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Categories: Features

Could this loser of a Hollywood duel be a hidden gem of the Western genre? We look back at the legends that made Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp and the legacy it left.

One of the most interesting things about cinema, as a medium, is its youth. Unlike literature or music (thousands of years in the making) the history of cinema goes back not more than 125 years at the most. This allows people to fully encompass and understand it as an art form. It becomes, therefore, easier to see a nation’s identity imprinted upon their filmmaking. France, for example, is irrevocably bound to the Nouvelle Vague similar to Italy’s famous love-affair with neo-realism. What then, would be the national film identity of the United States? We typically just refer to it by that reductionist term “Hollywood”. But Hitchcock was a man of Hollywood. Paul Verhoeven, for all his immense weirdness, became part of Hollywood. Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson, Charlie Chaplin. All great contributors to what we would call Hollywood. But it’s not the unique voice of America speaking through them.

So what is the cinematic language of the United States? The most obvious answer is, of course, the Western. But the Western is a pastiche of a genre, revised and repackaged by generation after generation in various different cultures. It’d be like saying tragedy belongs to the Greeks. Yet this genre, more than any other, still carries with it a national identity that’s very often overlooked. It’s in this genre that American history has carried forth its heroes. Embodiments of not just a national spirit but of a complex moral psyche. Outlaws and lawmen. Individual and community. Freedom and establishment. Always in conflict, neither of them pure in their morality.

The United States, like cinema, is a relatively young thing. It doesn’t have dragon slayers or magic swords. Most of the events associated with American heroism have a strongly political background. Some are only semi-political, largely shrouded in myth, like Custer’s Last Stand or The Alamo. There is one, however, that appears time and time again in America’s cinematic history which transcends war and politics. A defining combination of man and moment. Wyatt Earp and The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

What actually happened at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona is debatable but the mark it has left on American cinema, and American identity as a result, is undeniable and seemingly indelible. Wyatt Earp’s influence on modern legends cannot be understated. The concept of the lone force standing against corruption is integral to the hero narrative we know today. The gunfight itself was not popularised in the US until Stuart Lake’s sensationalist biography of Wyatt Earp was published in 1931, two years after Earp’s death. Another two years after this, in 1933, America became captivated for the first time by what is argued to be its first superhero. Another mythological frontiersman who, like Earp, was a man of the law but sometimes operated outside of it. Like Earp, he was famed for being bulletproof. Like Earp, he came with a kooky sidekick and owned a stake in the silver mining business. His name was The Lone Ranger and he’s potentially the genesis of not just iconic vigilantes such as Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Batman, appearing 6 years later, but perhaps all masked superheroes.

Naturally, Earp and Doc Holliday have enjoyed a very long relationship with cinema, their peak being around 1994 when two mainstream films about Earp’s life butted heads (along with a third independent film that doesn’t really bear mentioning). When the dust settled, the world was left with a victor, George P. Cosmatos’ Tombstone, and it’s since become somewhat of a cult favourite despite poor odds.

Tombstone was originally set to star Kevin Costner, still riding atop the wave of success from his risky Dances With Wolves battle in Hollywood, but the tricky script lead to him jumping ship to a rival project. This tricky script would eventually be reworked by its new star, Kurt Russell, into something manageable. When two similar film projects exist at the same time they’re naturally referred to as “competing” but these two actually did compete. Costner used his newfound clout in Hollywood to ensure nobody would distribute Tombstone. This made it all the more devastating when Tombstone wrapped first, found distribution, beat Costner to the punch and, unlike his film, turned a profit. Tombstone resonated more with audiences not just because it arrived first but because it was shorter than its competitor and considered to be generally more fun. Which is a good thing, right? David beating Goliath. Well, if you can find the time to take a look, you may discover that this victory came at the cost of quite a remarkable film.

Don’t get me wrong now, Tombstone is a likable film full of great performances. But it’s a B-movie. Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp is an epic. In terms of tone, its scope and its colossal ambition. At the time this ambition was greeted with jeers, Roger Ebert called it “pumped full of hot air”. To this day it remains largely maligned by critics and it was nominated for a host of Razzies back in ‘94. Personally, I couldn’t disagree with this legacy more. From the first frame to the last of Owen Roizman’s stunning cinematography (some of the last he shot before his retirement, after a career which help cement legends like William Friedkin and Sydney Lumet) I was swept up by this film. Clocking in at over 3 hours this does, yes, have a sense of self-importance but, as I’ve already explained, it should. Any story about Earp’s life is subject to a lot of embellishment, and Kasdan’s film is no exception, to this but unlike Tombstone, and Russell’s more confident hero, Wyatt Earp dares to show its subject as flawed.

Kasdan’s attention to detail was something that was considered quite bloating back in 1994 but it’s since become a staple of the modern western.  Like a conscientious love letter to a difficult past. The romantic nature of Roizman’s photography, recalling the westerns of John Ford with its deep colours and use of framing, is juxtaposed perfectly against the abhorrent violence of the times. We’re allowed to see Earp through a much more conservative lens, more a pragmatist than a hero. Not remembered because he was nice but because he brought order to very unordered places. A progenitor of the “man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” philosophy that has defined so much of American life.

Modern audiences have become accustomed to thinking of heroes being great in spite of certain flaws rather than being great because of many flaws. Kasdan includes Earp’s alcoholism, the death of his first wife and child, his arrests. He doesn’t shy away from Earp’s second, opium addicted, wife. These events are neither right nor wrong, they are moments that shaped an iconic character. To make your film comparable to difficult and epic biopics like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is foolhardy, maybe even blasphemous, but Kasdan goes for it anyway. Having penned Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark for Lucas and Spielberg, he had earned his shot at large scale directing and he gives it everything he’s got. You can see the Spielbergian influence. It’s whimsical at times and occasionally just outright charming. Its constant playfulness with cinematography, light and shadow, is typically movie brat.

Untypically, though, it’s free from a strong source of comic relief. The closest thing would be the unrecognisable Dennis Quaid as the ever-fascinating Doc Holliday. Holliday is an easy part to play for a talented actor. He was basically a living Mark Twain character. Tombstone delivered him in the form of an infinitely appealing Val Kilmer. Witty, removed, dashing and emotional. Quaid, on the other hand, not only loses the stark amount of weight required to play a man convincingly dying of tuberculosis but he completely omits his trademark grin and Harrison Ford facial expressions, often completely hidden behind his beard and sunglasses. This creates one the most astonishing portrayals of Doc Holliday you’ll ever see. All of this was within the acting range of Dennis Quaid and I never knew. I feel almost angry that it was kept a secret.

Quaid’s restraint demonstrates, overall, the level of care that went into this film. I suppose a lot of this is owed to the fact that the project began life as a 6 hour mini-series and you feel modern television owes a lot to films like this. Wyatt Earp shuns immediate gratification for its audience in favour of painting a fuller, richer, picture of the time and of the people it’s showing you. I’ll always remember the stillness of its opening shot [pictured above], almost brazen for a film that’s nearly three and a half hours long. It takes the time to establish the weight of what is about to come, the gunfight at the corral, not just for the audience or history but for its own characters. Too often the Hollywood system will produce a cursory biopic that manipulates and packages the image of a historical figure for quick gain. To see it showing reverence for something is quite a beautiful thing.

 

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, film-blogger and lifelong cinephile who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University Of London.

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Posted on Jun 12, 2017

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