Top critical review
long -- too long! -- and ponderous
on 17 November 2015
After seeing John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" (1947), I decided to see the three following "OK Corral" movies in chronological order. The next two were "Gunfight at the OK Corral" (1957, with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas) and "Tombstone" (1993, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer), with "Wyatt Earp" coming a year later, in 1994. I'm sorry to say that at 3+hours "Wyatt Earp" is the least satisfying of the four. It's ponderous, a bit disjointed, and, finally, repetitive, for all the decent cast and the nice photography. The whole second half of the movie, it seems, is just a matter of the Earp brothers moving from place to place, ending up as lawmen wherever thy go, while their wives constantly object to the upheavals. There are gunfights in different locales, but we never get much sense of the people that the Earps are fighting (the Clantons et. al.) as characters, and in fact, with the exception of Wyatt, we don't get very strong senses of the Earp brothers either. They seem pretty much interchangeable after a while. The fault in these cases of underdeveloped characterization has to lie with the writers. They don't do much with Wyatt's love Josie Marcus either -- in "Tombstone," Dana Delaney was a much more vivid presence than Joanna Goings. In fact, the memorable characters here are those we see least of -- Isabella Rossellini as Big Nose Kate, Bill Pullman as Ed Masterson, Mark Harmon as Sheriff Behan -- and that's partly because we get to know Wyatt relatively early -- after his recovery from his wife's death, he doesn't change much at all and he isn't all that interestingly characterized to begin with.
There is Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday to give the movie a lift. Doc is fatally consumptive and has no illusions about his future. It's not altogether clear why he befriends Wyatt, but he sticks by him to the end. Quaid's Doc is a kind of blend of Val Kilmer's dandyism and Kirk Douglas's volatility and fatalism, and he makes it work. He's less outlandishly effete than Kilmer, but he is given a curious formality of speech that marks him. In all four movies, the Holliday figure is strongly cast, and in the last two perhaps steals the show -- as, I think, Victor Mature did in "My Darling Clementine." I have to say that I didn't like the focus on Wyatt's early years -- that part of the movie seems to exist only to let Gene Hackman, as the Earp brothers' father, make rather stilted speeches that are, in effect, thematic markers -- he talks about "blood" (i. e. family) and "the law" as being all-important, and he declares that the Earps are temperamentally itinerant. And, of course, that's what the movie delivers on, rather predictably. I'm not sure we needed Gene Hackman to spell all that out for us: just tell the story and SHOW us the Earps in action! We, the audience, will get the point.
What about Wyatt's character? I wondered, on reflection, if Kasdan, the director, and Costner didn't model him to some extent on John Wayne's obsessives in "The Searchers" and "Red River". He's single minded and stubborn -- but we don't need the better part of three hours to see that, especially when the dialogue isn't all that strong. While on the trail of influences, I came to wonder if the ending might recall the ending of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," for the question arrives, for Earp, later in life, if he really did all the things attributed to him. Viewers can decide that one for themselves.