Wyatt Earp (1994)

*. Ah, the unbearable weight of Kevin Costner. Looking back, I think maybe all the acclaim showered on Dances with Wolves (for which he won two Oscars — Best Picture and Best Director — at the age of 35) was the worst thing that could have happened to him. An example of what Tennessee Williams called “the catastrophe of success.” Oliver Stone knew how to use him in JFK but after that he was clearly getting too big for his britches, resulting in pretentious slop like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, A Perfect World (which was almost unwatchable), and Wyatt Earp.
*. But I guess he never really changed. He first made a name for himself playing Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, and as Jim Garrison he was yet another uncompromising lawman. A He-ro. So you’d think he’d be perfect to play Wyatt Earp. But in fact, he’s playing against type and sinks any chance the movie has of being interesting.
*. What I mean by this is that the real Wyatt Earp was a complicated fellow. There was as much bad in him as good. But while this movie hints at his darkness, Costner is so obviously uncomfortable at doing a heel turn that we just can’t buy his descent into drunkenness and violence for a second. He’s better at projecting contempt for women, but this too is undone by the need to portray him as a Romantic Hero even when it’s made explicit that he’s a complete jerk. Costner being a Star, which is perhaps an unconscious bias or just the very real limits to his acting ability, is at war with the script, which could so easily have been made deeper and more interesting.
*. We could shrug this off as what might have been. And in fact we know what might have been because Costner was originally going to be in Tombstone before deciding to go his own way. This turned out to be a lucky break for Tombstone, which came out half a year earlier and was a much better movie. Wyatt Earp could only suffer in comparison, and it did.
*. The critics did not rave. Roger Ebert: “Wyatt Earp plays as if they took Tombstone and pumped it full of hot air.” David Thomson: “probably the longest, slowest, dullest film about Earp ever.” Or just listen to Michael Madsen (who plays Virgil Earp), looking back over twenty years later: “It’s long, it’s stupid and boring. It’s a giant close-up of Kevin for three fucking hours. The only reason I did it is ’cause I wanted to walk down that goddamn street to the OK Corral. If I knew that the movie was gonna be that fucking boring and stupid, I would have taken a fucking taxi cab.”
*. Madsen had good reason to feel bitter. He’d originally been offered the role of Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction but was under contract to do this movie. Ouch.
*. Yes, as Ebert, Thomson, and Madsen make clear, it’s long. 190 minutes. It was originally going to be a six-hour miniseries until Costner came on board. As it is, I’ll confess I watched it like a miniseries over a period of three days. I don’t know if that helped. It still seemed dull.
*. As I do with most movies this long, I started making a list of things I would have cut. Did we really need all the stuff about Wyatt’s first marriage? Maybe it’s meant to make us feel some sympathy for him, or help us understand his attitude toward women (“Wives come and go, that’s the plain truth of it. They run off. They die.”). I found it pointless. I also didn’t need to see young Wyatt running through a very modern cornfield at the beginning, wanting to join his brothers fighting in the Civil War. What did that add to anything? None of the brothers register as individual characters anyway.
*. I also didn’t need Gene Hackman as the Earp family patriarch serving up pearls of wisdom like “Nothing counts so much as blood” and “You take on a job, you finish it. Any man who can’t be depended on steady, ain’t worth the trouble of having around.” Thanks, pops. And it gets worse. “Do you think you’re the first person to lose someone? That’s what life is all about, loss! But we don’t use it as an excuse to destroy ourselves. We go on, all of us.” Or: “hit first if you can. And when you do hit, hit to kill. You’ll know. Don’t worry. You’ll know when it comes to that. The Earps always know.”
*. That’s leaden stuff, but it fits with the rest of the film. The epic score, which has a nice main theme, is overused as director and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan brings it in to highlight every big moment, I think mainly because for a movie this long there are so few big moments. So not-so-big moments get inflated too, like Josie stepping off the stagecoach. Or we get a heroic crane shot pulling up, up and away from Wyatt when he’s made sheriff of Dodge City, as the music swells.
*. This style of filmmaking is the visual complement to Pa Earp’s hokey lines. Look at Wyatt and Josie’s first kiss, which they have to arrange to occur right at the prettiest spot in the West, revealed in a cut from a close-up of them smooching to a long shot taking in that picturesque mesa in the background. As Spanky used to say, “Ah, mush!”

