Wyatt Earp: fact and fiction
For part 1 of this article, click here.
As we have seen, My Darling Clementine in 1946 made Wyatt Earp one of the great American heroes.
Wyatt appears everywhere
In 1950 the first Anthony Mann Western with James Stewart, Winchester ‘73, contained a cameo Wyatt Earp, played by Will Geer. Earp here is jovial but Geer, who himself thought he was miscast, attempts to show the steel beneath.
Ronald Reagan was in an anodyne color remake of Law and Order in 1953 and two years later Joel McCrea (at 50 exactly twice as old as Wyatt had been then) impersonated Earp in Wichita, directed by Jacques Tourneur, a sweet movie. It repeated the story used in Tombstone: The Town Too Tough To Die that Wyatt first refused a lawman's badge but changed his mind when a young boy was killed in crossfire. It was complete hooey historically but a nice picture.
And by the way, in it Wyatt carries an extra-long-barreled handgun. In reality it’s a standard seven-and-a-half inch barrel Colt single action but for some reason everyone else carries short-barreled snub-nose versions and agrees to pretend that Earp’s gun is extraordinary. Of course if the Buntline Special existed at all, it wasn’t given to Earp until much later, but hey, it all adds to the mystique.
But what really set the legend of Wyatt Earp in stone was the phenomenally successful ABC TV series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which ran for no fewer than 229 black & white 30-minute episodes from 1955 to ‘61 (about the same length of time Wyatt spent as a lawman) and was still strong in the ratings when it stopped. The plan was to tell the truth. Well, as usually happens with big studios, it didn’t turn out like that. But the producers hired Stuart Lake as historical adviser, rather ironically considering how he had embellished the tale. Hugh O’Brian, in his fancy vest and absurdly long-barreled pistol, came to be Wyatt Earp for a whole generation, including me.
John Wayne, who like John Ford was so proud of having once in his youth met Wyatt Earp, came across Hugh O’Brian at a dinner and said, “Hey kid, you do a perfect Wyatt Earp. I knew him, and you’re terrific.” Wayne said that he often thought of Earp when acting in Westerns and tried to model himself on the great lawman. “I often think of Wyatt Earp when I play a film character. There’s a guy who actually did what I’m trying to do [on screen].”
While the show ran Lake’s Wyatt Earp Enterprises churned out lunch boxes, coloring books, cap guns, tin badges, the works. I had a plastic Buntline Special (which broke pretty well immediately). Wyatt Earp was seriously big business.
Hugh was clean shaven, and it is noticeable that no screen Earps of the era sported handlebar mustaches. Maybe they were considered to old-fashioned, or maybe the handsome actors couldn’t stand it. And though the real Wyatt was fair-haired, blond men are usually baddies in Westerns so Wyatt actors had to be dark.
As TV, The Life and Legend was actually very good, with top guest stars, and strong production values. The theme song, Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, brave, courageous and bold, went directly into the American psyche.
In 1959 Hugh O’Brian made a guest cameo appearance in Bob Hope’s highly entertaining Alias Jesse James. It was clear that Wyatt Earp was now the Western lawman to Americans.
Wyatt and Bat
Wyatt Earp (Bruce Cowling) had had a minor part in Masterson of Kansas in 1954, with George Montgomery as Bat. Now there was a kind of return compliment, and spin-off, as Bat appeared quite a few times on Hugh’s show, then got his own, NBC’s Bat Masterson (1958 – 61) with Gene Barry as Bat, which also became popular – though not as much as Wyatt Earp. While we’re on the subject, we note that in 1958 Wyatt (Buster Crabbe, no less) and Bat (Gregory Walcott) appeared together again, in Warners’ Badman’s Country, which headlined George Montgomery as Pat Garrett, so they had plenty of lawmen, and Buffalo Bill Cody to boot; they also squeezed in numerous outlaws, such as the Sundance Kid and Blackjack Ketchum).
