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Tombstone v. Wyatt Earp, 25 Years After the Fact

Updated on December 22, 2016

Earp V. Earp

The Myth is Everything

"The important thing is to make a different world, to make a world that is not now. A real world, a genuine world, but one that allows myth to live. The myth is everything." Sergio Leone on western films

Almost twenty five years after their release the camps are still divided between Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994) with the favor leaning more towards the action packed Tombstone.and the Val Kilmer portrayal of Doc Holliday. Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone's quote is quite literally true, proving it by retooling our western frontier history into a truly distorted mythical west with "The Man with No Name" films as well as the classic epic, Once Upon a Time in the Old West; and in so doing created household names of actors who had already been around the western genre for the better part of a decade or even longer. Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and perennial bad guy Lee Van Cleef all became stars while creating a whole new sub-genre known as the 'Spaghetti Western' along the way; a sub-genre that wasn't all that original to begin with having it's basis in Japanese Samurai classics. Never-the-less it took a European director to reminded us that the myth of the west may far out way the legend while stateside film makers were set on a revisionist version of the western with films like, Little Big Man, Solider Blue, Dirty Little Billy and a sordid little film named, Doc; purportedly the true tale of the events surrounding the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

In other words, Europe threw our westerns back in our face while, in somewhat absurdist interpretations, while giving us back the mythical heritage therein.By the time Tombstone and Wyatt Earp came around we had been given a varied mix of sub-genre's within western sub-genres; from the sullen restructuring of Clint Eastwood, to the violently discordance of maverick Sam Peckinpah to the 'by-the-book' regularity of John Wayne. Each with their own take on western legends and myths.

Tombstone and Wyatt Earp are different and yet they are the same in many way. But what separates them as entertainment? That's the crux of the matter for those of us who enjoy Western films.


The way the characters are portrayed and interact? The way the two were shot? The expanse and focus of the storyline? Timeline of events, the difference in pace, or the choreography of the principle set piece of both films, the 'Gunfight at the OK Corral.' It all boils down to authenticity. But which one stays closer to fact? Wyatt Earp carries a bigger load due to it covering Wyatt's life and not just the events leading to the main event and the less-told story of the aftermath.

Taking the Myth and Making It the Filmmaker's Vision

The history of the two films is interesting in it's self. Tombstone was originally to be directed by the scriptwriter Kevin Jarre. Early on he was dismissed when Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer felt the film was headed in the wrong direction. The two stars, at that time at the top of their game at the time, felt that Jarre was shooting in a John Ford tableau style. In other words minimum camera movement while letting the the scene speak for itself. The grandeur of Ford's films came from his use of static long and medium shots focusing on the hustle and bustle unfolding in front of the lens; you'll find very few cutaways, close-ups, or camera movement in a Ford film. This is what made Ford a genius at what he did in that his direction was so precise you don't notice this bit of minimal trickery. This was to be Jarre's first directorial effort so why not borrow tricks from a master like John Ford? It should also be noted that at one point Kevin Costner had been attached to the Jarre project and favored this type of direction. As noted before, after viewing Jarre's early footage for Tombstone veteran actor Kurt Russel could tell this wasn't the direction to go and decided along with Kilmer to replace him; it would be Jarre's only directorial effort. George Cosmotos was brought in as the nominal director of credit while Russell actually called the shots steering it into a cleaner, faster, crisper film with more in common with John Sturges films like The Magnificent Seven(1963), Bad Day at Black Rock, and Sturges' own version of the story, Gunfight at the OK Corral, the film that is credited with bringing that phrase into the lexicon.

Wyatt Earp, was the complete opposite in terms of pacing. When it was announced that Lawrence Kasden would be at the helm anticipation was high for another high action western film like his Silverado (1985); instead it turned out to be a cautiously tuned, distant film with more of a relationship akin to Kasden's ensemble piece The Big Chill (1983). By 1994,, Costner had lost the edge he came to prominence with as the young gunfighter Jake not that many years before in Silverado. During this time in his career, he seemed to be going for a more earnest detachment to his roles which permeated the whole three hours of this film; even a quirky exciting western like Silverado would have worn out it's welcome at that length.

