Wyatt Earp: Kevin Costner attempted an ambitious, ‘The Godfather’-like sprawling epic on Old-West’s most legendary lawman

Wyatt Earp (1994), co-written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan is an epic Western starring Kevin Costner as legendary Frontier Marshall, Wyatt Earp, and Dennis Quaid as Earp’s friend ‘Doc’ Holliday. The film attempts to be a definitive biopic on Earp, as it traces his growth from a young Iowa farm boy into the most legendary lawman of the old-West.

Being one of the most legendary figures (if not ‘the’ most legendary) of the mythical Old-West, and since ‘Western’ is the most popular American film genre ever, Wyatt Earp has been dramatized a countless number of times on the big screen (and on television). But whether it’s the more classical Westerns like “My Darling Clementine” and “Gunfight at the OK Coral,” where Wyatt is the epitome of everything that’s great and noble about the old-West; or the revisionist ones like “Hour of the Gun” and “Doc,” which portrays him in a not so noble light, one thing is common about all of them: they all concentrate on narrating events from a brief period in Wyatt’s life, especially the events surrounding the legendary shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone. There are some examples like “Wichita,” where Joel McCrea plays Wyatt Earp and the action centers around his first job as a marshal in Wichita; or Anthony Mann’s “Winchester ’73,” where Wyatt is a supporting character (played by Will Geer), but they are very rare exceptions. Lawrence Kasdan’s eponymous 1994 movie on “Wyatt Earp,” starring Kevin Costner as the titular hero, is the definitive Wyatt Earp film in that the film encompasses more of Wyatt’s life than any other film made before or after it. The film traces Wyatt’s life from his boyhood in Illinois to his old-age in Alaska.

Kasdan and Costner had collaborated for the first time on the drama, “The Big Chill”- in which all of Costner’s scenes had to be excised in the final cut and, therefore, he does not appear in the released film. Perhaps to compensate for this, Kasdan cast Costner in a very showy\juicy role in his sprawling, star-studded Western, “Silverado.” That film helped get Costner cast in his breakout role as Elliot Ness in “The Untouchables.” Post the success of that film, Costner’s career would go from strength to strength and, by the early ’90s, he would become one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. Costner would help turn Kasdan’s ‘long in development hell’ screenplay of “The Bodyguard (1992)” into a box office blockbuster; the script was written by Kasdan in the ’70s for Steve McQueen, but the film never got made until Costner produced and starred in the film directed by Mick Jackson. By then, Costner had singlehandedly revived the Western with the Oscar winning blockbuster, “Dances with the Wolves,” which he also directed. So, it was natural that he felt that there was a market for a definitive biopic on the old-West lawman with himself in the lead. The success of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” may have been further proof that Westerns were making a grand comeback. Originally, Costner was set to star in “Tombstone”: which was to be written and directed by Kevin Jarre, but then Costner fell out with Jarre, when he realized that Jarre was planning an ensemble piece which concentrates on the events surrounding the Gunfight at the OK Corral; Costner wanted it to be a character-study that focuses completely on Earp, and on Earp’s entire life. That’s when Costner got together with Kasdan; and their original idea of a 6-hr TV miniseries later morphing into a 3 hr. plus feature film. “Tombstone” was later made with Kurt Russell as Earp, and that film got released six months before Costner’s film and became a sizeable box office hit, and is today considered one of the best and most popular Westerns ever made. Costner’s film was released in the summer of 1994, and died a quick death at the box office. It was also compared unfavorably with “Tombstone” by the critics, who considered Costner’s film bland, bloated and too self-important. Costner had earlier taken on competing “Robin hood” films and emerged victorious with his own “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”; maybe “Wyatt Earp” was an instance where he should have backed off. The failure of the film marked the end of Costner’s golden run at the box office, and his career would nosedive further in the next couple of years when he would deliver some of the most notorious flops in Hollywood history.

