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Wyatt Earp and Me – at the movies

John Henry “Doc” Holliday

Recently I went on a bit of a kick watching westerns, in particular movies with Wyatt Earp. There are a lot but I limited mine to a total of six movies. In no particular order; Wyatt Earp (1994), Tombstone (1993), Hour Of The Gun (1967), Gunfight at OK Corral (1957), Sunset (1988) and Purgatory (1999). Purgatory was actually a movie without Earp, but Doc Holliday is in it, so you know, close enough.


The thing with these movies, even after watching all of them, it’s hard to tell what really happened at the Ok Corral. There are similar nits in some of the movies which leads me to believe that certain events actually happened, but being movies I am sure a lot was “dramatized” to make for a better film. And why not? It’s a great story no matter what spin is taken on it. The Earp brothers up against the evil Clantons. Timeless stuff.


Gunfight at the OK Corral directed by John Sturges, a true classic with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. The movie gives the impression that Wyatt and Doc are reluctant friends and that Wyatt tolerates Doc despite his moral weaknesses. Douglas as Holliday is a pure joy to watch. He comes off as a world wise but weary man who has seen it all and maybe too much of it. He wants to be left alone to live his final years drinking and gambling. Lancaster is great as Earp, and when this was filmed he was perfect for the role, though I feel he is a bit too righteous compared to later versions. He tries to save one of the Clantons from becoming a villain, and he seems to want to save everyone. Martin Milner (Adam-12) and DeForrest Kelley (Star Trek) as the other Earp brothers was fun. This was before they were recognizable as the later TV stars they would become. I also found it interesting that the screenplay was written by Leon Uris who had a number of his novels turned into movies. The big gunfight at the end was quite protracted and wonderfully choreographed. It’s a great film and well worth seeing.

Hour of the Gun tells the same story in a much different way. The movie opens with the gunfight and tells the story of Wyatt tracking down the killers. James Garner as Earp is all business and there are no throw away one liners of dialogue. Jason Robards as Holliday was really fun to watch. He portrays the loyalty and needed voice of reason while still being a man who just doesn’t really seem to care about much of anything anymore. The gunfight at the OK was fast and furious and the movie concentrates more on the aftermath as Earp is frustrated with the lack of justice as he eventually gets drawn back in to being a lawman. While I like this telling of the story is is a bit down beat and director John Sturges seems to focus on the sadness of it all, almost as if his view on the subject changes from when he did Gunfight at the OK Corral. The heroes are still heroic in their way but more tragic.

This leads to another film with James Garner as Wyatt, Sunset directed by Blake Edwards. Edwards does a nice job of “inside baseball” when doing movies with Hollywood as a backdrop. S.O.B. is a perfect example of how ridicules it can be. In Sunset Tom Mix played by Bruce Willis is filming the story of Earp and they bring Wyatt in as a consultant. The whole thing ends up being a fun mystery with the studio head (Malcom McDowell) as an egomaniac madman and a murder that circle through La La Land. Earp and Mix work together to solve the murder and save the ladies and it’s all great fun. Dialogue is top notch with some cool catch phrases (and it’s all true, give or take a lie or two)and the costumes were really perfect. Love this movie and the added dimension to the mythos around Wyatt Earp as he is shown as an honorable but realistic man.

Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner as Earp is a movie I put off seeing for a long time. I had heard many things about it, mostly that it isn’t as good as Tombstone. I have to say I agree. It’s a good film, but the sheer length of the movie (190 minutes) really kills it. We open with Wyatt as a youngster watching his brothers come home from the civil war, go through a marriage that ends in tragedy and eventually get to his being a lawman. I have to say I did enjoy the parts with Tom Sizemore as Bat Masterson, an element missing from the other films. And Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday was terrific. When they finally get to the big gunfight it is indeed spectacular, but it just took too damn long to get there. The biggest thing this movie had going against it was being released so close to Tombstone, a superior and tighter film. I did enjoy it, but it is a commitment when putting it in the ol’ DVD player.


Purgatory is a made for TV western done for TNT. Here’s the pitch: a group of outlaws, truly bad men, end up in a small town called redemption. Turns out this is actually purgatory where people with a good streak who did bad things have a chance to redeem themselves and go on to a greater reward. Another Quaid, this time Randy, plays Doc Holliday, we’ve got Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Wild Bill Hickock. The bad guys roll into town driven there by a storm, start to cause trouble and our heroes need to resolve things without resorting to violence. A fun flick good for a Sunday afternoon.



Of these films Tombstone is my hands down favorite. Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot all with big mustaches and wonderful dialogue. The gunfights are big and there are so many great scenes with such great lines. You get the feeling the Earp brothers were close and that Wyatt is a righteous man who won’t be bullied or pushed. This does seem to be an ongoing theme though the movies. Kilmer steals the show as Doc Holliday and as great as Quaid and Robards and the rest are in the role Kilmer is mesmerizing. The movie just feels bigger and brighter and really portrays Wyatt as a truly righteous man who would rather be left alone. This bit between Wyatt and Doc sums it up nicely:
Doc Holliday: What did you ever want?
Wyatt Earp: Just to live a normal life.
Doc Holliday: There’s no normal life, Wyatt, it’s just life. Get on with it.
Wyatt Earp: Don’t know how.
If you were to watch just one film on this legend Tombstone is the one I would suggest.

The real Wyatt Earp

Certain things recur in the films, Morgan Earp being shot while playing pool, the Clantons being ruthless, Doc Holliday dying and fighting with Wyatt anyway. It also seems clear that whatever law and order there was in Tombstone it was corrupt or ineffectual. I plan to track down books and see just how much is accurate and how much is a “lie or two”. Wyatt Earp is a fascinating part of our history and weather it’s all true or just pieces of it, I can’t get enough. A true hero or a great legend or maybe a bit of each.