The story ranks with others of the Old West like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, General Custer, Geronimo and Buffalo Bill. Earp is Hollywood's perfect lawman. In the six decades since he died in California more than a dozen films have been made about him, almost entirely focused on the gunfight between Earp, assisted by his brothers plus the sputtering TB-riddled Doc Holliday, and the gang of rancher/rustlers led by the evil Ike Clanton.
The Kasdan-Costner epic, which was released last week, is the first to go beyond the gunfight, but what a disappointing effort it turned out to be. It makes you think of John Ford's newspaper reporter at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when he said: 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.'
It is not that Wyatt Earp had a boring life before ending up in Tombstone. Urilla, the young girl he married, died of typhoid before she could bear his child, and he went on a wild binge that landed him in an Arkansas jail. He was saved from being hanged as a horse thief by his lawyer father who sent him off into the frontier with only one thought: 'Nothing counts as much as blood; the rest are just strangers.' It is the motto by which Earp lived the rest of his life. He roamed the range hunting buffalo before becoming a lawman and teaming up with his brothers to fight the Clantons.
But each of Earp's passages through life is such stereotypical and ponderous melodrama that the film's three hours seem really long. The music is relentlessly overripe, there are too many thunderous prairie storms and too much fancy lighting of Costner's face, which is hardly ever off the screen. The script is dreary. Granted cowpokes haven't got much to say, but when these boys talk, they argue for silence.
After hinting that Earp's personal demons are much more complicated, and potentially ferocious, than the simple ones which inhabit the Clanton cattle thieves, the film sums it all up with a line as uninspiring as a dead buffalo. 'You're a cold man, Wyatt Earp,' is all the wife of one of his brothers can muster. And Earp earnestly admonishes a deputy who has failed to spot a derringer in a drunk's pocket: 'You're not a deliberate man. I don't sense that about you. You're too affable.' The verb 'to sense', in place of 'feel', 'think' or 'know', was introduced relatively recently into American English by lawyers who wanted to separate themselves from their true feelings. It works.
Even so, the purists say the epic is probably the most honest look at Wyatt Earp's life so far - and a long way from John Ford's use of him in the 1946 classic My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda, or the folkloric Gunfight at the O K Corral in 1957 with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Earp and Holliday. But like so many modern American epics, the technical wizardry of film and sound often gets in the way of the storyteller's art.
For all the trappings of the Wild West, maybe the real Earp was a boring man, only a moraliser and law enforcer; the preacher, as Holliday called him, or Mr Virtue, as his brothers' wives knew him in other films. His character livens up only when a brother is killed in the feud with the Clantons, but the epic never explores the origins of the feud.
Kasdan and Costner had a great opportunity to take the audience away from gunfire and into the social and political problems of the day - as the Earpian historian Michael Hickey points out.
Hickey says Earp was a quiet, laconic man, who considered the O K Corral gunfight as a tragic episode in his life. (Unlike other films on this event, Kasdan and Costner's gives the gunfight it's factual 30-seconds). The gunfight was really a battle for political control of Tombstone - a fact full of historical promise but one that was glossed over in the film.
On one side were the lawless cowboys, including some of the greatest Western villains in the Clanton gang. They appear only as faceless thugs who were protected by Earp's rival, the local county sheriff, Johnny Behan, and other old-guard Democrats.
On the other side was the town's business community led by the Republican mayor, John P Clum, who was also editor of the Tombstone Epitaph.
These cowboys had spectacular sets, with no buckboard out of place, and their clothes and gear looked deliciously authentic as they swaggered in and out of perfectly-appointed Western bars. But I understood this film was meant to be more than a good backdrop and a terrific fashion show. Bring me the Hollywood team that fills in the blanks, and I'll sit through it again any time - even for three hours.Reuse content