Wyatt Earp is a unique breed—for more reasons than one—among the famed gunslingers and infamous outlaws who shot their way across the Wild West horizon. He lived so long, passing away in 1929 at the ripe old age of eighty, that he had time to mold and nurture his public image after it had become a bit ragged by the turn of the 20th century. His wife Josephine took over the job of protecting his reputation, often aggressively by threatening legal action, until her own death in 1944.
Many actors have played the famed lawman from the forgotten Bert Lindley in Wild Bill Hickok (the first and only celluloid version Wyatt Earp saw in his time) to acting stalwarts like James Stewart in Cheyenne Autumn. Ten actors who’ve slipped into the large, near-mythological shoes are outlined here with how their performances and films hold up today.
Randolph Scott in Frontier Marshal (1939)
This film was the second production based on Arthur Lake’s largely fictitious book. Randolph Scott plays Earp, turning in an effortless performance over a career that spawned many such roles, and the charismatic Cesar Romero plays “Doc Halliday” (that’s hard on the ears—why the change from the factual Holliday?). The plot has nothing remotely to do with reality as dentist Halliday is shot and then Earp goes gunning for his friend’s assassin. I’m sure enthusiasts of traditional Western Hollywood films will thoroughly appreciate Frontier Marshal—the original NY Times review called it a “cracking good Western”—but Old West history buffs should steer clear. Note: Josephine Earp sued over the film and won a settlement against 20th Century Fox.
Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine (1946)
I enjoy Henry Fonda’s quiet, gentlemanly Wyatt Earp who stands up when a lady enters his presence and how he leisurely rocks back in his chair on the front stoop as he studies the town of Tombstone swirling around him. The lovely Linda Darnell is also quite good as a jealous lover. But (there’s the big but), this John Ford classic hasn’t aged well. Damn, I can hear the guns being clicked as they’re pointed in my direction. My chief complaints: First, why the title, which has nothing to do with the story involving the non-historical Clementine. Heck, come to think of it, where’s her miner forty-niner pa? Second, 1940s beefcake Victor Mature is the most robust actor to ever play the tuberculosis stricken Holliday. And finally, the shootout, though cinematically and exquisitely rendered, is one of the most historically inaccurate ever put to film. I completely accept I’m in the minority here as this movie has been considered a true American classic by giants like Sam Peckinpah, still, it’s long in the tooth.
Hugh O’Brian in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961)
According to Wikipedia, Hugh O'Brian was picked for the role because of his physical resemblance to early photographs of Earp. Now, O’Brian is justifiably revered for his weekly commanding performance that for an entire television generation was the one and only version of the celebrated lawman. Note: Though it’s uncertain (and not very likely) that Earp carried the famed Buntline Special, O’Brian did so setting off a 1950’s craze for the toy pistol (hey kids, look: “100 shot repeater cap gun!”).
Burt Lancaster in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
This was the definitive big screen telling of the Earp legend until Tombstone in the early 1990s. Burt Lancaster plays a likable, strong Earp and adding Kirk Douglas as Holliday makes for harmonious chemistry. It’s a bit dated but still a lively film almost sixty years later. Yes, I know, many historical facts are mangled as well, but it’s done in a way that’s exceedingly entertaining. Trivia: DeForest Kelley plays Morgan Earp in the film; eleven years later in his best known role as Bones on Star Trek, he’d portray Tom McLaury in a rather poor episode of the famed science fiction series that pitted the Enterprise crew against the Earps.
Guy Madison in Gunmen of the Rio Grande (1965)
Gunmen of the Rio Grande is a hit and (mostly) miss adventure. The always amiable Madison (TV’s Wild Bill Hickok) gives a better than average performance but I don’t believe, evidenced by this low-budget production, that the Earp legend fits comfortably into the Italian Western landscape. The ridiculous plot has Earp posing as a drifter named Laramie in Rio Bravo and features a female named Clementine. Hmm. Where did they conjure up those names? Gunmen isn’t impossible to watch; one of those rainy Sunday afternoon brain-in-neutral affairs. Still, it’s a footnote in Earp flicks.
