"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Wyatt Earp

June 24, 1994

It always seems to surprise people when I admit stuff like this, but until now I had never seen WYATT EARP. And when I was getting ready to watch it and do this review I worried I was gonna get myself into trouble because it came out six months after TOMBSTONE, and lived and died in its comparisons to TOMBSTONE, so I know everyone in the comments is gonna want to talk about that. And the thing is I still haven’t seen TOMBSTONE either. Yeah, I know. I’ll get around to it.

Initially I thought I should do that first, but then I realized it was a unique opportunity to be the one guy watching WYATT EARP on its 30th anniversary with zero instinct to compare and contrast to TOMBSTONE. I have been preparing three decades to be this specific guy.

In this fairly pretentious prequel to SUNSET, Kevin Costner stars as the titular real life lawman (1848-1929), reuniting with his SILVERADO director Lawrence Kasdan, who shares a writing credit with Dan Gordon (GOTCHA!, PASSENGER 57, RAMBO: LAST BLOOD, Highlander: The Series pilot). It’s a 3 hour and 10 minute fictionalized chronicle of Earp from childhood to retirement, focusing on his love for and influence on his brothers Virgil (Michael Madsen, THELMA & LOUISE), Morgan (Linden Ashby, MORTAL KOMBAT) and James (David Andrews, CHERRY 2000), who all end up policing together. He also befriends Bat Masterson (Tom Sizemore, STRIKING DISTANCE) who introduces him to his brother Ed (Bill Pullman, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN), who becomes a contrast to Earp by trying to be a good cop.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the movie is looking at Earp skeptically some of the time. As a kid he runs around playing war, making gunshot sounds, pointing his gun up at the moon. Would he really shoot an unarmed moon? As an adult he gets his first gun and points it up at fireworks. He gets mad at Deputy Ed for de-escalating a situation, then gets fired himself for too many excessive force complaints. But he seems to be vindicated when Ed is killed in his absence and the town begs for him to come back. It’s the wild west out here, no room for morals I guess.

But he wasn’t always like that. He used to be a dweeb. As a teenager (played by Ian Bohen, later in WIND RIVER and SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO) he sees somebody get shot in a duel (good job making that part nasty, Kasdan) and it makes him puke. While working as a referee he pisses off a fighter (Martin Kove, THE KARATE KID, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, STEELE JUSTICE) who then hears a rumor Earp wants to fight and comes gunning for him. Wyatt tries to back out but then defeats (kills?) him by suddenly throwing a pool ball at him real hard. Kind of a punk move even though it comes across as some real Gino Felino shit.

His life is looking good when he marries his childhood sweetheart (Annabeth Gish, MYSTIC PIZZA), but you know how the typhoid fever is. So he becomes a widower, sets his house on fire and leaves town to go through a dark period. He becomes an itinerant drunk, gets arrested for grand theft horse, the punishment is death but his dad (Gene Hackman! From UNFORGIVEN!) bails him out and lets him escape on the condition that he leave Arkansas forever and never show his pathetic scumbag loser face again. This is an interesting backstory for a cop who will, of course, never show a moment’s awareness that he’s just going around murdering dudes who maybe could’ve turned their lives around if given a second chance like he was. I guess they should’ve thought of having dads with connections to do that for them. Oh well.

I do like the detail that after he starts a new life he gets sober and people keep trying to buy him rounds and getting offended when he doesn’t drink them.

The score by James Newton Howard (MARKED FOR DEATH) is one of those ones that tells you “Guys! We’re going on an adventure! Old west style!,” but I’m not sure the movie got the memo. Still, it is a movie of impressive scale, and I really like how Kasdan illustrates Earp’s entry into a career as a trapper. There’s a huge herd of buffalo (early CG?) and then suddenly a mountain of buffalo skins and separate mountain of their bones. His beginnings as a marshal don’t require that kind of scope, more of an intimate action movie scenario, almost like a scene out of a LETHAL WEAPON. He hears gunshots outside one day and goes out to see what’s going on, the marshals don’t really want to deal with this guy they have cornered so they pin a star on Earp, he goes through a door and comes out dragging the suspect. And Wyatt’s still barefoot. Kind of a John McClane, kind of a Dirty Harry eating a hot dog.

