Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Life Writ Large In The American West

I have links before I get started today. I did a guest blog at J.E. O'Neill's blog on Sharknado, so be sure to check that out. Norma writes about an upcoming medical test. She also has more excerpts from her memoir and from Sam's story. At her blog, Shelly writes about celebrating the small things (and not so small things). Check out Parsnip having her granddaughter Mia visiting. As well, yesterday was Friday, so Parsnip had a Square Dog Friday. Eve writes about critique groups at her blog. Christine has been in Europe, and yesterday posted about cruising through the Netherlands on a river tour. The Whisk asks what you would bring along with you if you were stranded on a deserted island. Lorelei has a birthday coming up, and a special on two of her books. Mark wrote about the death of Robin Williams. And have a look at Hilary's butterfly

Today I have a film review to see to...

“Remember this, all of you. Nothing counts so much as blood. The rest are just strangers.” ~ Nicholas Earp

“Dave Rutabaugh is an ignorant scoundrel! I disapprove of his very existence. I considered ending it myself on several occasions but self-control got the better of me.” ~ Doc Holliday

“Mister, I’ve been in a really bad mood for the last few years, so I’d appreciate it if you’d just leave me alone.” ~ Wyatt Earp

“I’ll be your family, Wyatt. I’ll give you children. We’ll make our own place, where no one will find us. And I won’t die on you. I swear it.” ~ Josie Marcus

“My mama always told me never put off till tomorrow people you can kill today.” ~ Doc Holliday

“Mr. Clements, your men respect you, and I don’t want to do anything to take away from that. I’m sure you’ve earned it. So you and your boys are welcome in Dodge City as long as you obey the law. But if you don’t want to cooperate, I’ll open you up right now with this shotgun so wide your whole crew’s going to see what you had for breakfast. After that, it won’t matter much what happens next, will it?” ~ Wyatt Earp

After a falling out with Kevin Jarre over the direction of the film Tombstone, Kevin Costner went off and did a film about the legendary lawman on his own, starring in the 1994 Western, Wyatt Earp, directed by Lawrence Kasdan and based on the screenplay by Kasdan and Dan Gordon. The film covers more of the marshal’s life than the earlier film, from boyhood to his later years, and runs considerably longer as well. It is more of a character study than an action film, though there is plenty of action along the way. The film follows a man who starts off as charming and easygoing, only to become hardened and cold blooded by loss. It explores his relationships with family, friends, lovers, and enemies, all set against the stark beauty of the West. 

We first meet Wyatt as a young teen (Ian Bohen), dreaming of heading off from his family farm in Missouri to join his older brothers Virgil (Michael Madsen) and James (David Andrews), who are off fighting rebels in the Civil War. His father Nicholas (Gene Hackman) prevents his departure, reminding him that he has work to do. Soon enough, the two brothers return home, weary from the war. Nicholas is pleased to see his sons alive, and has plans to take much of the family further west. During the trip, Wyatt witnesses the death of a man in a town. It shakes him up, and his father gives him guidance and advice, stressing that the law is one of the few things a man can count on.

Years later, Wyatt is a young man, spending his time as a wagon driver. He returns to his home town in Missouri to study the law with his grandfather, work as a policeman, and court a girl he knew years earlier, Urilla (Annabeth Gish). He charms her into marriage, and they’re happy... until she dies of typhoid fever. It’s the great crushing blow for Wyatt, and consumed by grief, he burns down their home, rides off, going on a bender for months that lands him in jail. Nicholas bails him out and tells him to run.

Wyatt leaves his drinking days behind, finding work in the far west, meeting the Masterson brothers, Bat and Ed (Tom Sizemore and Bill Pullman). He finds himself drawn into police work again as a deputy marshal, first in Wichita, then in Dodge City. It’s a line of work he seems well suited for, acting quickly to disarm drunks, making money for every arrest made. He reunites with Virgil and James, as well as their younger brother Morgan (Linden Ashby). The four brothers are either married to or involved with women (JoBeth Williams, Catherine O’Hara, Mare Winningham, and Alison Elliot), and the brothers are ambitious. Aside from James, who concentrates on saloon keeping, Morgan and Virgil follow Wyatt into law enforcement. And along the line, Wyatt meets Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), the notorious gunman with a bad reputation; the two men become friends. And with time, the paths of all concerned converge on an Arizona frontier town called Tombstone.

Costner had worked with Kasdan as a director before; the two had also worked on the revisionist Western Silverado, as well as in The Big Chill, though Costner’s scenes were deleted. The story by Kasdan and Gordon is more of a biography in feel, though an epic one, given the backdrop of the West. It explores not only Wyatt’s life, but the lives of those he’s closest too, the passage of time for the man, and his place in the history of the West. It is at times a brooding character study, emphasizing themes like family, love, death, revenge, justice, and conflict. The story also examines the issues of the times, the struggles throughout the West of conflicting agendas and motivations. We see the clear divide between the towns, which seek prosperity along with peace and good order, and the cowboys, who live a rough and tumble life and don’t particularly care for things like rules and laws. The story does mess with history here and there- the eldest sibling, a half-brother who was Nicholas’ first son, is not mentioned, but he played no part in the events playing out during Wyatt’s adulthood. And it also does the standard thing with films about the Earps, blending two critical shootings into a single night, when they actually happened months apart. It does feel more authentic, though, and the simple fact is that there is much about Wyatt and his family that have been embellished over the decades to begin with. Wyatt even notes that at one point in the film, remarking that “people make up a lot of things. Sometimes I don’t even know what really happened.”