Given the history we know about the two films we can now begin to breakdown the exact differences between both films.

  • Comparing the Time Periods Involved. There is really two time period problems involved when examining the two films.The time period in which the stories take place must be taken into account for while Tombstone has it's story firmly based in the time frame surrounding the gunfight, Wyatt Earp attempts a more ambitious timeline of the Earp family history, the relationship with Doc Holliday, the Clanton feud and the political aspects and ramifications of the gunfight, before and after the event. This is the reason why many critics and fans argue that comparing the two films is like comparing apples to oranges. Another time period problem is that Tombstone opened exactly six months before Costner's version, thus leaving a fresh idea in our collective view of an action packed 2 hours and 10 minutes, as opposed to a methodical narrative of just over three hours. Of course you have to take into consideration that both films have close to 10 minutes of end credits, but the point is, what the majority of viewers wanted from Wyatt Earp was for Costner to either outdo, or be at least an equivalent to what Russell, and to a lesser extent director George Cosmostos,' interpreted on the screen. Most of us went in with a "Show me" attitude which leads to the next difference
  • Character Expectations are Important. What are the expectations of how the characters are portrayed and how do they interact? In other words, chemistry, In both films the motives are basically the same, except, as mentioned before, we are given an in depth background study into what formed Wyatt Earp's character in Costner's version; maybe giving us more than we really cared to know given the actor's penchant for underplaying a character as opposed to Kurt Russell's maximized use of mannerisms. Then there is the much debated portrayals of Doc John H. Holliday by Val Kilmer and Dennis Quaid. Kilmer's ability in this role is hard to match a tightrope of under while over playing the character. It's an amazing bit of acting chicanery that he has never been able to equal, instead falling into a sort of mired carelessness; the keys to the kingdom where Kilmer's for the taking and he blew it.
  • The way the two were shot? The expanse and focus of the storyline? Timeline of events, the difference in pace, or the choreography of the principle set piece of both films, the 'Gunfight at the OK Corral.' It all boils down to authenticity. But which one stays closer to fact? Wyatt Earp carries a bigger load due to it covering Wyatt's life and not just the events leading to the main event and the less-told story of the aftermath.


The original director and scriptwriter Kevin Jarre was dismissed when Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer felt like the film was headed in the wrong direction with more of a John Ford tableau style of letting the camera speak for the scene with more long and medium shots focusing on the hustle and bustle unfolding in front of it. It would be Jarre's only directorial effort. George Cosmotos was brought in as the director of credit while Russell actually called the shots steering it into a cleaner, faster, crisper film with more in common with John Sturges films like The Magnificent Seven(1963), Bad Day at Black Rock, and his own version of the story, Gunfight at the OK Corral, the film that is credited with bringing that phrase into the lexicon.

Wyatt Earp, was the complete opposite with Lawrence Kasden at the helm. Costner got a slower, finely tuned but distant film more in tune with Kasden's ensemble comedy-drama The Big Chill(1983) - than his ensemble fan favorite, the fast moving, quirky western Silverado (1985). To be fair to both Costner and Kasden, Costner had also lost some of the edge he had in Silverado, with a more earnest detached feel to the whole film; coming in at a little over three hours when originally released a quirky western like Silverado would have worn out it's welcome, but then again, a film where the audience was held at a distance wasn't welcome at this length either.


Tombstone and Wyatt Earp are both available in special editions, with more extras. While the story lines are different they still have basic elements that are interesting to contrast and compare for the film buff.

Casting is Everything

If you were the casting director for the part of Wyatt Earp and it came down to these five who would you cast?

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Wyatt Earp - The 2 Disc Special Collector's Edition

The Physical v. Prose: The Pairing of Actor and Script

The real disappointment in the whole Wyatt Earp v. Tombstone debate is the over-looked Dennis Quaid who at any other time would have received many more kudos for his portrayal of a physically consumption ravaged Doc Holliday, obviously struggling with physical pain while battling a mental anguish. It was an excellent performance for which Quaid lost 43 pounds for the role to give him the appearance of a man riddled with Tuberculosis that should not be in the position he is in other than his sense of honor and loyalty towards Wyatt.