So Wyatt Earp was seeping into movies in all sorts of subtle ways. We’ve already discussed Oakley Hall’s 1958 novel Warlock and its 1959 movie version, with Henry Fonda, immediately of course identifiable as an Earp, and Anthony Quinn as a Doc Holliday-ish friend, cleaning up the town. Click the link to read that. But the whole story was extremely Earpish, if in a less heroic vein than Stuart Lake-inspired versions.
Snippets from the Lake story, such as the Johnny Behind the Deuce incident started appearing in many different Westerns as again and again brave lawmen stood down lynch mobs. Matt Dillon in the hugely popular TV series Gunsmoke was really Wyatt Earp. There never was a Matt Dillon in Dodge but it didn’t matter; James Arness (who dyed his fair hair dark) was still contributing to the Earp legend. Indeed, there were really three Wyatt Earps on primetime TV at once, because McCrea so liked Wichita that he starred in Wichita Town on NBC. He had to be called Mike Dunbar, or ABC and Hugh would have got ratty, but he was Wyatt Earp alright – the fictional one.
Back on the big screen
The TV shows inspired a whole new wave of interest in the Wyatt Earp story. There were even pop records - The Marquees' Wyatt Earp, featuring Marvin Gaye in 1957.
That same year, right at the peak of popularity of the TV series, one of the most successful and well-known movie Westerns of all time came out when John Sturges directed Gunfight at the OK Corral for Paramount. Burt Lancaster was Wyatt this time and Kirk Douglas was Doc. Burt aims for ‘steely’ but comes across maybe as a bit stolid, while Kirk steals the show as the charismatic Doc.
The screenplay was by novelist Leon Uris, and to be brutally frank, sometimes verged on the corny. Uris, Sturges and the lead actors played up the chalk-and-cheese differences between Earp and Doc. The posters shouted “The strangest alliance this side of heaven and hell”.
The picture attempted to telescope the whole life of Wyatt Earp into its runtime (which made it long), rather than just concentrating on the Tombstone period.
The hugely popular Gunfight at the OK Corral didn’t create the mythic Wyatt Earp; it confirmed it.
There were 60s Earps, of course. In 1962 Med Flory played Wyatt in S2 E10 of Maverick, Marshal Maverick. 1964 Guy Madison would appear in a spaghetti, Desafío en Río Bravo, released in the US as Gunmen of Rio Grande, in which he would play a character named Wyatt Earp. It had nothing whatsoever to do with Wyatt Earp; the creators of this rip-off just thought the name would be catchy. The following year there was a Three Stooges comedy, The Outlaws is Coming, which featured all sorts of Western characters, Annie Oakley, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Johnny Ringo, Bat Masterson and of course Wyatt Earp, that was de rigueur by now, played by Bill Camfield. In 1967 S1 E3 of Cimarron Strip featured Steve Forrest as ‘Wiley Harpe’, a shady conman and killer. Of course Cimarron Strip’s hero Marshal Crown (Stuart Whitman) was anyway intensely Earpish. He even looked like Hugh O’Brian.
An especially bizarre Wyatt Earp was Ron Soble in S3 E6 of Star Trek, Spectre of the Gun, which Allen Barra calls “one of the shoddiest portrayals of the Earp legend, a perfect example of artistically and historically worthless production.” Even odder was an earlier sci-fi incarnation when S3 E37 of the British show Dr Who in May 1966 was introduced by the blurb “The Clantons have shot Warren Earp, leading to a showdown between the two families with the Doctor powerless to prevent bloodshed.” I think this must challenge the Star Trek one for shoddiness and worthlessness. The British actors (John Alderson as Wyatt) have ‘American’ accents that appear to be getting their revenge for Dick Van Dyke’s ‘cockney’ in Mary Poppins two years before.
As I have said, the Waters book The Earp Brothers of Tombstone was finally published in 1960. Western magazines were at their peak of popularity and it hardly seemed possible for an issue not to have an article on Wyatt Earp, pro or con. Some of them were poorly researched and/or based on the dubious recollections of people who ‘knew’ Wyatt more or less well. Judging by the number of witnesses of the gunfight at the OK Corral, they must have been selling tickets that day and set up bleachers on Fremont Street. Ed Bartholomew published The Biographical Album of Western Gunfighters in 1958 and unearthed various uncomplimentary details of Earp’s life. Lake died in 1964 when the debunkers were in full flow.
