Wyatt Earp (1994): Western Starring Kevin Costner

Knowing how savvy the Disney publicity machine is, I don’t think it’s sheer coincidence that Tombstone, their version of marshal Wyatt Earp’s story, starring Kurt Russell, and Warners’ Wyatt Earp, with Kevin Costner in the lead, are released in the same week: Tombstone on video and Wyatt Earp theatrically.

No wonder this marketing duel between the studios has already been dubbed as “Quien es mas macho (Who’s more macho), Kurt or Kevin”

It’s all box-office logistics, in case you wonder what’s the urgency to recount the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, not once but twice in the same year. Ever since the success of Costner’s Dances With Wolves (l990) and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (l992), two movies that were not only popular with audiences but also won the Best Picture Oscar in their respective years, there has been a renewed interest in the Western genre, which came to life after a whole decade of practically being dead.

The two film versions of the same characters and events could not have been more different. Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp is the more ambitious, and the more pretentious. Aspiring to the status of an epic biography, the film’s running time is over three hours, and it features some impressive production values, particularly Owen Roizman’s cinematography. Yet, I don’t think it’s a particularly good movie, or an entertaining one.

Though handsome to look at, Wyatt Earp is too stately, too detailed, and too grand for its own good. The filmmakers claim to have been more accurate to the real-life figures, sticking closer to the facts than to myths. They say their goal was to present a more ambiguous interpretation of one of the West’s most legendary heroes. All this may be true.

But my personal favorite is still John Ford’s mythic rendition, My Darling Clementine (1946), starring Henry Fonda. I also recall fondly John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), which I saw as a child. I particularly remember the star magnetism that Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas brought to their roles, the kind of bravura that neither Costner nor Russell has.

On the surface, Costner is well-cast as the laconic, tight-lipped lawman. He embodies an inner-directed man, one distant from the other characters but strongly committed to upholding the law at all cost. Costner has modeled his screen persona after Gary Cooper (he even looks like him) and this film confirms my suspicion. Nonetheless, Costner delivers in this picture an earnest, monotonous performance, one without much color or personality.

Set on the family farm, the first hour establishes the intimate bond that prevails within the Earp clan. The great Gene Hackman plays the patriarch who tells his sons, time and again, “Nothing counts as much as blood, the rest are strangers,” a motto that later rationalizes the brothers’ devotion to each other–at the expense of other family duties, particularly as husbands. However, except for the episodes that present in (too much) detail Earp’s childhood, there is not much information that is unfamiliar from the other films.

I will not be surprised if younger viewers enjoy better the Disney version, which came out in December and did pretty well. Tombstone was a tough-talking, though softhearted, tale that was entertaining in a sprawling, old-fashioned manner. It was also unburdened by the somber, stately, and politically correct tone of such Westerns as Walter Hill’s disappointing Geronimo, and now Wyatt Earp.

In contrast with the Disney version, the new picture is serious and self-important. The cast is huge–everything about the film is big–size and scale are its most striking elements. While the attempt was clearly to make the definitive biopicture of Wyatt Earp, it’s disappointing that such a long and expensive enterprise doesn’t really capture the inner workings of Wyatt’s psyche, particularly his transformation from a lawman to a vigilante bent on avenging the deaths of his brothers at all costs.

As a director, Kasdan has been intrigued before (Grand Canyon, The Big Chill) with messages about the heavy price of maintaining one’s ideals and the inevitability of loss. And like his other films (the poorly directed The Accidental Tourist is a good example), Kasdan’s manner tends to be draggy and discursive. The chief problems with his new movie are its evenhanded, often dull pacing, and failure to generate sustained excitement–despite the inherently dramatic potential of the story. Kasdan is a strong director as far as ideas are concerned, but he lacks vision–and personal style.

Moreover, as co-writer and director, Kasdan relies on facile psychological explanations. He dramatizes at great length Earp’s courtship and marriage to his first wife, whom he lost to typhoid while she was pregnant. This catastrophe is meant to explain his turn to a drunken, criminal path, ending in jail–until he is saved by his father. The traumatic event is also used as background for his icy personality and harsh attitude toward women.

Kasdan presents a none-too-flattering portrait of the Earp family life–women are treated as second-class citizens. I was surprised to find out that the woman who eventually became Wyatt’s third wife, Josie Marcus (Joanna Going), was a Jewish actress from San Francisco. There are some nasty references to her Jewish identity in the text, which could be accurate, considering the time and place of the story.

In his fight for law and order, Earp is assisted by the flamboyant Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), who’s portrayed as a boozy intellectual, dying of tuberculosis yet fast with the gun. The friendship between Earp and Holliday, who’s the most intriguing, if also mysterious figure, provides the film’s most poignant angle–and lively sequences.

In both film versions, the standout performance comes from the actors who play Holliday, which leads me to believe that it’s more the showiness of the role than the quality of acting. Wyatt Earp gains a much-needed momentum whenever Holliday is onscreen. Dennis Quaid, who reportedly lost 50 pounds to play the part convincingly, delivers his lines–like Val Kilmer in Tombstone–in a droll, ironic manner and he brings energy to his work.

The climax, of course, is the bloody shootout at the O.K. Corral. In both versions, the showdown between the Earps and Holliday and the Clantons and Mclaurys is staged in a gritty, yet somehow operatic manner that owes more than a bit to Italian maestro of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Cinematography: Owen Roizman

The winner in that category was John Toll for “Legend of the Fall.”