Much of the filming was done on location, and it feels like it. We feel the dust as wagon trains pass by, or riders gallop off on horses. The terrain has a starkness to it, but also a real beauty. Cinematography for the film did get nominated for an Oscar in 1995 (though the film did also secure Razzie nominations). The camerawork is stunning and exquisite, so that cinematography nomination was well earned. The towns and homes we see, along with the furnishings inside, certainly feel true to the 19th century, as does the work on costuming (where can I get my hands on one of those long coats?). Attention to detail by the crew rendered the end result as feeling very much set in its time. Lastly, the score by James Newton Howard is my favourite work by the composer, and one of my favourite scores period. It is at times romantic, at other times violent and foreboding, but an essential element of making the film work.

Kasdan assembled a huge cast for the film, and everyone involved do great work along the line. The key players in the Clanton and McLaury gang are somewhat different in emphasis than in Tombstone. Jeff Fahey plays Ike Clanton, one of the leaders of the gang, giving the character a snarling attack dog sensibility in his performance. He’s a thoroughly unpleasant person, given to temper tantrums, drunkenness, and picking fights. There’s less of the streak of cowardice that we see in Stephen Lang’s take on the man in Tombstone, though it is there. What we do get in Fahey’s performance is a seething cauldron of anger. The other member of the gang who is most developed is Rex Linn as Frank McLaury. Linn has spent years in television and on film playing various character roles. He would go on to spend years playing a cop alongside a mumbling idiot who had an overly developed fondness for wearing sunglasses during conversations on the series CSI Miami. He plays McLaury as a man with a temper, no regard for the law, and an argumentative streak.

Mark Harmon plays Johnny Behan, the county sheriff who’s more loyal to the cowboys than he is to his community. He butts heads with Wyatt repeatedly, and gives the role a hint of arrogance and condescension. We get the sense of him as a man who wouldn’t care to stick his neck out for anyone- perhaps much like the man was himself in history. Catherine O’Hara, who’s spent most of her life in comedy, plays a dramatic role this time out as Virgil’s wife Allie, similarly butting heads with Wyatt on regular occasions, giving the character a streak of annoyance at her brother-in-law’s stubbornness. That extends as well to JoBeth Williams, playing Bessie, wife to James; Bessie feels resentment that the family is essentially being run by Wyatt, while her husband simply goes along with whatever his younger brother wants to do. It’s a bit of a contrast with Alison Elliott playing Louisa Earp, who’s soft spoken when we first meet her, completely in love with her husband Morgan… and when we last see her, Elliott plays the character as shattered by grief, something that Wyatt can relate to. 

Mare Winningham has a difficult role as Mattie. It’s an unsympathetic character, and she’s more volatile than the depiction in Tombstone. Winningham plays the addictions of the character to full hilt, but also her building resentment of Wyatt, who holds her at a distance and never really lets her in. In their final scene together, Costner’s last line to her speaks volumes as they walk out of each other’s lives. It is a stark contrast to the relationship Wyatt has with his first wife. Annabeth Gish plays Urilla as a woman who’s happy to stay where she’s grown up, charmed by the affections of the young Wyatt, and finds herself happy with him. The characters make a believable couple, because Costner and Gish make them feel that way. We can imagine that they would have been very happy together, but fate took another turn, and the grief over that death marks Wyatt’s every move for the rest of his life. The third woman in his life is Josie, the wife he would spend the rest of his life with, and she’s played by Joanna Going. When Wyatt first sees her, she’s on stage, and something about her draws his attention. She plays the role as fiercely independent, outspoken, and courageous. While she’s initially involved with Johnny Behan- another source of tension between the sheriff and the marshal- she’s just as drawn to Wyatt, and Going brings depth to the role. She has good chemistry with Costner.

Isabella Rossellini plays Kate in a very different way from Joanna Pacula’s interpretation in Tombstone. She is less the partner in crime to Doc Holliday, more of a volatile lover. There is both sparks and anger between the pair, and the relationship is fraught with difficulty. It’s quite a contrast, looking at the way the two women play the same character, but Rossellini’s take on Kate feels more true to life. Tom Sizemore and Bill Pullman turn up as the Masterson brothers; Bat Masterson is the better known to history, and Sizemore gives the character the sense of authority you might expect out of the lawman. Pullman plays Ed as a more affable fellow, more willing to try to talk a man out of causing trouble than to bludgeon him, but we do see the sense of forcefulness in him- though it does cost him dearly.

