him, 'You're a remarkable man,' we almost believe her. Gere, whose Buddhism now gives him an otherworldly aura, is good at manic highs, beaming agitatedly, and walking on ledges threatening to fly. He is a spiritual cousin to Jeff Bridges in Fearless, and the film, before what feels like a studio-imposed ending, is interesting as another exploration of a life at odds with the mundane.
In Color of Night Bruce Willis plays a psychiatrist ('PhD, New York') traumatised by a woman patient's committing suicide after he'd spoken harshly to her. She ends up in a pool of blood on the pavement, leaving him unable to see the colour red (something to do with the denial of emotion). He goes to Los Angeles, takes over the leadership of a therapy group from a murdered friend, and has an affair with Jane March (the waif from The Lover) which involves a lot of baths together and shots of Willis's limp penis. Richard (The Stuntman) Rush has clearly made a comedy- thriller, but it can be hard telling which bit is which. There's a good sense of the oppressiveness of LA, and many of Willis's patients, all of whom are suspects, are entertainingly drawn, in a cruel, exploitative way.
Senility, not madness, is the affliction in the daringly staid Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (12), in which Robert Duvall, a pernickety Cuban pensioner, and Richard Harris, a belligerent Irish old goat, play a pair of codgers, maundering the days away with quarrels and hopeless romantic fantasies of past and future conquests. There is much to enjoy for lovers of precision acting, but it may help if you're over 70.
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