Wyatt Earp (1994) -vs- Tombstone (1993)

Wyatt Earp -vs- Tombstone

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Bob Nowotny, Contributing WriterThe Smackdown

A 30-second gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881 propelled sometime-lawman Wyatt Earp to legendary status as one of the West’s toughest badges, but it wasn’t until the early days of the Clinton Administration that two films both took aim at each other at high noon to tell the modern version of his story.

Firing the first shot was Tombstone. Then, mere months later, Wyatt Earp rode into movie theaters throughout North America. The decision was split among movie critics and audiences: Those who strongly preferred Tombstone and those who strongly maintained that Wyatt Earp was the superior product.

It had been quite some time since Hollywood had cranked out a big budget Western, much less two. The arrival of both these feature films was eagerly anticipated. What had once been among the most popular and durable of all film genres clearly needed a big boost. While both of these films experienced a similarly challenging road from development to the big screen, both were blessed with a solid cast and plenty of pistol-packin’ mayhem.

But there were significant differences as well — George P. Cosmatos’ Tombstone, written by the late Kevin Jarre, focused primarily on the relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday and the events which led them to the O. K. Corral. Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp, which Kasdan wrote with Dan Gordon, took the historical biography approach and was a comprehensive and complicated exploration of the man himself. In simpler terms, Tombstone was reminiscent of a Republic Pictures Western whereas Wyatt Earp aimed higher — did someone say John Ford? Only one of these scored a bulls-eye.

The Challenger

Originally intended to be a six-hour miniseries, director and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan signed Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp and Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday. The supporting cast was equally impressive — Gene Hackman, Michael Madsen, Mark Harmon, Bill Pullman, Joanna Going, Isabella Rossellini and Tom Sizemore to name a few.

As for the story, the tone is established early on when the patriarch of the Earp family (Hackman) tells his offspring, “Nothing counts as much as blood; the rest are strangers.” With a budget estimated at $63 million, it appeared that the talent and the resources were available to chronicle Wyatt Earp’s life from childhood, where he desperately wanted to escape his family’s farm, to his awkward attempt to become a lawyer, to his marriage and the subsequent, tragic death of his wife, to a spiral into alcoholism, to his turning to crime and, finally, to his redemption as a lawman, eventually ending up in Tombstone, Arizona as sheriff with his brothers at his side.

Things really get interesting when old pal Holliday rides into town and joins the Earps as they do battle with a band of reprobates headed by the likes of Ike Clanton, Curly Bill Brocious and Johnny Ringo. Still, the primary focus is on Wyatt — the man, not the myth — and Kasdan is committed to delivering an epic life journey, as the 191-minute running time attests.

The Defending Champion

Tombstone had a rocky start. Screenwriter Kevin Jarre was slated to direct, but he was fired a week into principal photography and Rambo vet George P. Cosmatos was called upon to take over. What started out to be more of a character study like Wyatt Earp morphed into more of a traditional Western, with its focus on action rather than introspection. In fact, as with our Challenger, the tone is set right away, in the opening scene, with the intimidating, always defiant Robert Mitchum delivering the opening narration.

Likewise, the cast is terrific, headed by Kurt Russell as Wyatt and Val Kilmer (in a truly memorable role) as Doc Holiday. Others lending a hand are Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Jason Priestly, Dana Delaney, and the incomparable Charlton Heston. The underlying story is centered upon Wyatt’s arrival in Tombstone with his two brothers, his reuniting with old friend Holliday, and their subsequent run-ins with a powerful and lawless gang that called themselves The Cowboys. Of course, the climax comes with the famous shootout that has come to symbolize the raw edge, unpredictability and violent finality of the Western experience, an experience that continues to resonate within the American psyche.

The Scorecard

Wyatt Earp aims high — very high. Costner and Kasdan clearly have a genuine love for the material, and they were committed to fully explore the details of Wyatt’s life and the reason this man changed as he did from an innocent, callow youth to a coldhearted, callous upholder of law and justice — at least as he saw it. Costner’s performance is extremely low key but solid. Likewise, Quaid’s interpretation of what has to be one of history’s all-time great characters was not only credible, it is chillingly realistic.

