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O.k. Anniversary

June 2024
2min read


The highly fictionalized bestseller Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall , by Stuart Lake, a former press secretary to Theodore Roosevelt, begun with Wyatt’s cooperation and published in 1931, changed the Hollywood Western forever by centering it on a legendary peace officer, an organized outlaw element, a classic showdown (the so-called gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which happened 12.0 years ago this October z6), and a cycle of subsequent revenge that called the lawman’s ethics into question. From the first Earp film, Law and Order in 1932 with Walter Huston, Earp’s image has dominated the genre, inspiring nearly 40 movies and several TV series. Here are some examples, all available on either video or DVD, that run the spectrum of views on Wyatt Earp’s life and legend.

My Darling Clementine (1946) John Ford knew Earp, who had done advisory work on Westerns during the twenties. And Ford claimed that his version of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral came directly from Wyatt. However, Ford, like the newspapermen in his later film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance , always printed the legend. This film is sentimental hokum, but it’s lovely.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) Like John Ford, the director John Sturges found it easier to tell Earp’s story as one of revenge. So instead of portraying the myriad personal quarrels and political complexities that resulted in the showdown with rancher-rustlers near (not in) the O.K. Corral, both directors sent the
Earps to the fight to avenge a murdered brother when in fact the brother was murdered in reprisal for the gunfight. Sturges’s gunfight outblasts Ford’s; Burt Lancaster is too straight-arrow as Earp, al- lowing Kirk Douglas’s sassy Doc Holliday to walk off with the film.

Doc (1971) Written and directed by Frank Perry, this bends the Earp/Tombstone saga into a metaphor for Vietnam. Wyatt, played bv Harris
Yulin, is the predatory soul of America, an obvious stand-in for LBJ, and the Clantons and other cattle rustlers are Vietnam. Stacey Keach’s Doc Holliday is the moral force that keeps Earp’s evil from dominating. It is perhaps the most ludicrously entertaining of all Earp films.

Tombstone (1993) Hack direction by George ( Rambo ) Cosmatos is saved by Kevin ( Glory ) Jarre’s brilliant though cut-up screenplay and by Kurt Russell as Wyatt and VaI Kilmer as a flamboyant and enigmatic Doc Holliday. This was the first Earp film to make the cowboy-rustlers seem interesting; Powers Boothe’s Curly Bill and Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo look as if they stepped right out of a Remington painting.

Wyatt Earp (1994) Gets a B-plus for historical accuracy and has some fine set pieces illuminating Earp’s life, particularly scenes in buffalo camps and a bare-knuckles boxing match. But the director Lawrence Kasdan’s three-hour-plus epic
has no rhythm, and Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp has no humor (thank goodness Dennis Quaid’s Doc Holliday does).

The Untouchables (1987) The director Brian De Palma and the screenwriter David Mamet must have signed on to do this film and then realized the real-life Elliot Ness had virtually nothing to do with Al Capone’s downfall, so they reworked the story as a Wyatt Earp movie. Tombstone becomes Chicago during Prohibition; stolen Mexican cattle become bootleg Canadian booze; Mexican Federales become Canadian Mounties; Ike Clanton becomes Al Capone (played by Robert De Niro); Virgil Earp, Wyatt’s older brother, becomes the wise Irish cop (Scan Connery); fast-gun sidekick Doc Holliday becomes slick-shooting Andy Garcia; the gunfight at the O.K. Corral becomes the shootout at the train station; and Kevin Costner makes a better Wyatt Earp than he did in his own Wyatt Earp .

—Allen Barra

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