Gene Hackman appears early on as Nicholas, the family patriarch. He’s a restless man, something he passes on to his numerous children, all of whom seem to be looking for new opportunities somewhere over the horizon. He likes having the family close to him, likes dispensing his own wisdom. And he’s also a man who inherently believes in the law. Hackman brings his weight as an actor to the role, giving the character credibility that perhaps the real Nicholas might have lacked- there might have been other reasons to move around so often, such as business plans going awry. Jim Caviezel turns up late in the film as the adult youngest son of the clan, Warren Earp. He takes part in the aftermath of the O.K. Corral in what became the Vendetta Ride. Caviezel plays him as fresh faced and a bit naïve, having had come to help avenge the attack on his brothers. It’s only when he sees what Wyatt is capable of that he loses that naïve outlook and seems to understand that what he’s signed on for is very much for real.

David Andrews has been a character actor in Hollywood throughout his career, working in films and television. He’s playing somewhat of a background character in this film; not being one of the lawmen in the family, his James is the one who’s handling much of the work in the family’s business interests instead. He plays the role with a friendly affable quality, but we’re reminded that this is a man who’s been to war and has killed people- he knows how to take care of himself. Linden Ashby is the charming Morgan, who looks up to his older brothers. He gives the role a cocky sensibility, the sort of smirk that sets off people with hair trigger tempers, which makes the character work. Michael Madsen has a different take on Virgil Earp than Sam Elliott’s version. In Tombstone, there’s the sense that Wyatt and Virgil are occasionally at odds as to which one of them should be in charge. In Madsen’s case, his Virgil accepts his brother as in charge of the family. Yet he also brings authority to the role, and we see him as a strong, centered person in his own right. 

Dennis Quaid gets the great lines as Doc Holliday throughout. He lost a good deal of weight to play the part, and this is an actor who’s never needed to lose weight. He looks gaunt and skeletal throughout the film, and brings complexity to his take on the gunman. There’s a degree of self-loathing in his Doc, a certain wish to see the end of his days, entirely understandable given his medical condition. Aside from that, however, we see a dangerous man, fearless when getting himself into a fight. He likes to poke and provoke, is quick witted and sharp, but he’s also intensely loyal. It’s a great part, and Quaid makes the most of it, giving a tour de force performance.

Costner plays Wyatt in a variety of ways, all of which feel true to the man himself. Initially a youthful charming young man, he loses the first love of his life in a way that nearly destroys him, sending him into a dark tailspin and leaving him a hard, cold man after he emerges from it all. There is a ruthlessness to the character, and an emotional distance in the way he dismisses his sisters-in-law with the remark that wives run off or die. Yet despite that hardness, he lets Josie in. And despite that ruthlessness, it is tempered by his respect for the law, and his loyalties to family and friends. He’s a lawman of dark moods, yet he’s also a fiercely principled man who’s willing to face an angry mob to protect a prisoner from their wrath. He shares Doc’s fearlessness in the face of adversity, and that courage shows itself repeatedly. It is a dark, complicated, and fascinating take on the man, and one of Costner’s best parts.

Wyatt Earp edges out Tombstone in my opinion in the two films that took on the story of the Earps in the 90s. It’s both Western and character study, examining the life of a man against the history of the West. It takes in the sweep of time, but gives us the human aspect of the people as well. The two leads are outstanding in their roles, playing Wyatt and Doc as two men who are similar and different, and know they can count on each other. It addresses themes like revenge, justice, family, and the law, telling a story that is both epic and intensely personal. It’s a personal favourite of mine.


  1. Seriously, I had not seen Mare Winningham in anything since St. Elmo's Fire. I'm not sure I would buy Mark Harmon in the role as a law man with this cast. I'll have to watch it, only because I love Kevin Costner! :)

  2. I like some of these actors and should check into it. Another great review and thanks for the mention. I visited some of the other links but the Whisk only tempted and did not post recipes!! :)

  3. Another movie I haven't seen. Just don't like Westerns.

    Good thing you told me the Sharknado post was a guest post--didn't want to miss that one!

  4. Quaid does certainly look like a ghost...

  5. Both review were so well thought out.
    As much as I loved Dennis Quaid as Doc (In fact I thought both actors playing this part were terrific) I would still go with Tombstone.
    This is something about Kevin Costner that makes my teeth itch. For me he sorta of plays the same person.

    As I understand, Wyatt Earp's last wife took control of his history and was very protective of his legacy.
    Super reviews !
    Now must go see the guest blog on Sharknado !

    cheers, parsnip

  6. @Diane: St. Elmo's Fire being one of those films I've never seen...

    @Cheryl: thank you!

    @Eve: thanks!

    @Norma: no problem at all.

    @Scarlett and James: ghostly indeed.

    @Parsnip: I can see him having that effect on people.

  7. They're both great, but I'm partial to Tombstone. I'm just not a Costner fan... something about him makes it hard for me to take seriously. Even so he's done a lot of great films.

  8. Great reviews...reading all these reviews make me want to see these movies!

  9. I'm not into westerns these days.
    But I don't begrudge peeps who are!
    It is an interesting period of time in the history of this continent.


Comments and opinions always welcome. If you're a spammer, your messages aren't going to last long here, even if they do make it past the spam filters. Keep it up with the spam, and I'll send Dick Cheney after you.