Thirty seconds and thirty gunshots in that vacant lot gave birth to the legend of Wyatt Earp, hundreds of books, a TV series and decades of movies culminating in the shoot out between Kurt Russell's Tombstone (released December 1993) and Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp (released in June 1994). Wyatt's time in Tombstone also bestowed on us many of the names plastered repeatedly on characters in Western films and books since the 1920s - Doc Holliday, Johnny Ringo, Curly Bill, Ike Clanton, Frank Stilwell, Pete Spence, Indian Charlie and Big Nose Kate Elder (the inspiration for the 1965 John Wayne film, The Sons Of Katie Elder).
The big question for all Earp aficionados is which do you prefer: Wyatt Earp or Tombstone? Wyatt Earp is a Kevin Costner film which means it is bombastic, long (you could cut the first 30 or 40 minutes and not lose much) and works too hard to achieve mythic status. Even with this, it is still a fine movie but Costner was just warming up in this regard as he soon moved on to Waterworld (1995) - ridiculous - and The Postman (1997) - horrible. Wyatt Earp also has superb cinematography which gives it an iconic look. The Kurt Russell film is more workmanlike in its look but well-cast and more focused. Wyatt Earp is about the life and legend of Wyatt. Tombstone is a rousing Western about a big gunfight and its immediate aftermath. Both have their strong points and both are surprisingly accurate by the usual standards of Hollywood, though I would have to give the nod on a close call to Wyatt Earp (later we'll touch on some of the bigger inaccuracies in Tombstone which occur during The Vendetta Ride segment). And any story that had a real episode called "The Vendetta Ride" has to be pretty good.
Here's some of the essential facts (and we'll stick to the essentials as the details could fill a book - indeed, they've filled many books and the authors still argue about every detail - my favorite is Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind The Legend (1999) by Casey Tefertiller). We'll look at the background, some pictures and movie clips and even have a singalong towards the end:
The lead up to the gunfight in both movies is well done. The conflict between the Earps and the Cowboys is well-portrayed as is the confusing jurisdictional law enforcement morass - US Marshals, the Cochise County Sheriff and the Town of Tombstone Marshal. Even the scene when Wyatt protects Curly Bill Brocius from a mob after he accidentally shoots and kills Town Marshall Fred White is accurate.(Wyatt Earp during the Tombstone years)
Was the supply of Earp brothers endless?
Almost, but not quite. Wyatt had five brothers, Virgil, Morgan, James, Warren and Newton, all of whom, with the exception of Newton, showed up in Tombstone at one time or another. Both movies accurately portray the intensity of the family bond among the brothers.
Was the Tombstone newspaper the Nugget or the Epitaph?
Both. Tombstone supported two papers. The Epitaph and its editor, John Clum, backed Earp who were Republicans just like the paper. The Nugget backed the Cowboys and County Sheriff Johnny Behan, who were Democrats. Yes, there were also politics involved. The Cowboys were mostly transplanted Southerners and Democrats while the Earps were Missouri Republicans who'd been loyal to the Union during the Civil War. After Wyatt fled Arizona, politics was to play a role in saving him from prosecution.
Why did the gunfight at the OK Corral become famous?
True face to face gunfights (like in High Noon) were a rarity in the West. Most of the famous shoot outs were really ambushes or drunken brawls in saloons. The OK Corral gunfight was not only face to face but there were multiple participants on each side. When the Earps and Holliday entered the vacant lot they found five men facing them only about eight to ten feet away - Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne. After a couple of moments, Billy Claiborne fled through the back of the lot. Ike Clanton did not have a gun (as strange as it seems, the scene in both movies when Ike approaches Wyatt in the middle of the gunfight to yell he's unarmed really happened).(Ike Clanton) (The McLaurys & Billy Clanton)
So, it was four guns against three when it started. No one can say definitively who fired first, though the majority of witnesses said it was one of the McLaurys. What all said was that there were initially two shots, a halt and then the barrage started. When it was over both the McLaurys and Billy Clanton were dead and Virgil and Morgan Earp as well as Doc Holliday were wounded. Wyatt was the only man in the fight not to be hit by a bullet. It made newspapers across the country.
And finally, what you've all been waiting for: a side by side comparison of how both movies handle the gunfight!
What happened after the gunfight?
