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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.