*. What all this is in aid of is what Kasdan thought the movie essentially was: an essay on American manhood. Which he sees as being made up of sterling virtues like duty, family, friendship, honour, and self-reliance. In other words: Wyatt Earp/Kevin Costner as all-American hero.
*. Are we supposed to be impressed at a threat to cut somebody open “from his belly to his dick”? Because that’s not so great a distance. No distance at all for some guys.
*. I can’t get over that steaming cup of coffee in the opening scene in the bar. How cold is it in Tombstone? Because that cup is blasting out steam like it’s full of dry ice.
*. In general I agree with Ebert’s observation that the womenfolk come off better than the men. At least they’re allowed flashes of character. Though Joanna Going as Josie is saddled with dialogue as bad as Hackman’s. On the plus side, for the film’s Alaskan coda “17 years later” she hasn’t visibly aged a day, while Wyatt’s moustache has silvered.
*. It’s not all bad. To be honest, I think it’s probably better than its reputation. I wouldn’t rate it worse than most biopics. It looks great when it’s in postcard mode. And Dennis Quaid is very good as Doc Holliday (he shed nearly 50 pounds for the role), though again he suffers in comparison when set next to Val Kilmer’s turn in the role. But at the end of the day it’s just a slow-paced, conventional oater with only a few big action scenes, none of which is presented in a way that’s new or exciting. Even the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral is pedestrian. I’d like to think there was the potential here for a much better movie, but being such a star project I think this is the best they could do. And it’s nothing special.

39 thoughts on “Wyatt Earp (1994)

  1. Bookstooge

    “A very modern cornfield”.
    I like my cornfields old fashionedlike. Bonnet, dress and a 6lb handgun in a big ol’ handbag. None of these whore’ish modern cornfields with their little black dresses, botox lips and heels.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s a big field that’s obviously been machine planted in rows. Though I do like cornfields in little black dresses.

      You’re up early!!

      1. Bookstooge

        You trying to tell me that farmer Wyatt couldn’t plant a straight row from the back of ol’ Bessie the donkey while chugging that moonshine? Pshaw I say. The human spirit is greater than you think!

        Yeah, weekend totally changed starting thursday night and so I’ve been a bit unsettled and my sleep has taken a hit.

      2. Bookstooge

        It’s like 10am there. Those slugabeds should be bounding around like there’s no tomorrow by that time.

        That’s why America invented pizza and chicken alfredo. and modern cornfields 😀
        (because we get out of bed early, in case I was being to subtle there)

      3. Alex Good Post author

        I think they were banned around the same time there were riots in the street protesting against any changes to the 4-hour workday and retirement at 45.

      4. Bookstooge

        Heck, if I could retire this year, I would, in a heart beat!
        Spent the day yesterday sitting outside a coffee shop writing for almost an hour while sipping a cold chai. I see why people do it 😀

        4hr work day seems a bit much for me though. I mean, 5hrs really should be the minimum…

      5. Alex Good Post author

        Sounds like you’re about ready for retirement now. It’s easy to fit in. Just sit at your table outside the coffee shop muttering “durn gubmint, where’s my money?”

      6. Bookstooge

        And since our social security system is projected to run out of money in 10 years, I figure I should get what I can while I can.

        So why aren’t you retired? I thought farmers were all super rich from selling the land to developers?

      7. Alex Good Post author

        Still working on that selling the land thing. I approve of your getting all the money you can out of the system. There’s no future anyway.

      8. Bookstooge

        I figured you’d have divvied up the old farm stand, packed off mom and pop to the sanatarium and start living the high life. You know, gold tractors and all that.

      1. Bookstooge

        I haven’t seen it in decades, so I can’t reliably say anything about it. I just know that Robin Hood films are a bit scarce overall.

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