When he works in Dodge City his big innovation is enforcing the gun laws. His salary is low but he makes bank by being paid per arrest. So there’s something for all points on the political spectrum to object to.

When Dennis Quaid (JAWS 3-D) shows up late in the movie as flamboyant southern shooting-people aficionado Doc Holliday I think I would sense he was supposed to be a big deal even if I didn’t know the name from cultural osmosis jones. Quaid is pretty enjoyable, pretty over-the-top, doing more business than he usually needs to. Other familiar faces that show up: Isabella Rossellini (DEATH BECOMES HER), JoBeth Williams (POLTERGEIST), Adam Baldwin (FULL METAL JACKET), Lewis Smith (THE HEAVENLY KID), Betty Buckley (CARRIE), Jim Caviezel in his first movie, Tea Leoni (“Racine 1st Base,” A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN), John Doe (ROAD HOUSE), Jeff Fahey (THE LAWNMOWER MAN) and apparently Mackenzie Astin (GARBAGE PAIL KIDS: THE MOVIE), but I don’t remember seeing him.

The wives of the brothers are important in that they very reasonably don’t want to keep uprooting their lives to follow wherever Wyatt wants to take his law enforcement career. But when they try to have a word with him about it he doesn’t take it well. It’s pretty cool to see Catherine O’Hara (AFTER HOURS) as Virgil’s lady, who really does not like Wyatt. Wyatt’s long time partner Matty (Mare Winningham, MIRACLE MILE) is the most prominent female character but unfortunately her part is mainly being angry at him and then repeatedly attempting suicide after he starts seeing new-in-town Josie (Joanna Going in her first movie, long before HOME ALONE 4). The movie doesn’t shame Mattie for being a prostitute but doesn’t give us many reasons to like her other than that she’s treated so badly by this fucko.

Josie is a little more appealing, especially since she (insincerely) disses Wyatt on their first couple encounters. It is kind of funny how Wyatt steals her from her fiance Johnny Behan (Mark Harmon, SUMMER SCHOOL), a law enforcement rival who seems to be different from Wyatt because he’s less hardcore but actually because he’s super corrupt and easy on the criminals who he’s in business with. There’s a scene where he comes to arrest Wyatt for shooting some guys, and it’s fucked up because you’re supposed to be mad about it even though yes, he should be fucking arrested for shooting some guys. Anyway, it’s still funny that while Johnny’s trying to get him to come with him his ex-fiance who he blew it with by showing her nude photos around comes over and hugs Wyatt right in front of him.

I wouldn’t say I disliked WYATT EARP. It’s a well made movie, its seriousness and indulgence at least prevent it from feeling generic, and there’s some excitement here and there. But overall it is not an exciting movie. I think the problem is that most people saw it after TOMBSTONE and couldn’t help but compare them, but since I’m watching it without having seen TOMBSTONE I don’t know why I’m supposed to give a shit about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and whoever.

I think in a sense this is as much a nostalgia piece as MAVERICK was. It’s based on a real guy instead of a TV show, but many boomers probly knew about him from watching TV shows like The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Tombstone Territory, Broken Arrow, Johnny Ringo or Gunsmoke, or movies like MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL or HOUR OF THE GUN. Something instilled in them that fascination with the legends of real life gunmen and outlaws, but I just didn’t grow up with anything like that. I don’t remember my dad ever caring about westerns, maybe because he was too poor to have a TV when he was a kid. So I wasn’t really interested in them until I got into Clint movies in my late teens, and I didn’t have a reference for Wyatt Earp, so this really wasn’t made for me. Kasdan begins with the assumption that I find it interesting that there was once this guy who famously shot up some other guys, and does not make an argument for why I should find that interesting.

