From a farm in the cornfields to the gunfight at the OK Corral, Lawrence Kasdan’s modern Western biopic Wyatt Earp recounts at length the life of this mythical figure of the Old West. Framed within traditional events of Frontier history, the long journey of Wyatt Earp in 19th century America does not live up to the ambitions of its director.
The boyhood of Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner) in the fields is marked by his father Nicholas Earp (Gene Hackman), a lawyer, who instills in him the importance of blood bonds. As the family moves to California, the love for the West emerges in the young Wyatt. Going back East to court Urilla Sutherland (Annabeth Gish), his childhood sweetheart, his life changes dramatically as she dies from typhoid. The young man becomes a depressive drunkard leading a life of debauchery. After working as a buffalo hunter, Wyatt Earp settles in the cattle towns of Wichita and Dodge City, where he forges his reputation as an inflexible Marshal, maintaining order and ensuring respect for the law with the help of his brothers Virgil (Michael Madsen) and Morgan (Linden Ashby).
Lawrence Kasdan was not the first director to have made a movie featuring Wyatt Earp, a legendary figure of the American West. Earp and his famous shootout in Tombstone, Arizona, had already inspired many Western movies such as Alan Dwan’s Frontier Marshal (1939) or Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita (1955). In his version, Kasdan aims at depicting the whole life of Wyatt Earp, performed by Kevin Costner, in a three-hour-long epic motion picture.
Released in 1994, Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp was not well-received and turned out to be a commercial failure – with good reason, for the movie is far from being captivating, despite its elaborate aesthetics. In this remake of a traditional story of Frontier settlement, much effort was put in the landscapes, the creation of décor and the fabrication of costumes to reproduce a classical western atmosphere of the 19th century. In its ambition to show authenticity, the film incorporates every element of the era with scenes staging the stagecoaches on the California Trail, the bison hunt and the selling of furs, or the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The screenplay also aimed at being as close as possible to the real events of Wyatt Earp’s life, like the shootout at the OK Corral against the Clanton clan, which actually did not occur in a livestock enclosure but in a small street.
Although the biographical picture was intended to be historically accurate, it tediously brings the legend to life. Leaving the heroic aspect of Wyatt Earp aside, the epic focuses more on the psychology of the character, an undemonstrative deputy Marshal, strongly attached to family values, who cold-bloodedly kills his enemies. Moreover, the performance of the Oscar-winning actor (Best Actor for Lt. Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, 1990) is clearly disappointing and overshadowed by a thin Dennis Quaid (who lost 43 pounds for the role), whose impressive acting of the tuberculous sarcastic Doc Holliday with his graveyard cough catches the eye whenever the character appears.
But the main reason why the film does not seduce as much as it could have, lies in its rhythm. Whereas the pacing of the scenes keeps you engaged in the story in the beginning, boredom sets in as the movie develops at a slower rhythm. The second part lacks action, the long-awaited climax is nonexistent, and the overly emotional soundtrack badly serves the movie.
At the end of the picture’s 182 minutes, it seems that Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp is a beautiful pictorial work of the Western genre that fails to be entertaining.
Wyatt Earp (1994)
Directed by: Lawrence Kasdan
Produced by: Jim Wilson, Kevin Costner and Lawrence Kasdan
Screenplay by: Dan Gordon and Lawrence Kasdan
Running time: 182 minutes.
Wyatt Earp . . . Kevin Costner
Doc Holliday . . . Dennis Quaid
Nicholas Earp . . . Gene Hackman
Virgil Earp . . . Michael Madsen
James Earp . . . David Andrews
Morgan Earp . . . Linden Ashby
Allie Earp . . . Catherine O’Hara
Ed Masterson . . . Bill Pullman
Urilla Sutherland . . . Annabeth Gish
Big Nose Kate . . . Isabella Rossellini
Bessie Earp . . . JoBeth Williams
Mattie . . . Mare Winningham
Josie Marcus . . . Joanna Going