Of course, it’s fairly common in Hollywood for different filmmakers (and actors) to tackle the same subject matter, but what’s more important than the material is the point of view that the makers bring to the material. And here, cowriter & Director, Lawrence Kasdan, has an ambitious take on this much cinematically represented character. His intention here is to make a dark & lush epic in the vein of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” films; a ‘Western Godfather,’ so to speak, where the ‘Earp’ family substitutes for the ‘Corleone’ family. This is very evident in the characterization of family patriarch, Nicholas Earp (Gene Hackman), who, like, ‘Vito Corleone,’ instills in his children the importance of blood and family; sitting at the head of the dinner table he lectures to his young cubs that only blood matters and everybody else are strangers. Wyatt Earp is the ‘Michael Corleone’ of the family: the fresh, idealistic young man who studies to be a lawyer, and then, after the death of his young wife, becomes an outlaw; and then, after he’s rescued by his father before being hanged for stealing horses, he turns a new leaf and becomes a lawman, with his brothers as his fellow enforcers; though as a lawman, he’s as ruthless and violent as any outlaws he takes down. He gets involved with two more women in his life, but he remains a cold-hearted man, who ignores his women and prefers the company of his brothers, and always enforces the law through very violent means. His brothers, Virgil and Morgan, are also kind of stand-ins for the sober & gentle Fredo and the hotheaded, itching to fight Sonny respectively. Always keeping his father’s advice in mind, Wyatt makes sure that every ‘business’ he gets into remains a ‘family business,’ and insists on dragging his brothers along with him (much to the chagrin of the wives) as he moves from one Western boom town to the next; though ‘Law enforcement’ is always their primary business, on the side, they also get into coalmining, gambling and perhaps even prostitution. It’s more than hinted that the brothers’ involvement in law is meant o protect their other (not-so-legal) businesses. On the way, Wyatt also becomes lifelong friends with gunman and gambler, Doc Holliday – a sort of ‘Tom Hagen,’ the outsider who becomes part of the Earp family; Doc’s adoption into the family made official at the legendary ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral,’ when Doc walks side by side with the Earp brothers to confront the ‘The Cowboys’ lead by the Clantons- who along with the McLaurys forms the rival business families. Though the gunfight is responsible for much of his legendary status, it also turns Wyatt into an outlaw – he’s now both lawman & Outlaw (“best of both worlds,” as Doc puts it); and it also has tragic aftermaths, as Virgil is maimed and Morgan is killed in revengeful attacks by the cowboys. Now, Wyatt & Doc embarks on their ‘Vendetta Ride,” where they hunts down every member of The Cowboys gang, even as Wyatt himself is hunted by Sheriff, John Behan & his posse. Post-Vendetta ride, Wyatt reunites with his third wife, Josie, and they would go off on further adventures, like the Alaskan gold rush, which is were the film ends. An epilogue tells us that Wyatt and Josie’s marriage lasted 47 years, until Wyatt’s death (at the age of 80) in 1929.

Sitting through this 192-minutes long film, one realizes why every major ‘Wyatt Earp’ film before this had concentrated on the events surrounding the legendary OK Corral gunfight. Though Wyatt had quite an eventful life, and he was involved in several professions, ranging from stagecoach-driving, buffalo-hunting and boxing-refereeing, none of those aspects of his life are interesting enough to be put on screen. This is very evident from the first hour of this film, which is very episodic and lacks momentum, as the film lumbers from one incident to the next in Wyatt’s early life; the film springing to life only after the Earps land up Tombstone. Depending upon the point of view that he’s pursuing, which is tracing the transformation of a timid, shy, idealistic young man from the Midwest into a ruthless lawman in the lawless old-West, Kasdan selects only those events from Earp’s life that suits his narrative, and fictionalizes the rest. Kasdan doesn’t lack ambition, and he wants this to be a very thoughtful, modern Western that’s both an intimate & honest character-study of one of America’s great folk heroes as well as an all-encompassing epic that portrays the old-West in all its majesty and brutality- befitting a big-screen Western. But this also means that the film gets told in a very deliberate, careful and even solemn manner; which works against it from becoming a rousing, high-spirited Western. The sprawling biopic treatment does not go hand in hand with the demands of a classical (or revisionist) Western. The film fails to achieve the free-flowing quality that’s a must for all Westerns, and many a times gets bogged down in minor events in the life of the lead character. Ultimately, the conflict between creating a thoughtful, serious piece of art and a crowd-pleasing big-budget Western (with a superstar in the lead) dooms the film- the film achieving those lofty ambitions only in patches, as most of the time it remains dull, lifeless and uneven; and finally, it’s only about as truthful as any other film made about Wyatt. Suffice to say that, Unlike Coppola, Kasdan fails in his ambitions to expand on a classic film genre and create a serious artistic work.

One of the worst aspects of the film is an overwrought, overbearing score by James Newton Howard that works like a sledgehammer throughout the film- hammering emotions into audiences heads at every point. Every moment that’s considered special by the script – whether it’s the first time we see Wyatt as an adult, or Wyatt practicing for the first time with a gun, or the first time he’s appointed Marshall – is over orchestrated by music that’s almost devotional and camera movements that’s reverential. It’s also surprising that with such a long running time, we hardly get to know either Wyatt or the supporting characters (and there’s quite a lot of them). As it is evident from “Silverado,” Kasdan has the habit of missing the forest for the trees; he gets bogged down with too many ideas, too much plots & subplots, and never fully realizes the potential of any of the individual ideas. But the high-spirited exuberance of “Silverado” saved him there, but this is a very dark, moody piece, which means the abundance of plots & characters only make the film more muddled. Wyatt remains a mysterious, perplexing guy throughout the film; we know his heart has hardened by the death of his first wife, and we know he’s following his father’s advice by tagging along his brothers, but beyond that we never get inside his head; we don’t know the basis of the friendship between him and Doc; we don’t know the exact nature of his relationship with any of his women; and what exactly is that drives him to take down ‘the Cowboys’- is it merely enforcing the law, or are business interests involved. Above all, there is no humor in the film, everything is solemn and dead serious; and there’s always an emphasis on sweeping storytelling, with almost every frame massively filled with details.  The film seems to be a a classic case of the filmmakers trying to design an ‘important epic’ rather than the film just becoming one. Looks like everyone got carried away by the huge success of “Dances With Wolves,” but that film actually had a strong emotional core that builds and builds to an extraordinary climax that makes the final moments of the film extremely moving. This film is cold to the point of being emotionless, and when the final scenes arrive, we are exasperated; Kasdan bungling there too by having an utterly pointless flashback at the very end of the film.

