Kevin Costner was in the middle of his big, serious mode when he and director Lawrence Kasdan made "Wyatt Earp" in 1994. Costner had already done "Dances With Wolves" (1990, 180 minutes) and "JFK" (1991, 189 minutes) and was about to do "Waterworld" (1995, 136 minutes) and "The Postman" (1997, 177 minutes). "Wyatt Earp" fell right in line with the others, earnest and tedious to a fault.
There is no doubt the real-life Earp was one of the Old West's most fascinating characters, glorified by some folks (including Earp himself), vilified by others. It's no wonder so many books and movies have been made about him, mainly chronicling the man's exploits as a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas, and Tombstone, Arizona. But Costner and Kasdan wanted to do more. They wanted to show further details of the fellow's life and explore the reasons the man changed as he did from an innocent, callow youth to a coldhearted, callous upholder of justice. In attempting to do so, the filmmakers may have given most of us more than we ever wanted.
The story begins with Wyatt as a teenager attempting to follow his older brothers James and Morgan into the Civil War. But he's too young, and the father, a lawyer, with a sense of wanderlust in his blood moves the family from place to place--Iowa to Illinois to Arkansas to California, where they eventually wind up. But not before Wyatt and his brothers strike out on their own. When Wyatt's first wife dies of typhoid, the young man turns to a variety of callings: wagon driver, boxing referee, law student, constable, drunkard, thief, derelict, buffalo hunter, and gambler.
The film moves in fits and starts as it struggles to provide every particular of Wyatt's life, pertinent or not. Things slog along through all of the man's early domestic affairs, including the courtships of his several wives and his gradual transformation from sweet kid to hardened lawman to figure of legend. The death of his first wife, the drinking, the gambling, and the gun play alter his personality dramatically. Yet any one of the story's many episodes would have been the subject for a stronger, more-focused movie, and James Newton Howard's largely uninspired musical track doesn't help to liven things up much, either.
Wyatt becomes a deputy marshal in Wichita, Kansas, in a scene right out of "My Darling Clementine," and then takes a like position in Dodge City, a town desperately in need of a strong hand to clean it up. Wyatt loses the job when the city fathers begin to think he is, in his own words, too much "of a hard-ass." He loses his sense of humor, too, and becomes quick to use violence first and ask questions later against transgressors. He next meets the tuberculin-stricken, Georgia-born gunfighter and gambler John "Doc" Holliday, and they become bosom buddies for life. Wyatt returns to Dodge by request when he's needed again, closing out the film's first half with the proclamation, "My name is Wyatt Earp. It all ends now." If only.
The Earps don't even reach Tombstone, Arizona, and the famous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral until the last half of the film. They try to settle down in Tombstone where, as Wyatt says, "nobody wants to shoot me," Wyatt being content to live peacefully forever with his new, common-law wife, Mattie, dabble in mining interests, and manage a saloon. But it's not long before they run into trouble with the local no-good, shiftless Clantons, McLaurys, Johnny Ringo, and Curly Bill; and the brothers are soon in the marshaling business again, bullets flying, bodies falling, and, well, you know the tale.
Part of the film's weakness, besides its extreme length and overattention to psychological elements at the expense of enough rousing action, is the sheer number of characters involved. Fortunately, most of the acting is quite good, but many of the actors don't have much to do but say a word and disappear. Costner is Costner, of course. His Wyatt Earp could just as well be Lt. Dunbar from "Dances With Wolves" or Frank Farmer from "The Bodyguard," or Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, for that matter. He is most convincing as the young Wyatt, the affable fellow full of "Ah, shucks," boy-next-door good cheer. As the older, more unfeeling lawman, he is the usual staid, tight-lipped Costner who seems just a little too full of his own importance.
As Doc Holliday, Dennis Quaid puts in a good performance, lighting up the screen with his presence whenever he's around, which, unfortunately, is not nearly enough. Gene Hackman plays Nicholas Earp, Wyatt's stern but kindhearted father, another role in the film that comes and goes all too quickly. "Nothing counts so much as blood," the father tells his family. "The rest are just strangers." It's this sense of family unity he instills in the brothers that keeps them together for so long.
Michael Madsen, one of my favorite, underappreciated actors, plays Virgil Earp, but he seems too much the twentieth-century tough guy, perhaps from typecasting, to be entirely effective; and, besides, he also has little to do in the film. Linden Ashby plays Morgan Earp; Mare Winningham plays Mattie; Isabella Rossellini plays Doc's girl, "Big Nose Kate" Elder; and David Andrews plays James Earp. Tom Sizemore is Wyatt's friend and protégé, Bat Masterson; Mark Harmon is the unscrupulous Marshall John Behan; and Joanna Going is Wyatt's third wife and lasting love, Josie Marcus.
The movie concludes with an epilogue harking back to one of Wyatt's earlier adventures, emphasizing that as Wyatt got older, even he could no longer distinguish the fact from the fiction in his life. Like so much of the film, this last episode seems wholly unnecessary, redundant, anticlimactic, and curiously out of place. It was as though the filmmakers felt compelled to take just one more, final shot, so to speak, before letting us leave. And it rather sums up the movie itself: One shot too many.
The fact is, hiding in this three-hour-plus extravaganza is a good two-hour movie. Too bad it's so hard to find.
The picture quality is wonderfully bright and wonderfully wide, measuring an anamorphic ratio of about 2.17:1 across a normal television screen. Color definition is good if a bit fuzzy on occasion, and darkest areas of some frames can be a touch murky; but hues are generally deep and rich, thanks to a fairly high bit rate. I suspect it's for this reason--low compression--that the film is extended over two DVDs, around an hour and a half per disc. There are no digital artifacts that I noticed, no grain, almost no moiré effects or halos, simply a clean, clear transfer.
A fireworks display early on amply demonstrates the virtues of the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Rear-channel activity is well placed and effectively dramatic. This early scene sets us up to expect more from things like the inevitable rain, thunder, and ricocheting bullets. They don't disappoint. More important, the front speakers convey a wide stereo spread, a deep bass, and some awesome dynamics. A few gunshots will have you ducking for cover.
It appears that WB spent so much effort transferring the movie to two discs, they had little room left over for many bonus items. The three main extras are an all-new documentary, "It Happened That Way," fourteen minutes long; a 1994 TV Special, "Wyatt Earp: Walk With a Legend," twenty-two minutes long; and eleven "lifted" or deleted scenes. I enjoyed the deleted scenes but found the documentaries too much like extended promos to much appreciate. The extras wrap up with a most-generous fifty scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages (although the packaging announces English only); and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Not only does "Wyatt Earp" appear elephantine trying to cover Earp's life from boyhood to old age, the movie had the misfortune to be released just six months after the far more successful "Tombstone." I couldn't help thinking while watching "Wyatt Earp" in 1994 and again today how much better a film "Tombstone" was for concentrating on just the most-celebrated part of Earp's life and stressing its action rather than its psychological complexities. Besides that, no matter how good Quaid was as Holliday, there was no way he was going to erase memories of Val Kilmer in the part, probably my favorite actor in any supporting role in any motion picture I've ever seen (for which the Academy, naturally, overlooked him entirely).
Does any of this mean that "Wyatt Earp" is a bad movie? Certainly not. It's beautifully made from a technical point of view, beautifully photographed, well acted, sincere, and long. Yes, very sincere. Exceptionally sincere. Overly sincere. And very, very long.