The buildup to the big gunfight is energetic and the execution is well staged. Mention must also be made regarding Owen Roizman’s Oscar-nominated cinematography which captures the scope and the grandeur of the Old West. The movie says a lot about Wyatt Earp, portraying him as a civilized man who becomes a killer and a gifted lawman. Yet he’s often shown initiating violence and possessing all the traits of a common killer. That’s quite a range of attributes — fascinating, to be sure, but on several occasions the film is confusing and unsatisfying. Put another way, while epic in scope, is Wyatt Earp epic in depth?

Tombstone, on the other hand, is clearly less ambitious, both in the scope of the underlying story and in budget — costing less than half of what was spent on Wyatt Earp. But the cast, all-in-all, delivers equal to superior performances. Kurt Russell’s Wyatt comes across more self-assured and sharply defined but probably a bit less realistic.

On the other hand, Kilmer literally and figuratively kills with a fabulous, audience-pleasing performance that raises the bar for any future actor in this role. Actually, to be fair and concise, Quaid was playing the real man named John Holliday, while Kilmer embraced the legendary iconic figure who went by the name of “Doc.”  This was a wise choice by Kilmer. As the Maxwell Scott character so famously stated in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck), “This is the West, sir. When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (Or in this case, play the legend.) After all, the single greatest achievement an actor can attain is to deliver a role that will live forever. Kilmer’s Doc Holliday reached that level.

On the other hand, Dana Delaney’s interpretation of Josie Marcus lacks the sparkle of Joanna Goings’. And the script — although lean and well-paced — is sometimes a little confusing, possibly the result of it being trimmed down from three hours to a final running time of 130 minutes.

The Decision

Unless one is talking about waistlines, bigger is usually better. And there’s no denying that Wyatt Earp is certainly the bigger, more ambitious project. It is beautifully produced with excellent production values and a conviction that is impossible to deny. It is also more than three hours long, and it is very rare for any motion picture to sustain itself for that period of time without becoming tedious, even downright boring.  For a film that tries so hard to offer intelligent insight, it often forgets to entertain. Tombstone, on the other hand, is a taut, well-paced production. While saddled with an underdeveloped side story or two and far too many unnecessary characters (there are 83 speaking parts), Tombstone definitely accomplished what it set out to do. It simply and earnestly delivers a rip-roaring, throwback Western that entertains from Fade In to Fade Out.

So — does one reward the well-made, very ambitious, albeit ponderous project? Or does one reward the well-made, less ambitious, but never ponderous production? Audiences at the time clearly chose Tombstone by a margin of two-to-one at the domestic box office. Some 17 years later, the result is the same — Tombstone not only fired the first shot, it is the only one to clearly hit its mark.


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About Bob Nowotny

Bob is, without a doubt, the one SmackRef who really can pull off wearing a hat. Although his dream to wear the baseball cap of a major league player never materialized (he grounded out in his only at-bat in Wrigley Field against Hall-of-Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins), Bob has found solace in producing four independently-financed feature motion pictures and a number of successful television productions. His work includes The Legend of Billy the Kid — an Emmy Award-winning documentary for Disney.
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21 Responses to Wyatt Earp (1994) -vs- Tombstone (1993)

  1. Devlin McGregor says:

    When “Tombstone” was released…I was 22…and in many ways my wants, needs, opinions, thoughts, dreams, politics, and desires have CHANGED. That being said…I remember wanting to watch it…but opted to wait for its release on video. After a few months, it was released and I finally rented and watched it. I have to say…I LOVED IT!!! I ran out and bought it the very next day after I did my part of “Be kind, please rewind” and returned it to the video store.

    Fast forward a few months…”Wyatt Earp” is released. I loved “Tombstone” so much and after watching it…I really wished I had done so at the movie theater. I was not going to risk that happening again…and I didn’t. When I exited the theater…I was ASTONISHED. I dreaded having to wait for its release on video. “Wyatt Earp” was my choice for the better portrayal of the man.

