Fri
May 9 2014 12:00pm

All My Earps: The Many Film Faces of Wyatt Earp

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.


Edward A. Grainger, aka David Cranmer, is the author of the Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles series and recently edited BEAT to a PULP: Trails of the Wild.

Read all posts by Edward A. Granger for Criminal Element.

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27 comments
1. Mates
Sad how history is so distorted by films that we have no idea what really happened. And even if we do, we very often like the film version better!
Great write up!
2. nigel bird
I wouldn't have been able to list half of those, but it's a great round up. I hadn't realised he'd lived for so long either - that really must change the way a legend is set. Love the added Star Trek trivia, too. Lancaster and Douglas win out for me.
Edward A. Grainger
3. EdwardAGrainger
Mates, And there was a push from the cowboys and family of the deceased to paint Earp as the villain but after 133 years he more or less still wears the white hat.
Nigel, Lancaster & Douglas were a helluva team. Reminds me I need to watch Tough Guys again.
Joe Brosnan
4. JoeBrosnan
If we're judging purely on the mustache, Kurt Russell wins this one by a longshot. And it looks like I've got some watching to do.
Edward A. Grainger
5. EdwardAGrainger
I'd have to agree, Joe. Though nothing beats the original stache.
Jake Hinkson
6. JakeHinkson
Great piece, David! I love My Darling Clementine, I have to say. One of my favorite Fords. And I'm forever a defender of the underappreicated Costner/Quaid Wyatt Earp--which is a big, messy, nihilistic epic.
Brian Greene
7. BrianGreene
David, I have to admit to not having seen any of these titles. But I enjoyed your piece, as always, and will look to watch some of these. Great work.
8. chris Leek
Great stuff David, as always. Both history and Hollywood have cast of Wyatt Earp in the roll of square-jawed hero and conveniently ignored his gambling, brawling and womanizing. But hero or scoundrel, there is no doubt that he lived one hell of a life. For my money Costner’s portrayal may just have the edge, but as you say that movie is one for the purists. For sheer entertainment Tombstone is my huckleberry.
Edward A. Grainger
9. EdwardAGrainger
Jake, "a big, messy, nihilistic epic." Ha! That may be the best 5-word review for Wyatt Earp. I will say I'm glad Costner backed away from Tombstone to give us this alternative to the Russell and Kilmer film.

Thanks, Brian! Watch Tombstone this weekend and thank me later. It will become a favorite. Promise.

Chris, It seems like when push came to shove Earp and Holliday usually found themselves on the right side of the law though his Vendetta Ride is quite a bit into the gray area.
10. Don B.
Great job! This write-up is well done, a comprehensive outline of actors who portrayed Wyatt Earp on the big screen as well as TV. As always, the author employs his stylistic approach, with most colorful words and phrases.
11. Ron Scheer
I mostly agree with you on all these that I've seen. I don't remember if you mentioned Joel McRae's western WICHITA about Wyatt's time in that fair town. Also an entertaining one-man show on DVD called OUTRIDE THE DEVIL that tells the story of Wyatt and Doc with an eye to historical fact. The actor is a Southerner, I believe, and makes Doc's accent sound right.
http://www.amazon.com/Outride-Devil-Morning-With-Holliday/dp/B000LXHFVS
Edward A. Grainger
12. EdwardAGrainger
Don B, Wow! Very high praise, sir. Thank you for taking the time to read my article and leaving such a thoughtful comment. Deeply appreciated.

Ron, I'm aware of Wichita but have never seen the film which is a surprise because I've always enjoyed Joel McCrea's work. But Outride the Devil is new to me.
13. Evan Lewis
Fine job, sir. I've seen most of these and agree with your assessments. One I'm still hoping to see is the original 1934 version of Frontier Marshal. The producers of that one wienied out, probably in fear of Josephine, and renamed the Earp character "Michael Wyatt."

I wish it were true that the TV show spawned cap guns with 12-inch barrels, but the only one marketed in the U.S. was a cheap lightweight black plastic clicker pistol. There were many Wyatt Earp cap guns, but only two with slightly longer than normal barrels (6 inches), and only one of those was labelled a Buntline Special. The only real Buntline cap gun was made in England and got dang near no distribution here.
Edward A. Grainger
14. EdwardAGrainger
Evan, Josephine sure did manage to put the fear of hades in the first couple of productions which are so tame by today's standards. She would have had an outright stroke if she lived to see Doc. Or better yet, Spectre of the Gun!