My favorite western is ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but most of the other ones I like are shorter and tighter, and they’re usually building tensions around a specific goal or conflict. Here we have a pretty muddy real life conflict but also decades leading up to it, with different towns and jobs and sets of characters. So it really functions less as a western than as a biopic. In fact it opens showing Earp from the back, sitting down in an empty saloon with a hot cup of coffee, his brothers come tell him the guys they’re looking for are at the O.K. Corral, and then it flashes back to tell the story of his life leading up to then. You’re gonna have to give him a moment, son. Wyatt Earp has to think about his entire life before he has a shootout at the O.K. Corral. And then it’s here is this famous guy, and some of the other famous guys he encountered, here’s him at different ages, here are some of the famous incidents, and my take on what drives him. I mean obviously that’s what Kasdan and/or Costner were interested in, I can’t fault them for going after it. But I don’t really know how to share their interest.

At the box office, WYATT EARP couldn’t compete with the lion, the bus or the wolf, let alone TOMBSTONE. It didn’t make back its budget in theaters, and didn’t get great reviews. But if it’s thought of as a debacle I didn’t realize that. I kinda think people will be disappointed in me for being luke warm on this. If that’s you, I look forward to hearing what you like about it.

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25 Responses to “Wyatt Earp”

  1. I think from my decades now of reading you that we are approximately the same age, and if it makes you feel any better I have never seen Wyatt Earp or Tombstone. I do remember really liking the Wyatt Earp trailer in 1994 though, and thought it looked better than Tombstone, but at this point if I ever see either of them it won’t be Wyatt Earp.

  2. TOMBSTONE is a bit overrated, in my opinion. The good parts are as good as they say, but it’s one of those movies that peaks halfway through. If the shootout at the OK Corral had been the climax, it’d be an all-timer, but instead there’s still an hour left of montages and marital troubles. Kurt Russell clenches his jaw a lot but can’t make Earp interesting.

    This sounds worse. I think I’ll continue skipping it.

  3. I always thought this one seemed like a movie that lost the reason for itself somewhere along the way. Like, there are some things about it, particularly in the script, that seem like it’s supposed to be a morally ambiguous, warts-n-all revisionist Western. But then it just doesn’t seem able to resist doing the big heroic mythologizing thing too, and that score leans in hard on the idea that this is fun and delightful, and Costner just doesn’t seem to be able to fully commit to Wyatt as a potential anti-hero, kinda playing down his flaws and sticking close to his usual aw-shucks reluctant hero persona.

    I suspect that the original idea was to do a gritty, fastidiously factual demythologizing of this well-trod tale, but somebody (Coster? The suits?) just got cold feet somewhere along the way, and the movie tipped back into standard nostalgic Western bullshit even though the inherently moral nebulousness screenplay was mostly kept intact, leaving it in an unhappy middle ground where it can’t quite fly as a larger-than-life western hero adventure nor as a sober, amoral historical anecdote.

    But it has its moments. Bill Pullman is doing a performance I’d never really seen in this context before, and man, poor Dennis Quaid, he’s so good in this so it’s a real shame that Val Kilmer was better in the same part in a better movie only a year earlier. An the actual OK Corral shootout is a real winner here, a very nice bit of editing by Carol Littleton [BODY HEAT, E.T., THE BIG CHILL] which simultaneously captures the chaotic quickness of the event and deftly communicates what happened. That was one place where the movie seems to find its feet –nasty and messy enough to not quite be Roy Rogers, but also exciting and kinetic in a way only Hollywood Bullshit can provide–, and if you’re making a movie about Wyatt Earp that’s a pretty good part to make the best part of your movie.

  4. burningambulance

    June 28th, 2024 at 1:57 pm

    TOMBSTONE is very much a mixed bag, as Majestyk says. There’s a whole lot of goofy bullshit that could easily be cut (Billy Zane’s and Jason Priestley’s entire roles, for example), and yeah, it runs about an hour longer than it should. Still, I own it (the deluxe DVD) and pull it out from time to time.