    I started off by saying how much I have changed from the 22 year old to the 43 year old that I am now…but that is one opinion that has not changed. Although “Tombstone” is a fantastic movie…it does not stand up to the theatrical perfection that is “Wyatt Earp”. Regarding “Tombstone”…Hollywood allowed themselves…as they often do…the right to exaggerate the historical facts and over do the male eye candy that occurs in most biopics…the action. One scene in particular that has always bothered me, although entertaining, is when Wyatt is told that The Oriental is, “a regular slaughter house” and he proceeds to go in and rid the establishment of the bully Johnny Tyler. The premise that “The Cowboys” basically run Tombstone…I find it hard to believe that Johnny Tyler “madcap” would have lasted very long at The Oriental. I’m not saying that “Wyatt Earp” didn’t allow for the occasional embellishment…but the movie itself was a more honest and true depiction of who Wyatt Earp was and how he led his life.


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  4. Kevin says:

    Just watched both movies back to back. I still prefer “Wyatt Earp” due to it being the biographical movie as opposed to a classic western as I see “Tombstone” being. I like Costner’s stoic, calm/steady, and stubborn portrayal over Kurt Russell’s strong, strained and stagy. I like both portrayals of Doc.
    I’m a fan of long biographical movies. Alot of the west’s stories have been done and redone. I like the new take less dramatic “history channel” like biopics. The romanticism should be left to the cinematographer.

    • Elsa Von Stoppelgroppen says:

      Having been a Wyatt Earp junkie since I was 8 or 9 (now 66) I prefer Wyatt Earp to Tombstone. Wyatt Earp is just more realistic while Tombstone is a typical Hollywood interpretation of history. Quaid’s Doc Holliday is his masterpiece, he should have won an Oscar for his effort. Kilmer was charming and witty, but seriously folks, do you really think his portrayal was anything like the real man, misfit gunfighter who was wracked with TB? I love Charlton Heston but his role as Henry Hooker was historically inaccurate and a bunch of baloney. The real Wyatt Earp was very cold and calculating, and Costner did a much better job of conveying this image. I loved Kurt Russell in Soldier, but not here. As one blogger said, ‘too stagey’. Sam Elliot is a caricature of himself in Tombstone. Bill Paxton was totally out of place. Delaney now reminds me of Howdy Doody. I still have a crush on Costner’s Josie. Powers Booth was better, as was Michael Biehn, Church and the excellent Stephen Lang. I will give the nod to Tombstone for those roles. But Wyatt Earp had Hackman and Mare Winningham, both of them superior actors.

      • Devlin McGregor says:

        ^^^Agreed^^^ Perfectly worded.

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  7. Bruce Colin Evans says:

    I find the whole argument somewhat moot. Even though the subject matter is the same you are comparing apples to oranges. As was basically stated, each film attempted to achieve different objectives and did so, quite admirably. I loved both films and enjoyed them as they were presented, Wyatt Earp, a period biography (with a little artistic license) and Tombstone, a real Hollywood western. I love Costner and Russell, Quaid and Kilmer. As for their respective performances in their roles it is obvious to anyone with eyes they were asked to approach their roles quite differently, as different as a sports car to sensible shoes. They both have their place and are equally welcome. In the end it was the role of Doc Holliday that garnered the most comparisons and, I think, to dismiss Quaid’s take is a little unfair, after all Kilmer was allowed to play his role quite a bit more over the top and that, as long as it is done well, (which it was) will always be more noticeable to a viewing audience. They were both brilliant! The Balance Has Spoken!!

  8. J Arthur says:

    Kevin Costner seems so often out of place acting in “historical” films.
    He seems to believe that his name recognition alone will help the audience overlook his poor acting, and pitiful attempts at using “accents”. I lost count on how many times I watched Tombstone, and still marvel on how it keeps me wanting to watch more.
    Val Kilmer was unbelievably riveting in his role. Kurt Russell was also excellent. And anything involving Sam Elliott and that awesome voice/acting is got my attention.


  9. I found Wyatt Earp to be acted poorly and unbelievable, like a b-rated movie people were saying thier lines without much conviction. As far as supporting casts Tomestone had the better actors, most people that prefer Wyatt admit Kilmer was the better Doc Holiday, but Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton had superior performances as well.
    Not to mention Dana Delaney is far better looking!! Last thing is Costner (thou I like most of his movies) cannot match Kurt Russell’s intensity of screen presence.