James Garner in Hour of the Gun (1967)
John Sturges had already directed Gunfight at The O.K. Corral ten years earlier. Hour is a continuation of the storyline which starts with the 1881 shootout (refreshingly different) and then continues with the legal outcome and Earp’s Vendetta Ride. For a story that opens with a disclaimer, “This Picture Is Based On Fact. This Is The Way It Happened,” it blunders in a big way by portraying Earp and Holliday catching up with Ike Clanton (the always marvelous Robert Ryan) in Mexico seven years later. There are other numerous inaccuracies (which you may have observed is a thread running through ALL these films) but James Garner turns in an inspired hardboiled performance as Earp and is matched by the sarcastic Jason Robards as Doc. One of the best.
Harris Yulin in Doc (1971)
Purists are going to loathe (with a capital L) this jarring revisionist Western, but until Val Kilmer came along in Tombstone, Stacy Keach owned the role of the drifter gambler who knows time is running out. Doc is really not an action Western—the emphasis is clearly on the psychological make-up of these iconic figures. Slow and talky (though hardly dull) with Faye Dunaway never better as Kate Elder, Doc’s female companion. The film benefited, as critic Roger Ebert noted, from actors not normally associated with Westerns in key roles. With that being agreed upon, Harris Yulin still seems misplaced as Earp—not enough of an authoritative figure in an otherwise fine actor’s performance.
James Garner in Sunset (1988)
“The following story is almost true … give or take a lie or two,” proclaimed Blake Edwards’ 1988 low-key comedy that pairs Hollywood silent film superstar Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) with Earp played, for the second go around, by James Garner. Favorite scene has Earp being told, “Assault. That can get you a lot of hard time.” Earp’s reply: “Well, not if I shoot the witnesses.” I watched this as a double feature with Garner’s Hour of the Gun and it makes for a fine night at the movies. Not to be missed … or taken seriously.
Kurt Russell in Tombstone (1993)
A cornucopia of greatness here. My pick for the #1 Earp film of all time. Val Kilmer is Hollywood’s finest Doc and he has a worthy adversary in Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo. “Evidently Mr. Ringo's an educated man. Now I really hate him.” Kurt Russell as Earp wisely lets the other actors steal the show but is a quiet and commanding presence that grounds the film. Note: Originally Kevin Costner was slated to appear in this version but was not happy with the production centering on so many other characters. He left for the lesser successful Wyatt Earp that was released six months after Tombstone.
Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp (1994)
A strong screen chemistry between the underrated Kevin Costner as Earp and the gaunt Dennis Quaid (who lost 38 pounds for the role) as Doc Holliday make this a must for hard-core enthusiasts. It’s also the one movie that covers the longest span of Earp’s life beginning when he lived on his parent’s farm as a teenager. Ambitious and rewarding for the faithful but it is very slow at nearly 200 minutes for casual viewers. Note: Writers Lawrence Kasdan and Dan Gordon received Spur Awards (Best Drama Script) from the Western Writers of America.
Hugh O’Brian in Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone (1994)
Hugh O’Brian is back in the saddle—well, sorta, since it opens with him driving a Ford touring car—and he has a wonderful supporting cast including Harry Carey Jr., Bo Hopkins, and Bruce Boxleitner. A bit dawdling in spots (though nicely augmented by many old TV clips) but a nice coda to a legendary Western series that has Earp returning to Tombstone 33 years after the famed gunfight. Note: The production was filmed in the real Tombstone, something no other film could claim.
Val Kilmer in Wyatt Earp’s Revenge (2012)
Of main interest is to watch Val Kilmer playing an older Wyatt Earp (Shawn Roberts plays the younger version) after his defining turn as Doc in Tombstone. However this straight-to-DVD barely registers as a B Western with only bad guy Daniel Booko leaving an impression. Note: Country music singer Trace Adkins gets second billing though he has very little screen time.
I might’ve criticized or missed here a personal favorite Wyatt Earp film of yours. Leave a comment and we can have a friendly showdown.