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Revisiting Wyatt Earp

“Preacher was a talkin’, there’s a sermon he gave
He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it’s you who must keep it satisfied
It ain’t easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat
She gave her heart to the man
In the long black coat.” – Bob Dylan, “The Man in the Long Black Coat”.

Wyatt Earp, directed, produced and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan might just be the most underrated Western that I have seen during my Western Odyssey. Kevin Costner stars as the real life marshal who retired to Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, alongside Dennis Quaid as his friend and ally Doc Holliday. Released in 1994, just six months after the surprise hit Tombstone which covered the same basic story, Kasdan’s film is often compared unfavorably to that admittedly good movie. While I do love Tombstone -especially for Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer’s performances – it is unfair to discard Wyatt Earp and place it on the heap of failures. Yes, it was a box office failure. Yes, it got mixed reviews at best. As we have learned though in this regular feature on 25 Years Later, just because a movie is considered a failure, it doesn’t mean that it is worthless. There are many things we can enjoy and learn from a flawed, but powerful picture, like Wyatt Earp.

One of the reasons why Wyatt Earp was considered a slog, was due to its hefty running time: three hours and ten minutes. It’s a far larger commitment for the viewer, than the two and a quarter hour Tombstone, and any flaws that stick out are often overemphasized as a result. The less is more crowd are occasionally right of course, but there is some considerable hubris to be found in the persistent cry that one’s time is so valuable that they can’t sit still for an extra forty minutes. Yes, Wyatt Earp could be tighter, and perhaps it would have been received more favorably if it had been. This story though, with its epic sweep and journey through Earp’s life, is well suited to the running time. Sometimes less is more, but more is always more.

I have been a fan of Kevin Costner since my parents showed me the incredibly beautiful picture Field of Dreams. Dances With Wolves is a masterpiece, as is Open Range, so I knew that I was likely to love Wyatt Earp. Kevin Costner approaches the role with the kind of stoic, serious approach that he made his film making name off of. The range of emotions that are displayed through the picture allow Costner to show his considerable acting chops to great impact. When Earp loses the love of his life, and he comes off the rails, we see why Wyatt Earp is arguably a deeper examination of the real man than Tombstone, as great as Kurt Russell was in that movie. The story of his getting his life back on the rails is just as integral to the film than even the iconic and legendary shoot out at the O.K. Corral. Anyone who has been down to the bottom feels for the character, and is all the more elated when they get back to their potential.

There is plenty of action in Wyatt Earp; action that perfectly encapsulates the chaos and disorder of the time and place, so often the center of the Western. The question of the morality of Earp’s actions is another compelling element to Kasdan’s picture, something explored well and with insight into the real man and his considerable myth. Earp’s strict control of the places he worked, through limiting the ability for civilians to carry guns, would surely earn him the scorn of NRA heads, and makes Wyatt Earp oddly prescient today while the United States battles itself in the push and pull of where the line should be. Wyatt Earp is then a movie that has aged well. Its sense of morality, questioning and provoking thought from the viewer as to how personal freedom should be balanced against law and order, marks it out as a Western in the grand tradition of the genre. The Western is probably the most American of film genres for this reason; it is a style and approach that plumbs the depths of the history of the American, sometimes turning up uncomfortable truths about humanity. Our savagery towards those different from us, our insatiable capacity for violence and sadism, and our inability to know right from wrong, is something that Wyatt Earp examines well.

Wyatt Earp has some flaws. Dennis Quaid isn’t anywhere near as compelling as Val Kilmer. That can’t be denied. Gene Hackman is a welcome addition; he’s perfect for the Western, as he proved twice in The Quick and The Dead and Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven. He is not however in much of the movie, and you are left wanting far more of his character. It’s not the quickest moving epic either. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly makes Wyatt Earp seem about an hour longer. I still hold however that the running time is ultimately justified as by the conclusion of the picture, you are wrapped up and riveted. It’s a slow burn, but it’s worth the wait.

Wyatt Earp may not be as good as Tombstone. I’m honestly undecided on which I prefer, but I am sure that it is well worth a watch and a re-evaluation from those who dismiss it as a flop and nothing more. It is a powerful story of redemption, of looking evil squarely in the eye and not flinching. Its epic scope is a big positive, and if you can hang with the pacing of the thing, you will find a remarkably rewarding picture. Kevin Costner proves that he is one of the true Kings of the Western, and I would give quite a lot to see his doing another one sometime soon. It’s not a perfect movie but it is a rather good one and deserves far more respect than it often gets.

Written by Paul Casey

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