  10. ScudAg56 says:

    Wyatt Earp tries to tell a long story and ends up boring us all. Tombstone has far better lines and interest. True West called it one of the 5 best Westerns ever made. When Costner left the Tombstone project, he did his best to make sure no one would distribute that movie, but still Tombstone out-grossed Earp. Wyatt Earp was nominated for five Razzie Awards including Worst Picture, Worst Director and Worst Screen Couple (Costner and “any of his three wives”), winning two for Worst Remake or Sequel and Worst Actor (Kevin Costner). The film currently holds a 42% rating on Rotten Tomatoes vs 73% for Tombstone. I have been to Tombstone – you will see many posters and other memorabilia from “”Tombstone but no mention of “Wyatt Earp”. As far as reality goes, look at photos of Earp in his heyday and Russell and Costner in the films, and see which looks more like the real deal.

    • Elsa Von Stoppelgroppen says:

      If you don’t know squat about the Earp Legend, then I suppose you could find parts of Wyatt Earp that are ‘boring’.
      But I think it is also generational. If you grew up with sweeping classic John Wayne epics like Red River and the Searchers, or any of John Ford’s movies, then I would think you would prefer the cinematography, sets and tone of Wyatt Earp. If you prefer the latter day formula Hollywood-style western like El Dorado, the glitz, the witty dialogue, emphasis on star-power rather than historical accuracy, then Tombstone is for you.

  11. Mike Truth says:

    When it comes to movies supposedly based on history, I like a movie that tells the whole story as closely and as accurately as possible. Wyatt Earp hands down over Tombstone. Yes Val Kilmer’s character was the best Holiday of the two but I felt that Kevin Costner’s low key approach to Earp was the most genuine.

    • Elsa Von Stoppelgroppen says:

      Kilmer’s interpretation was more entertaining, that is true. But I feel if you are a true Earp purist, if you could take a time machine back to the 1881 OK Corral, Tombstone and the key players would look like Costner’s movie, not Russell’s. And that’s exactly why I like it more.

  12. Dennis Chandler says:

    Good review! Thanks! You (and Rodney) have convinced me to give Wyatt Earp a try.

  13. Rodney says:

    Awesome Smack, Robert. While I agree with almost every single point you make, I have to say, I “enjoyed” Wyatt Earp a lot more – perhaps I identified more with Costers take on the character than Russells, a take I agree was more realistic than cinematically legendary.

    I would have swung my smack in the direction of Wyatt Earp, only for the fantastic writing of Kasdan, and the wondrous cinematography by Owen Roizman, photography I consider to be among the finest ever done for a Western outside of a John Ford film.

    On Tombstone: I can’t help but cringe at that “I’m comin’, ya hear, and hell’s comin’ with me” line… it just sounds clunky in todays climate: it might have made a great line in a trailer, but the scene would work just as well without it.

    Both great films, though. I’d just side with the longer take on this classic American legend.


    • Rodney: Thank you for your comments. As you may know, I recently Co-Produced a small, independently financed Western and my partners, like you, all felt that WYATT EARP was the better film. That’s O.K. — either way one will have a satisfying viewing experience.

      • Rodney says:

        Off topic, Robert, but have you seen Machete yet? The recent Robert Rodriguez grindhouse flick?

        Man, I’d LOVE to get your thoughts on that one!!!


        • No — I haven’t seen Machete. Based on your question I will try and get a copy in the days ahead. And speaking of Robert Rodriguez, his SPY KIDS 4 is coming out this August and it is in 4D. While I will not take the time to review that film, I am writing a little historical piece about previous efforts at bringing the sense of smell to the movie-going experience. I think it will be a fun article, both informative and definitely a bit caustic for reasons I’ll explain in the article. I think they plan to publish this a few days before SPY KIDS 4 opens…

    • Elsa Von Stoppelgroppen says:

      Don’t forget the extremely corny line, also by Russell:
      “Skin that smoke wagon!”
      It has no historical accuracy whatsoever.

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