The scene in both movies when Sheriff Behan tries to arrest the Earps right after the gunfight and Wyatt angrily refuses is accurate. However, within days Ike Clanton filed a complaint seeking murder charges against the Earps and Holiday and they were arrested and forced to post bail. Within a week Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer convened a formal hearing to determine whether they should be charged. It lasted almost a month at the end of which Spicer, while not condoning the lawmen's actions, decided that murder charges were unjustified. Spicer wrote of Virgil Earp in terms reflecting the reality of life in a Western boomtown:
". . . yet we consider the conditions of affairs incident to a frontier country, the lawlessness and disregard for human life, the existence of a law-defying element in our midst, the fear and feeling of insecurity that has existed, the supposed prevalence of bad, desperate and reckless men who have been a terror to the country . . . and considering the many threats that have been made against the Earps, I can attach no criminality to his unwise act [deputizing Wyatt and Doc]. In fact, as the result plainly proves, he needed the assistance and support of staunch and true friends upon whose courage, coolness and fidelity he could depend . . . "
The Cowboys were incensed by the ruling and tensions increased even further between them and the Earps. Then, on the evening of December 28, Virgil was ambushed as he patrolled the streets of Tombstone. Although he survived, the wounds cost him the use of his right arm for the rest of his life.
After Virgil's shooting the situation continued to deteriorate and the Earps became even more concerned about their safety staying most of the time in their homes with their families. On March 18, 1882, Wyatt and Morgan decided to take a chance and went to play billiards at a saloon. Shots came from outside and Morgan was hit in the back and died while another bullet just missed Wyatt's head. Both incidents are portrayed accurately in the movies, though Tombstone telescopes them into the same night.(Morgan)
Wyatt believed he knew who was behind both attacks but was unable to persuade law enforcement to take action. Despairing of his chances to get justice through the legal process and worried about the safety of his family, Wyatt arranged to evacuate the extended Earp clan to California and the day after Morgan's death they set off to try to get to the train in Tucson.
Did Wyatt really pump lead into Frank Stilwell at the Tucson rail yard?
By all accounts, yes. And by most accounts even after Stilwell tried to surrender. The attempted ambush of the Earp family by Ike Clanton, Stilwell and others at the rail yard was the final straw for Wyatt. From the killing of Stillwell on March 20 until he left the Arizona Territory on about April 15, Wyatt engaged in what became known in the press as The Vendetta Ride.(Stilwell)
The Vendetta Ride attracted even more national notoriety than the OK Corral. Wyatt, riding with Doc Holliday, Turkey Creek Johnson, Texas Jack Vermillion, Hairlip Charlie Smith (gosh, it's fun to type those nicknames!) and Sherm McMasters, set out after the men he believed killed Morgan and wounded Virgil.
Just before they left Tucson, County Sheriff Behan learned that arrest warrants had been issued for Wyatt and his posse. He attempted to arrest him once again and, as you see in at least one of the movies, Wyatt really did say:
"Johnny, if you're not careful you'll see me once too often"
Behan backed off and Wyatt's posse left town. At that point, Wyatt was still a Deputy US Marshal and he had deputized his companions but he was acting completely outside of his legal authority - this was a vigilante ride. Behan put together his own posse to track down Wyatt. You can see why the newspapers loved this story. You have a Deputy US Marshal, putting together an illegal posse to avenge his brother's death, being chased by another lawman's posse which is acting in cahoots with the outlaws whom the Deputy Marshal is tracking.(Johnny Behan)
Here's where Tombstone goes a little offtrack. The Earp posse is shown shooting a whole bunch of cowboys along with Wyatt gunning down Curly Bill Brocius in the middle of a creek and Doc (disguised as Wyatt) killing Johnny Ringo. In truth, besides Frank Stilwell, there are only three other cowboys definitely known to have been killed by the Earp posse - Indian Charlie Cruz (who took part in the shooting of Virgil), Curly Bill and Johnny Barnes. The portrayal of Wyatt's gunfight with Curly Bill in Wyatt Earp is much more accurate than the Tombstone version. (Curly Bill) Wyatt's posse was ambushed and his companions either fled or were pinned down. Wyatt shot Barnes and then, while Curly's gang took shots at him, Wyatt killed Curly Bill in a shotgun duel at pointblank range. As shown in the films, Wyatt's coat was riddled with bullets but he emerged unscathed.
As far as Johnny Ringo goes, he was found dead several months after the vendetta ride, seated at the base of a tree with a bullet in his head. The rumor was that Wyatt had sneaked back into the Territory to kill him. However, most historians are convinced Ringo committed suicide and that Wyatt never returned to Arizona. Notwithstanding the facts, it gave us a memorable scene from Tombstone ("I'm your huckleberry"), which is cleverly staged so that Ringo ends up against the tree with a bullet in his head, so we'll go to the video here.
Who was the better Doc Holliday - Dennis Quaid (Wyatt Earp) or Val Kilmer (Tombstone)?
