Wyatt Earp Is More Than a Gunfight

by Kieran Mulvaney

The epic western starring Kevin Costner takes the full measure of its hero.


Over the course of his life, Wyatt Earp was variously a lawman, gambler, hunter, stagecoach rider, gold prospector and even the referee of a highly controversial heavyweight title fight. But his name resonates nine decades after his death because of his role in a 30-second gunfight in the silver mining town of Tombstone, Arizona, just down the street from the OK Corral.

That showdown and its aftermath form the climax of Wyatt Earp; but the movie, uniquely among cinematic interpretations of Earp’s life, spends its first half building an extensive backstory that explores and explains how a judge’s son from Monmouth, Illinois found himself alongside two of his brothers and a sociopathic dentist with tuberculosis, exchanging gunfire with a gang of cowboys on a cold October morning in 1881.

As painted by director Lawrence Kasdan in this 1994 vehicle for height-of-his fame Kevin Costner, our young hero is a quiet lad of peace, almost a naïve rube, whose evolution into a steely, complicated gunslinger is fashioned by a series of encounters with others of far less lofty morals. A teenage Wyatt witnesses a man slain in a gunfight and, recoiling at the horror of it all, vomits in a barrel. While working on the railroad, Earp is confronted by an angry gambler, whom he bests with a violently-deployed billiard ball. “This man wanted to shoot me down. Over nothing,” he protests in disbelief to a stunned audience. He takes the man’s sidearm, evidently his first, and thereafter is armed for much of the rest of the movie.

By the time he becomes a deputy marshal in Dodge City, Kansas, he is wizened and world-weary, his innocence and optimism beaten out of him by the realities of life. The change is unveiled with a brief, subtle, but wonderful shot: a tight crop of Costner’s Earp, initially obscured by the coffee cup from which he is drinking, but then revealed to be shorter of hair and thinner of face, his eyes deadened, his unsmiling mouth now framed by his signature handlebar mustache. Later, after the family makes the fateful move to Tombstone, his sister-in-law spits at him, “You’re a cold man, Wyatt Earp.” And thus, all the pieces are in place for the movie’s extended final act, as Earp and his brothers are joined in battle by the hateful, hacking Doc Holliday, memorably portrayed by Dennis Quaid, who lost more than 40 pounds to replicate the appearance of Wyatt’s sickly friend, and doesn’t so much perform the role as inhabit it.

Wyatt Earp clocks in at a whopping 191 minutes; watching it is undeniably a commitment, but a rewarding one for those who like their movies to be epic and their biographies sweeping. Does it entirely reflect reality? Earpologists (and yes, they’re a thing) will cock an eyebrow at a few scenes; but then, the Wyatt Earp of infamy has always been more myth than man, something that Wyatt Earp acknowledges. After a breathless admirer recounts a legendary example of his bravery and probity, Earp turns away quietly. “Some people say it didn’t happen that way,” he says, almost to himself. “Never mind them, Wyatt,” consoles the love of his life, clutching his arm in hers. “It happened that way.”