Hollywood reacted. John Ford’s last (and rather weak) 1964 movie Cheyenne Autumn had James Stewart as a clownish and none too honest Earp, in a ‘comic’ interlude that should probably have been edited out. His Earp shoots a cowhand in the foot with a derringer, something a ‘classic’ Wyatt would never have done.
And in 1967 John Sturges went back to Tombstone and directed James Garner as Earp (and an excellent Jason Robards as Doc, too old, of course, but that didn’t matter) in Hour of the Gun, which showed a harder and more vengeful Earp. Sturges is reported to have said, “I can tell you, I don’t go for all that Stuart Lake baloney”, though that didn’t seem to have stopped him back in ’57. Unusually, this story started at the OK Corral and recounted Wyatt’s vendetta, with Robert Ryan (fine as always) as Ike Clanton. Annoyingly, this was another of the Wyatt Earp films that began with the mendacious claim that this was “how it really happened”. Historically, it was again nonsense (Wyatt and Doc go down into Mexico to kill Ike Clanton...) But it was perhaps the darkest Wyatt Earp to date. Wyatt Earp: hero with a badge or cold-blooded killer? the movie poster asked.
Revisionism under full sail
In 1971 came Hollywood’s most debunked Earp of all with Doc, which had Stacey Keach leading as the consumptive killer dentist and Harris Yulin in a secondary role as an especially unpleasant and corrupt politician Wyatt Earp. The writer, journalist Mark Hamill, said that he and director Frank Perry “knew from the sketchy history that Wyatt was nothing at all like the legend he later made up. He was a politician, a bully, a man who had hustled towns and moved on with the railhead.” One might think that all that was a lot to deduce from “the sketchy history”. The Hamill/Perry/Yulin Wyatt is inept with his fists and the only reason he provoked the OK Corral fight was to get revenge on Ike Clanton. Even here, though, in this debunking, Wyatt is once again Marshal of Tombstone, not Virgil. I suppose you build him up so he has farther to fall.
In 1972 there was quite a good dramatized documentary, David S Wolper Presents: Appointment with Destiny. This series examined events of some import, such as the Surrender at Appomattox and The Crucifixion of Jesus, so it was fascinating that Showdown at OK Corral (S1 E3) should be included. It’s an illustration of just how far the 30-second shootout had been embedded in the American psyche. Narrated by Lorne Greene and filmed in Tombstone, it had a definite anti-Earp bias but it was a model of fairness compared with Doc. Wyatt Earp was played by David Vowell. It resembled Walter Cronkite’s long-running You Are There, which also, in S4 E8 in November 1955, included The Gunfight at the OK Corral among the world-changing events it discussed. Wyatt Earp was played by Robert Bray.
The ‘real Wyatt’ claims became wilder and wilder. In 1958, Virgil Edwin Earp, Newton’s son, appeared on $64,000 Question and told how he had helped his Uncle Wyatt in Tombstone and how he had killed Indian Charlie. He must have been a precocious child, given that he was four at the time.
As the popularity of film and TV Westerns declined, so of course did portrayals of Wyatt Earp. In the first half of the 1980s, between Heaven’s Gate and Pale Rider, there were no major A-Westerns made. Many thought Wyatt Earp on the screen was was finished.
The 80s In 1983, a 1976 book by Glenn Boyer purporting to be the memoirs of Wyatt Earp's wife was made into a TV movie I Married Wyatt Earp, with the fairly catastrophic casting of Marie Osmond (Donny’s sister) as Josie and Bruce Boxleitner (from Tron) as Wyatt. It was directed by Michael O’Herlihy who had done the Disney ‘Western’ Smith! It does have aspects which are more accurate than in some other screen versions but the ending is patently untrue (and ridiculous) so we wonder if Mrs Earp was forgetful or mendacious, or Mr Boyer very gullible or the TV company cynical. Or a bit of all of the above. It was fake anyway. At least it introduced Josie as a character in the saga.