Next to which movie is better, this is what folks most like to argue about. Doc Holliday is just a great character to play. Mean, murderous, drunk and dying of tuberculosis - what more could you ask for? Dennis Quaid must have starved himself for a couple of months before showing up for the filming and is one truculent guy. Val Kilmer didn't miss many meals but may have infected himself with tuberculosis in order to nail the role. Quaid is probably closer in character to the real Doc Holliday (who really was pretty nasty to everyone except Wyatt whom he cherished as a true friend). Kilmer has more fun with the role and gives Holliday an element of charm which, by most accounts, he did not have. I'll give Kilmer the nod on this one for the sheer enjoyment of watching him.
What was the worst miscasting in either film?
Easy, Dana Delaney in Tombstone as Wyatt's and Behan's love interest, Sadie Marcus. Wrong age, wrong character, wrong look. I thought the casting in Tombstone was overall stronger than in Wyatt Earp but Delaney is jarringly bad and out of place.(Sadie Marcus)(Dana Delaney) The basic story is, however, true. Josephine Sarah "Sadie" Marcus, was an 18 year old touring dancer from San Francisco when she met Johnny Behan and she eventually ended up with Wyatt Earp. Though never married, Sadie and Wyatt stayed together until Wyatt's death in 1929.
What happened after Tombstone?
Wyatt and Doc fled to Colorado where Doc entered a sanatorium for treatment of his TB, from which he died six years later. The Republican governor protected them (after meeting with Wyatt's friend, Bat Masterson) from the extradition request from Arizona and the legal threat against Wyatt ended although he never again entered Arizona.
To no one's surprise or regret, Ike Clanton was shot and killed in 1887 resisting arrest for cattle-rustling.
After wandering in Colorado and Idaho for several years, Wyatt and Sadie relocated to California where they spent most of the rest of their lives, living first in San Diego and then moving to San Francisco. Because of his reputation, Wyatt was asked to referee the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey World Heavyweight Championship boxing match which took place in San Francisco in 1896. Wyatt's inexperience contributed to making the match a debacle and raising questions about whether it was fixed. A couple of years later, he and Sadie joined the Klondike Gold Rush and went to Nome where they opened a saloon and were quite successful. Their trip to Alaska is the final scene of Wyatt Earp and the story of Johnny-Behind-The-Deuce around which that scene pivots is also true.
Returning to California they spent the next three decades working mining stakes in the desert and spending the winters living in rented apartments in Los Angeles. As Hollywood grew in those years the first silent Western movie stars such as Tom Mix and William S Hart sought Earp out for advice. The young John Wayne, just starting his career, also met Wyatt. In the 1980s, Hollywood made an oddball and funny movie about this period in Earp's life called Sunset, starring James Garner as Wyatt (and Bruce Willis as Tom Mix), who is hired by a studio to solve a murder.(Earp in 1928)
Wyatt died in 1929 at the age of 80, having survived all his brothers (Sadie was to live until 1944). Among the pallbearers at his funeral were Mix and Hart as well as John Clum, the former mayor editor of The Tombstone Epitaph. Clum survived an assassination attempt by the Cowboys after the OK Corral gunfight and had fled Tombstone because of continued threats. Clum was no coward - in 1877 he had captured Geronimo - but like the Earps, he found Tombstone too dangerous. And, in an example of how intertwined all the major players were, earlier in the same month as the OK Corral shootout, Mayor Clum led a posse including the Earp Brothers and Johnny Behan into the Dragoon Mountains in a fruitless search for an Apache band, led by Geronimo, which had broken out of the San Carlos reservation. Along the way they had a peaceful encounter with Curly Bill and others of the Clanton gang.
Clum was one of many Earp supporters who left Tombstone in early 1882. With the end of the silver boom later in the 1880s, the remaining newspapers and citizenry in the shrunken town were now almost exclusively Cowboy supporters and over the years their hostility to the Earps prompted the publication of many articles were published blackening their reputation. In the 1920s, Wyatt decided to engage a biographer to tell his side of the story and it was through these efforts, particularly the publication in 1931 of Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake, a highly embellished and often inaccurate account of Earp's life which nonetheless achieved great success, that the legend of Wyatt Earp was created. (Hugh O'Brien in the TV Series, Wyatt Earp)
Hey, since this a Palooza themed post let's have a little Wyatt Earp singalong! Ready?
The real Wyatt Earp engaged in some unsavory behavior by our standards, involving himself in gambling and prostitution. He was also an honest lawman, until he lost his faith in the justice system leading to The Vendetta Ride, during a time in the West when the line between law and outlaw could be hard to discern. Most of all he was brave man with steady nerves in a showdown. His encounters with Curly Bill Brocius showcase this aspect of his character. Wyatt faced down the lynch mob that wanted to hang Curly Bill after he killed Wyatt's friend, Fred White, while just over a year later an outnumbered Wyatt strode into gunfire to kill Curly Bill in the shotgun duel.