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Film and the Legend of Wyatt Earp


October 9, 2021 by Pamela Nowak

The legend of Wyatt Earp emerged full force in 1939 with the release of FRONTIER MARSHAL. The heavily romanticized film starred Randolph Scott as Wyatt. The film was inspired by Stuart Lake’s biography, which in turn was heavily influenced by Wyatt’s last wife, Josie (Josephine/Sadie) Marcus. Earp had died ten years prior and Josie had litigated with biographers for years to shape the story, eliminating all references to Wyatt’s shady past, including to her and to his second wife Mattie (Celia) Blaylock. The film is centered around events in Tombstone and largely fictional but it’s appeal was wide-spread and (despite Josie’s resistance to the film itself) launched the noble lawman image she had worked so hard to create into the legend it became.  

Wyatt Earp’s legend continued to build with two movies during the 1940s, TOMBSTONE: THE TOWN TOO TOUGH TO DIE (1942) and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946). The first of the two portrayed a reluctant Earp coaxed into becoming a lawman after seeing a child accidently killed during an outlaw showdown. Ever noble, Earp pursues the villains until emerging victorious over evil at the OK Corral. Like preceding films, there is no mention of Earp’s wives. Four years later, John Ford directed Henry Fonda as Earp with Doc Holliday as a major character. It was the third movie based on Stuart Lake’s biography. Regarded as film critics as on of the best Westerns ever made, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is also highly fictionalized and leaves the real-life women out entirely.   

The pattern of romanticism continued with two Earp films in the 1950s. In WICHITA (1955), Wyatt is once again portrayed as moral gunfighter (the real Wyatt Earp was not a marksman) who reluctantly takes on the role of Marshal. It’s focus on the setting of Wichita, however, expands Wyatt’s renown beyond the Tombstone incidents and adds another layer to the legend. In truth, Earp never served as Marshal in the town but movie-goers eagerly accepted the myth. Two years later, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas starred as Wyatt and Doc in GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957). In this version, Kate Fisher (Kate Elder/Big Nose Kate) makes an appearance but Wyatt is still portrayed as a bachelor. The film covers a wider setting (Fort Griffin, Dodge City, and Tombstone) with a focus on making the conflicts with Tombstone characters a regional story.

The Earp legend spread further during the late 1950s when television became the medium of choice. THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF WYATT EARP ran for six years, beginning in 1955.  The series emphasized Earp as a law man. It was only loosely based on fact and was one of several television westerns that launched during that time. The first episodes based Wyatt in Ellsworth, Kansas, then went on with moves to Wichita, Dodge City, and Tombstone. The series starred Hugh O’Brien with a large supporting and guest cast much like GUNSMOKE. In the show, Earp carries a 12-inch barreled Buntline Special which prompted toy sales. Like much else about Wyatt, it was part of the myth.

HOUR OF THE GUN was a 1967 film about Earp and Holliday during their time in Tombstone. Starring James Garner, this film took a stab at being more historically accurate and was based on the non-fiction TOMBSTONE’S EPITAPH by Douglas Martin. The film accurately depicts many of the events and is the first to avoid casting Wyatt as Marshal. It delves into Wyatt’s less-than-noble actions during the events following the gunfight with the Clantons but still manages to ignore Wyatt’s wives. DOC, in 1971, centers its focus on Doc Holliday (Stacy Keach).  Kate Elder, played by Faye Dunaway, has a larger role and Earp wives Allie (Virgil’s wife) and Mattie (Wyatt’s wife) make appearances.  

By the 1990s, it appeared America was ready to revisit the legend of Wyatt Earp with films in 1993 and 1994. TOMBSTONE was the first to release, starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer with Sam Elliot and Dana Delany among the supporting cast. Delany portrays Josephine Marcus and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson plays Mattie Blaylock with the other Earp brothers’ wives also in the movie. While Wyatt remains legendary in the film, we get a first, albeit somewhat slanted, glimpse of Josie and Mattie. The film was well-received and is a fan-favorite despite its historical inaccuracies and contains multiple memorable lines (especially from Val Kilmer).

WYATT EARP was released in 1994, just six months after TOMBSTONE, with Kevin Costner in the title role. The film includes Earp’s fist marriage to Urilla (Aurilla) Sutherland and tracks Wyatt’s journey westward.  Supporting cast includes Gene Hackman, Mark Harmon, Dennis Quaid, JoBeth Williams, and Mare Winningham (among others). Though much more biographical in nature, the film omits the most shady aspects of Earp’s life. Still, it includes the horse theft, Mattie’s career as a prostitute, and handles his early law career more truthfully than other films had done. While not accurate in all details, the lengthy movie is much more biographical in nature.

In all, the films created about Wyatt Earp did much to foster the legend that was created Stuart Lake’s original biography. Shaped largely by Josie, Wyatt’s last wife, the legendary Wyatt was a man of high moral values who had reluctantly become a lawman, risen quickly to the top, and who used his gun to enforce the law. In truth, Wyatt had a shady past filled with illegal activities and his foray into law enforcement was to advance his own interests. He preferred pistol-whipping to shooting and was highly involved in the prostitution trade. Most of the films left out Mattie and Josie, who both had their own pasts. In NECESSARY DECEPTIONS, I chose to focus on the women and all the details that were left out of the mythical image of Wyatt Earp.

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