    I’ve never seen WYATT EARP, but I kinda think I might want to. I like Costner’s other three-hour Western, OPEN RANGE, quite a bit; I think he does more to make his characters shitty assholes who are still, somehow, the protagonist than he gets credit for, and it sounds like his version of Earp is very much in that line.

  5. Oh yeah, also want to say that it’s pretty hilarious to see 40-year-old Costner attempt to play 18-year-old gawky teenage Wyatt. Makes me think of this sketch: https://youtu.be/WIYLlFzcS3E?si=YjQ1RX3etZcXx-1J

  6. I haven’t seen Wyatt Earp either although I do have more love for Tombstone than others here maybe. My dad took me to see it when I was 11 and ya know Kurt Russell and all. One reason for never catching this is probably not being much of a Kevin Kostner fan as an actor or movie star. I guess I just didn’t get it with him which is why I’ve never watched Yellowstone.

    Once Upon A Time in the West is my all time western as well topping The G,TB, and the Ugly which is # 2! Need to check out your review on this if you’ve written one.

    I also recently watched Appaloosa for the first time and then immediately went and read your review of it. You nailed it. Man it was one of the weirdest, most WTF movies I’ve seen in a long time. Although it was a straight dumpster fire I could at least appreciate its weirdness more if not for the out of their minds Rene Zellweger character/romance. Even Viggo couldn’t save it.

  7. I’m with Mr. Majestyk regarding Tombstone, and I FREAKING LOVE Wyatt Earp-give it a chance, dude. Tombstone feels to me like a theme park verion of the old west. Very carticatured, IMO. Wyatt Earp is far more “authentic feeling” IMO, regardless of whether it actually is. It’s a western cinematic opera. As Vern mentioned, the score shoots very high, and I think is a large part of the reason I love it. I like the slow burn of it and seeing the full picture of this version of Earp’s life.

    For reference, I’m a big fan of most of the Lee Van Cleef style westerns (such as The Big Gundown, Day of Anger), Young Guns, The Quick and the Dead, Unforgiven, Django Unchained, the Trinity films (esp the original). A lot of the non-Eastwood stuff (not poopooing those, just that EVERYONE mentions those).

  8. I haven’t rewatched it in a long time, but i remember liking this one slightly more than Tombstone… Tombstone is clearly more entertaining, and a more action-driven film (and Kurt Russel and Val Kilmer worked well together), but Wyatt Earp has a more epic and realistic scope that eventually won me over. It is definitely not a perfect movie – it is too slow at times, all the women are sidelined, etc. – but it has its moments.
    I find it funny that of course Tombstone is always the one used to benchmark Wyatt Earp against given they both try to tell the same story. But in reality, i think Wyatt Earp should be benchmarked against Unforgiven which was released just 2 years before and was a massive success (with critics and public). It was always clear to me that Costner was trying to do his own Unforgiven with this one. Keeping things gritty, making the main character flawed but heroic at the same time, etc.
    Unforgiven is definitely way better in my opinion, but Wyatt Earp is still a solid western (Open Range that Costner did almost 10 years later is better though).

  9. I think it was about the time when the movie critics ganged up on TOMBSTONE, and claimed WYATT EARP was a lot better, that I stopped reading reviews by people I don’t respect. Costner’s movie is of course more about Wyatt Earp than his conflict with the Clanton family and The Cowboys. And it’s good. But Kurt Russell’s film is better. It’s not too long and it hasn’t got a lot of goofy bullshit in it, it’s just a very stylish, action oriented and extremely well cast western, with a performance of a lifetime from Val Kilmer. Not that it’s anything wrong with WYATT EARP.

  10. Pegsman-agree in your descriptions of Tombstone. That ensemble of character actors is tough to beat in any genre let alone an action oriented western. From Russell and Kilmer to pre Sling Blade Billy Bob.

  11. Pegsman wrote, “I think it was about the time when the movie critics ganged up on TOMBSTONE, and claimed WYATT EARP was a lot better, that I stopped reading reviews by people I don’t respect.”