Now coming to the cast, Kevin Costner is a very charismatic star, but we know he’s no Al Pacino as an actor; he’s just does not have the range to pull off the title character, who goes through several transformations (age wise and otherwise) during the course of the film. Costner’s performance as Wyatt is one of the strangest performances in his career. Costner is a man who loves Westerns and, among his peers, is the one who is most comfortable as a Western hero, but here, he looks extremely uncomfortable. His general discomfort in playing the character in its young age (with a horrible wig and a put-on innocent demeanor) is understandable, but even when the character becomes comfortably old enough, Costner struggles with his performance. Other times it appears that he doesn’t care at all, and mostly sleepwalks through the role (no wonder he won the Razzie for the worst actor that year). It also doesn’t help that the character is one of the most unlikeable ones he has played; it’s very difficult to root for a hero who’s selfish, self-absorbed, bad-tempered and treats his women badly, and Costner’s brooding, self-absorbed, almost emotionless performance makes it worse. And if you cannot tolerate the hero in a film that’s more than three hours long then you’ve got the longest three hours of your life. Costner made a very similar mistake (with the unlikeable characterization\performance) in his next film “Waterworld” as well- though that’s a film i like a lot more than this one. It appears that the character, like Michael Corleone, was intended to be a mysterious, calculating, ambitious & amoral anti-hero, but bad writing and bad acting choices muddled the character on screen. There are times when Costner’s & Kasdan’s conception for the character comes through- like in the vendetta ride, where i thought Costner was the most effective in the film; the confrontation scene involving ‘Indian Charlie’ is superb. That was the level of acting & direction that should have been maintained throughout the film.

I have a feeling that the film became the victim of a power struggle between Director Kasdan and the powerful superstar Costner; the former wanting to make a “The Godfather’-style ensemble epic, while Costner wanting to be more of a star-vehicle, with he film concentrating fully on his character (a fight that he would get into with Kevin Reynolds on “Waterworld” also) The result is that despite the film having a rich assortment of secondary characters and a terrific group of supporting actors to play them, none of them rise above the level of expensive window-dressing in an overblown epic. We don’t even get to know much about the Earp brothers who are on Wyatt’s side at all times; interestingly, their wives come out more forcefully as they are the only ones who stands up to Wyatt in the entire film. Dennis Quaid is really good as the pale-faced, red-eyed, tubercular Doc Holliday; he really adds some color to the proceedings with the wonderful Isabella Rossellini as ‘Big Nose’ Kate (i would love to watch a ‘Doc Holliday’ film with these two). But Quaid is introduced only half-way through the film, and he doesn’t have much chemistry with Costner (actually, nobody has any chemistry with Costner in the film). And The Costner-Quaid duo may be the least effective of all the Wyatt-Doc duos to appear on screen; it’s definitely no patch on Kurt Russell & Val Kilmer or even James Garner & Jason Robards. For a change, bad-guy actors like Tom Sizemore and Michael Madsen get to play good guys this time, and Madsen is surprisingly subdued (to the point of becoming invisible) in the film (By the way, Madsen had to turn down the Vincent Vega role in “Pulp Fiction” to do this film, something he regrets to this day). One actor who should have gotten more screen time is Gene Hackman; but whatever few scenes he has in the film is very powerful. Of all the women in the film, only Joanna Going as Josie Marcus shows some fire.

The most admirable aspect of “Wyatt Earp” is its superb production values: the cinematography, locations, production & Costume design are all brilliant and definitely manages to evoke the era in which the story is set in. Filled with superbly recreated dusty old-West towns and stunning landscapes of the plains and the rocky mountains, It’s a very beautiful film to look at. Owen Roizman’s cinematography is definitely inspired by Gordon Willis’ work for “The Godfather” films- the interiors are dark, red and orange, while the lush outdoors are sunny, green and yellow. The opening shot of the film pays direct tribute to “The Godfather,” where we have the lead character sitting in a dark space with his back to the camera. The ending also has a final-reel flashback very similar to “The Godfather Part II,” when the story flashes back to recreate a legendary story associated with Wyatt. The Gunfight at the OK Corral shown in he film is also much more realistic and true-to-life than anything ever depicted on film. But as John Ford, the unquestionable master of Westerns famously said “What’s realistic is not always very interesting”; that’s the reason why he changed things around so much in his classic Wyatt Earp Western, “My Darling Clementine” – which i believe is the best Wyatt Earp film ever made. Though it’s very much a traditional, romantic Western that mythologizes Wyatt to the extreme, it’s still a very dark movie, featuring a great performance from Henry Fonda.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s