James Garner reprised his Earp role in 1988 in the - I think - rather charming Sunset, directed by the late Blake Edwards. In this he is an aging Wyatt Earp, advisor on the set of Hollywood movies in the 20s and he gets into an adventure with cowboy superstar of the period Tom Mix, played, rather well actually, by Bruce Willis. It's a fun film.
But all in all there wasn’t that much Earpery in the 1980s.
Though Barra makes the point that The Untouchables had more than a little of the Earp legend about it. An undebunked Eliot Ness, played by future Wyatt Earp Kevin Costner, in Chicago/Tombstone has Sean Connery has a kind of Virgil and Andy Garcia as Doc Holliday. Bootleg booze for rustled cattle, Al Capone for Old Man Clanton, the corrupt Irish police chief for John Behan, the ambush of Sean Connery and Charles Martin Smith for the shooting of Morgan and Virgil and the shootout at the train station for the OK Corral: it’s not too much of a stretch.
However, as violent crime became a major preoccupation of Americans (and not only Americans), at a time when some cities, with their gang warfare and drive-by shootings, seemed more dangerous than Dodge or Tombstone in the frontier days, the attraction of the Wyatt Earp tale took on a new lease of life. In the pulp Death Wish movies of the 70s and 80s, Charles Bronson had taken the law into his own hands and gone after the crooks and punks. Dirty Harry was doing the same as a rogue policeman with a huge six-shooter.
In the early 1990s, two rival Tombstone stories were made pretty well concurrently. I shall be reviewing these separately, so will only say a little here.
First to screen was Tombstone on Christmas Day 1993, followed by Wyatt Earp in early ’94. The George P Cosmatos-directed Tombstone, with Kurt Russell as Wyatt and Val Kilmer as Doc, was probably the more colorful and enjoyable, while the Lawrence Kasdan production Wyatt Earp, with Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid in the leads, was longer and more earnest. The latter tried, like Gunfight at the OK Corral, to tell all the life of Wyatt, while the former, as one might guess from its title, concentrated only on Tombstone – probably a wiser decision. Wyatt Earp lost money despite grossing over $40m. These two movies still gave us a sanitized Wyatt Earp but they were closer to the reality than any screen version to date.
Also in 1994, Hugh O’Brian, then nearly 70, appeared in a TV show Return to Tombstone, shot in Tombstone itself, in which colorized clips from the old shows were used as flashbacks.
The 21st Century
In 2012 Val Kilmer was back in Tombstone – or rather Dodge - but this time as Wyatt in Wyatt Earp’s Revenge. Actually, Val Kilmer’s part, as an old reminiscing Wyatt in 1907, appears tacked on and is probably only there to give a star name to an otherwise lackluster straight-to-video movie. It’s about the murder of Dora Hand in Dodge and the chase and arrest of Spike Kenedy. Wyatt was supposed to be in love with Dora (no evidence for that whatsoever) and to have raised and led the posse (Bat Masterson did). It’s a bit of a plodder, I’m afraid.
Probably no movie will ever show the real, true Wyatt Earp. It would perhaps be impossible to make one that satisfied everybody because, as I say, the Earpists and anti-Earpists are still out there in large numbers, and they don’t speak softly.
On the other hand, every generation has its big Wyatt Earp movie, just as there is always a new Robin Hood or Zorro one, without fail, so maybe…
What I’d really like to see is for Ron Hansen to write a great Wyatt Earp novel and the team that made The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to go to work on it! I haven’t discussed Wyatt on the fictional page here. For example, in 1955 Will Henry published the novel Who Rides with Wyatt, which was later filmed as Young Billy Young. In 2001 the crime writer Robert B Parker wrote a Western novel, Gunman’s Rhapsody, which tells of Wyatt's time in Tombstone. It's well written and like all Parker, tight, gritty and fun to read. You will know of others.
Casey Tefertiller’s chapter, Long may his story be told, and Allen Barra’s, Hollywood gunfighter, have been especially useful to me in this post, so thanks to them!
Thanks for reading such a long post.