    I can’t find much either way at a quick glance, and I’m an old man whose memory is for shit, but I don’t remember it that way at all! I remember feeling sorry for Costner and wondering if his movie might have had a better reception if it hadn’t come out in the wake of TOMBSTONE and Kilmer …. ?

    Which isn’t to say your more general point can’t still stand, of course!

  12. Maybe it was the the critics I liked here in Norway. They always had a soft spot for Lawrence Kasdan.

  13. What’s funny is allegedly Costner used his clout to try to keep everybody else in Hollywood from producing TOMBSTONE, with only Disney of all people willing to gamble against Costner. Also funny that TOMBSTONE had a hellacious production that today the internet would have a field day with, only salvaged by Kurt Russell.

    And funny enough it’s TOMBSTONE that endures as a classic of sorts in the public imagination while EARP has been forgotten and maybe started Costner’s career slide. It’s a credit to TOMBSTONE that if you didn’t know its history, you wouldn’t have known by watching it what a shitshow that shoot was.

    Yeah I much prefer T to EARP. I remember the latter taking goddamn forever to get going and even then “get going” wasn’t exactly burning up the screen again from what I remember. I think it was Ebert who said it was basically a biopic of King Lear from birth to death but nobody cares about Lear before his old age aka when he was actually interesting.

  14. Can I preface my remarks here by saying that MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is my favourite version of the OK Corral story, and one of my absolute favourite westerns. Yes, it’s very much Ford spinning the western legend – even if he claimed the shootout details came from an eyewitness – but it all works so well, and still finds time in its 97 minutes, for Shakespeare, dances and barroom surgery as well as that gunfight.

    Most of the important things to say about WYATT EARP have already been said above. It suffers from trying to spin a single big moment into a biopic, when what we want is the moment; Costner’s screen persona is at odds with who Wyatt Earp was; Dennis Quaid does good work, but in the shadow of Val Kilmer in TOMBSTONE; it’s long but never really delivers anything to merit the runtime. And yet somehow I like it. For me it coheres, in all its stodgy length, far better than TOMBSTONE, and I remain full of admiration for Costner for persisting in making westerns. Yeah, and maybe I always had a soft spot for Kasdan too.

  15. I finally watched this during the endless ‘shelter-in-place’ days, and I ended up feeling like most of you: if the movie ever had anything to say about anything, it got lost in the process. It’s just a turgid series of events, occasionally enlivened by an interesting guest star: Bill Pullman! Catherine O’ Hara! Johnny Cage!

    I mainly watched it to see how Quaid’s Doc stacked up against Kilmer’s. He was fine, edging towards great but Kilmer’s performance in TOMBSTONE is still one of the greatest I have ever seen. That the Academy didn’t even deign to give him a nomination was my first inkling that perhaps that august body was really just a clique-y bunch of old fuddy-duddies and maybe the Oscars don’t matter all THAT much. I still recorded them for another couple of years but I don’t think I ever went back and re-watched those.

  16. I saw this as a kid, and my only memory of is when Wyatt as a kid sees that guy get shot in the dick. Brutal.

    For some reason I spent all these years thinking this was directed by Walter Hill, but now I realize that he directed Wild Bill. Anyone know if that’s any good?

  17. Franchise Fred

    July 2nd, 2024 at 3:32 pm

    I gave this another chance when HBO Max started and it still didn’t work to me. I wonder how much better it would’ve been had Costner directed since I have not disliked a movie he directed yet, out of all four.

    Anyway, the least of the ‘90s Gene Hackman westerns.

  18. I was 20/21 when the “Two Wyatt’s” came out in ‘93 and ‘94 and I had a unique experience with it because I had a major interest in Wyatt Earp at the time. I took a film class in earlier 1993 where we watched the historically-not-even-close Earp film MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. That prompted me to read a biography of him and I became fascinated by the guy’s life. He lived long enough to see the earliest films about himself made.