And, yes, I should state they manufactured an imperfect likeness of the 12'' Buntline. You say six inches and I believe you, Evan. Wikipedia does record that it "triggered a mild toy craze at the time the series was originally broadcast." And here's a link to one of the products:
http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/6699978
Now there is some heresay/scuttlebutt that a young Dave Lewis (any relation?) shot-up his neighborhood with the mythological 12" toy pistol. Others claim he tamed his block and brought law and order.
15. John M. Whalen
David,
Buster (Flash Gordon) Crabbe played Wyatt Earp in Bad Man's Country (1958). This Fred Sears-directed epic includes Wyatt, Bat Masterson, Butch Cassidy, Sundance, Pat Garrett and Buffalo Bill Cody. It shows up on Encore Western occasionally.
Edward A. Grainger
16. EdwardAGrainger
John, I had zero clue about Bad Man's Country. And Buster as Wyatt should be quite interesting. I'll be on the lookout for this movie. Thanks.
17. Steve Hockensmith
And then there are all the different -- and differing -- literary takes on the Earps. I recently finished Mary Doria Russell's excellent but, I suspect, somewhat whitewashed novel Doc. Now I'm looking forward to reading Larry McMurtry's grittier (I'm guessing) take on the Earps, The Last Kind Words Saloon. I've also been meaning to read Oakley Hall's Warlock, which is based loosely on the Earps' time in Tombstone. The movie's not bad -- it gives us Henry Fonda as a morally ambiguous Wyatt-type and Anthony Quinn as his tormented, very Doc-ish friend.
Edward A. Grainger
18. EdwardAGrainger
Steve, I've been wanting to read McMurtry's
The Last Kind Words Saloon which is a series of vignettes, right? If so, I'm currently in the mood for something of that caliber though it never takes much prompting to buy a McMurtry book.
david hartzog
19. dlhartzog
Excellent post. Personally I string with James Garner, but Tombstone is probably the best rendition of the Earp saga. Warlock is a great novel that became a pretty good film, its really the anti-Earp saga.
Edward A. Grainger
20. EdwardAGrainger
dlhartzog, I'm going to read the Warlock novel novel especially after the comments here and checking Wikipedia's description
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warlock_(1959_film).
Warlock is a film I've always heard about but somehow missed. The supporting cast of DeForest Kelley and Frank Gorshin should make for added trivia interest.
21. Prashant C. Trikannad
Great article, David! I have read more about Wyatt Earp than seen movies about him. I remember "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," "Tombstone," and "Wyatt Earp" the most, and I'd love to see the others.
Edward A. Grainger
22. EdwardAGrainger
Thank you for the kind words, Prashant. And I've read a few of the books (maybe five total) and Mr. Hockensmith (above comment) convinced me to purchase
The Last Kind Words Saloon which I just added to my e-reader. Now I'm looking for Oakley Hall's Warlock.
25. Fred Blosser
Also of note as a fictionalized treatment of the Earp story with names changed-- Ed Cahn's LAW AND ORDER (1932), a bleak black-and-white production with Walter Huston as Frame Johnson (Wyatt Earp) and Harry Carey Sr. as Ed Brandt (Doc Holliday), based on W.R. Burnett's novel SAINT JOHNSON. The 1953 remake with Ronald Reagan as the Earp character was even further removed from the real story, but an entertaining Western.
Edward A. Grainger
26. EdwardAGrainger
Thanks, Fred! I was unaware of both films. I like the sounds of a "bleak black-and-white production." 1932, huh? I'm wondering how dated the films are today?
27. arel 1
I had SUCH a crush on Hugh O'Brian back in the day. Did you know he cut an album of Western songs as a tie-in to the show? I missed out on it, alas, but I do have an EP with 4 selections from the album. One, of course, is the show's theme song, but the one that really gave me pleasurable shivers was a song called "The Bushwhacker Country"--both criminous and eerie, and you get to hear a touch of the brogue in Hugh O'Brian's singing in spots The other 2 songs on the EP are "The Buntline Special" and "Roll Out the Wagons", both of which are fairly forgettable.
Edward A. Grainger
28. EdwardAGrainger
Arel 1, I did see, during my research, that he had cut an album called Hugh O'Brian TV's Wyatt Earp Sings.

How One Thing Leads To Another Department: And after reading your comment I went searching for a bit of his singing and found he was in a TV show called Search that I had no clue about. YouTube link:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXr-KUsUeTQ
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