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Fact And Truth

March 2023
4min read

Wyatt Earp in the movies, adapted from John Mack Faragher’s essay in Past Imperfect

Wyatt Harp, the most famous of all frontier lawmen, has been the subject of at least two dozen Hollywood Westerns. The mere mention of his name immediately evokes the image of a sharpshooting marshal bringing law and order to the wild towns of the West. “This may not be Dodge City,” said a spokesman for the U.S. Marines occupying war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, “but Wyatt Earp’s in town.”

In 1931 a popular writer named Stuart Lake secured the lawman’s legend when he published Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal , which featured a hero who single-handedly cleaned up the worst frontier hellholes. This book subsequently became the authority for nearly all the film portraits of Earp, but the trouble was that Lake created his legend from whole cloth. The real Earp, born on an Illinois farm in 1848, was introduced to the Far West in 1864, when his restless father moved the family across the continent. Later arrested in Indian Territory for horse stealing, Earp jumped bail and fled to Kansas. In 1874 he turned up in the booming cow town of Wichita, where his brother James was tending bar and James’s wife ran a brothel. Wyatt found work as a town policeman, but he kept company with the saloon crowd and quickly developed a reputation as a hard case.

In 1876 Wyatt moved on to Dodge City, where he and his brother Morgan found jobs as deputy marshals. The Earps considered themselves “sporting men,” cavorting with the likes of John (“Doc”) Holliday—a tubercular gambler with a reputation for violence—and prostitutes, such as Doc’s woman, Kate Elder (also known as Kate Fisher), and Mattie Blaylock, who became Wyatt’s common-law wife. Hostile cattlemen called the Earp brothers the “fighting pimps.”

Meanwhile, older brother Virgil had won an appointment as a deputy U.S. marshal in the boomtown of Tombstone, in Arizona Territory. In 1880 the three Earp brothers joined him there, followed by friends, who included Doc Holliday. The Earps continued to run with the saloon crowd, but in Tombstone they also made a serious bid for respectability.

Southeastern Arizona at the time was torn by conflict between the Republican business community and the mostly Democratic ranchers of the arid countryside. The “cowboys,” as the Republican Tombstone Epitaph labeled the ranchers, were led by Newman (“Old Man”) Clanton and his hotheaded sons and were backed by such violent gunmen as “Curly” Bill Brocius and Johnny Ringo. The trouble in Tombstone was just one episode in a series of local wars that pitted men with traditional rural values and Southern sympathies against mostly Yankee capitalist modernizers. As the hired guns of the businessmen in town, the Earps became the enemies of the Clantons.

In 1881 Wyatt ran for county sheriff against the incumbent, John Behan, an ally of the rural Democrats. The political competition became personal when Earp took up with Behan’s lover, the beautiful Josephine Marcus. Wyatt lost the election but won the woman, and the confrontation became a bitter feud, which reached its climax in October 1881, in Tombstone, when Virgil and Wyatt pistol-whipped a drunken Ike Clanton and his friend Tom McLaury.

Licking their wounds in a vacant lot next to the O.K. Corral with a small group that included their brothers, Clanton and McLaury suddenly found themselves confronted by three heavily armed Earps, accompanied by Doc Holliday. “You sonofabitches have been looking for a fight, and now you can have it!” Wyatt reportedly shouted. In a few seconds it was all over. Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton were dead, Virgil and Morgan Earp wounded.

The feud continued. Within weeks Virgil was gunned down and badly wounded, and Morgan was killed. Wyatt secured an appointment as a deputy U.S. marshal and led Holliday and others on a rampage during which they killed at least three of their cowboy enemies, then fled the territory.

The historical facts are messy, but in John Ford’s poetic My Darling Clementine (1946), Earp’s story takes on deep significance. His Tombstone becomes, in the famous phrase of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” Metaphorically framing this central conflict is the rugged Monument Valley location. In one of the most famous sequences in American film, Henry Fonda’s Wyatt dances with his “lady fair” on the floor of Tombstone’s unfinished church, its bare frame silhouetted against the magnificent buttes. These visual elements reinforce the contrasting relationships among the central characters. The good Earp brothers, frequently shown in the town hotel’s dining room and the barbershop, fight the brutish Clantons, who are at home in the arid countryside. Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) inspires Wyatt with his urbanity even as he drifts toward self-destruction.

“It’s always simplicity that you should go after,” Ford once told an interviewer, and in My Darling Clementine he strips the Earp story to its bare essentials. The Clantons murder the youngest of the Earps in the first reel, leading the three surviving brothers to pin on badges and gather evidence against the ranchers. But Ford’s Wyatt is not simply after revenge; he wants something larger. “We’re gonna be around here for a while,” he promises at his brother’s grave. “Maybe when we leave this country, young kids like you will be able to grow up and live safe.” When Wyatt finally finds the proof he needs, he tries to arrest the Clantons, provoking the climactic gunfight.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with the untidy, historical facts, but that did not keep Ford from proclaiming the authenticity of his film. During his early days as a director, Ford claimed, Earp would stop by the set and tell him about the old days in the West. But if that was so, the film historian John Tuska once asked Ford, why didn’t he shoot the movie the way it happened? “Did you like the film?” the director demanded. When Tuska admitted it was one of his favorites, Ford shot back, “What more do you want?” As Tuska concluded, Ford didn’t give a damn for the historical facts. What mattered was historical interpretation, the meaning that Ford gave to his story about the coming of civilization to the West. He expressed a similar sentiment in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), one of his last films. “This is the West, sir,” says a newspaperman. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Although all Westerns are concerned with history, no one goes to the movies for a cynical history lesson. Audiences don’t want history’s facts; they want its meaning. The most enduring westerns feature this metahistorical element.

Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp is self-important. Crawling along for more than three hours, it tells viewers far more than they ever wanted to know about Earp. The filmmakers clearly did their research well, taking their commitment to history seriously. Kevin Costner declared that his Earp was constructed “within the boundaries of historical fact.” Wyatt Earp is truer to the messy historical facts than any previous Earp film, but it’s lifeless. Loading us down with facts, it presents very little of what Earp’s life might have meant and finally has nothing important to say.

So fifty years after its release, the artistic benchmark of the Wyatt Earp films remains My Darling Clementine . John Ford’s picture lies about the past but locates in the Earp story a logos for American history. A yawning divide separates us from the metahistorical confidence of Clementine . The trick for future westerns will be to tell truer tales that ; also inspire audiences with their breadth of vision about the ; meaning of the American past. To paraphrase John Ford, when the facts outgrow the legend, revise the legend.

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