    So I couldn’t wait for Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. I was expecting more from Wyatt Earp, as it looked like it was a prestige-treatment epic and Tombstone promised to be a more of a popcorn movie. I saw Tombstone when it came out and felt, “I liked it! But it’s an appetizer to the forthcoming.” Then I saw this 6 months later and my reaction was muted. This was an okay bio pic drama, whereas Tombstone was a very good popcorn western. “Very good” beats “okay” every time. Kurt wins.

    I will say this though. I re-watched Wyatt Earp last year for the first time since the 90s, and Vern is right: the scale of this production is impressive as hell. This had multiple, practically built, very large period sets with shit tons of costumed extras. This has to be one of the last old-Hollywood style practical productions with this kind of huge scope.

  19. As a deathless fan of Westerns, and Costner Westerns, this is the one I’ve re-watched the least. After the epic romanticism of DANCES WITH WOLVES, WYATT WARP just came across as drab and dour, it’s like Costner wanted to do his own THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES but couldn’t quite crack Eastwood’s recipe. And yeah…it was up against TOMBSTONE, which was and still is such a deliriously entertaining action movie, albeit one with the trappings of a Western. Kilmer magnificently knocking it out of the park as Doc Holliday, Russell in Bad Ass Mode (draw a straight line from him bellowing “TELL ‘EM HELL’S COMING WITH ME!” to RAMBO 2’s “MURDOCK, I’M COMING TO GET YOU!” and COBRA’s “YOU’RE A DISEASE AND I’M THE CURE” to acknowledge George P Cosmatos understood the importance of a kick-ass Don’t Fuck With Me line) and once you got to Johnny Ringo and Doc verbally dueling (in Latin!!!!!) followed by a dick swinging gun vs cup twirling contest, TOMBSTONE had me by the balls and wouldn’t let go.

    Costner re-captured the romantic, elegiac tone of the Wild West in OPEN RANGE years later, which makes it so much more enjoyable than WYATT EARP.

    So, am keeping my fingers crossed that HORIZON is more DANCES than EARP.

  20. I have been on a couple year long reading binge and I have learned that I much prefer the 200 page novel to the 800 or 1000 page one, because the long ones rarely justify their length or even come close. A bad 200 or 300 pager is a short investment to make. For much the same reason, I don’t watch movies over two hours long any more unless it is a certified classic, and for some reason Hollywood has decided that 2:15 is now the bare minimum.

    No way I’m watching a 3 hour biopic starting Costner, he barely ever changes his facial expression.

  21. As someone who still reads the occasional door stopper, writing large novels and holding readers interest is an artform in itself, like making epic length movies and not having your audience nod off. Ken Follett’s “Kingsbridge” novels are all about a 1000 pages but you simply don’t feel the drag as the pages simply fly, ditto for Larry McMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE (900+ pages) and James Clavell’s SHOGUN (a whopping 1400 pages). On the other hand Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA, at 864 pages, drags in many parts.

    Similarly, I frequently watch the director’s cut of DANCES WITH WOLVES, RETURN OF THE KING and WATCHMEN ULTIMATE CUT, all of which clock in at 4 hours, and I don’t wish them shorter by a minute. Something like WYATT EARP, though, man you feel it’s epic length. It lies in the tale and how you tell it.

  22. It’s amazing to me that Vern has never seen Tombstone. That’s such a perennial in the “badass cinema” genre I’d assumed that Vern had seen it and reviewed it, and I would have bet money that I’d read his review of it. Just the power of suggestion, I guess: it seems like something he’d have written about.

  23. Man this movie is pretty much dull. I like Costner’s other Westerns but this one is fairly inert. I’m curious about Costner’s new movie, seems like he may have hit the wall but I really like his other Westerns…never saw The Postman.

  24. Agreed, this movie is boring and was a misbegotten enterprise from the start. That Ebert (or whoever) point about King Lear is so good and so true.

  25. If you are interested in another interpretation of this story, I suggest you read DOC and EPITAPH by Mary Doria Russell, a well-written and well-researched pair of novels about Doc Holliday.

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