Unfortunately, Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday set the challenge the year before without going through so much effort to attain the appearance of a man who should be at death's door. A wisp of makeup causing him to look rather pale and sickly with the occasionally added beads of glycerin sweat for the close-ups. The make-up simply heightens Kilmer's own trademark rather tired with life, laissez-faire complacency, complete with wicked Southern gentleman attitude which today compels you to compare any other Doc Holliday that came before or after him; and of course the quotes that Kilmer is probably sick to death of hearing like, "I have not yet begun to defile myself," "It's true you are a good woman, then again you may be the antiChrist," "Why Johnny Tyler, you madcap," "Maybe poker's not your game, Ike. I know, let's have a spelling test." and of course the most memorable lines destined for immortality , "You're a daisy if you do" and "I'm your Huckleberry." So rejoinder peppered is Kilmer's dialogue, along with his spot on delivery, that his best role became Kilmer's worst enemy... next to Kilmer himself. He never really seemed to find grounding after this role to stop his career from imploding within a few years.

Lines like these made Kilmer's Doc Holliday a cult favorite.

"I have not yet begun to defile myself," "It's true you are a good woman, then again you may be the antiChrist," "Why Johnny Tyler, you madcap," "Maybe poker's not your game, Ike. I know, let's have a spelling test." and of course the most memorable lines destined for immortality, "You're a daisy if you do" and "I'm your Huckleberry."

Happy Hollidays.

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Josephine Marcus photograph hinted at being taken prior to shootout in Tombstone; and about all that can be shown.

Shoot, Print, and Edit the Myth to Create the Legend

Both Tombstone and Wyatt Earp continue with the premise that the myth is everything, Tombstone revels in it and Wyatt Earp in its final moments resigns itself to it; a legend built and perpetuated by Wyatt's widow, Josephine Marcus Earp and writer Stuart N. Lake. Filmmaker's and television producers have taken what they wrote as gospel for so long that the only argument when retelling the story is on how to make it fresh once again without disturbing the traditional plot. A new take on the story is Tombstone Rashoman which has characters involved in the OK Corral gunfight retelling the story from their different perspectives.

In both the '93 and ''94 films there are events which are compressed, altered, reversed, and staged differently from actual events, some for expediency while others for believably. For example to stage the death of Marshal Fred White (Harry Carey, Jr.) as it is reported to have actually taken place might have elicited audience laughter. The shooting in the film is close enough with Curly Bill Brocious devilishly offering up his firearms butt first.

The revenge maiming of Virgil Earp and murder of Morgan Earp in both films basically carries the same altered timeline for story expediency. This may have been a result of Costner's original involvement with Kevin Jarre on the original Tombstone film treatment. The actor was never really involved with the film that eventually became Tombstone as written elsewhere; he and Jarre began to work on ideas and a script treatment for which would eventually become Tombstone. Costner left the project early on when he and Jarre could not agree on the direction and focus of the story line.

John Ford and Henry Fonda on Wyatt Earp's description of gunfight to actor Harry Carey, Sr.

"Wyatt described the fight fully, exactly the way that you did it. As a matter of fact he drew it out on paper, a sketch of the entire thing ..."

A perfect example of the legend becoming the truth. John Ford with Henry Fonda recalling My Darling Clementine and his meeting with the real Wyatt Earp. James S

The beginning of both the Sturges (color) & Ford (B&W) versions of the gunfight continue the narrative that the gunfight at least started in the stable area. St

The Style and the Substance, Sturges or Ford.

The debate over the two films generally centers on likability of character, action and the wittiness of dialogue, basically style over substance; and which style and substance you enjoy at the moment, John Ford or John Sturges.

In this aspect the majority of western fans like Tombstone over Wyatt Earp; although comparing the two is like the proverbial apple and orange contrast. The Costner/Kasden film unfolds at a deliberate pace which exposes the uneven story that at 3+ hours may be a bit much for the average fan of the genre. Tombstone moves with a linear story making its point in a swift fast and colorful fashion. At a bit over 2 hours it makes its point through expediency as a traditional western is expected to; although an expanded directors cut is said to enhance the film even more.

While Tombstone is the odds on favorite, the line that sums up both films and the western mythos in general is actually the last line in Wyatt Earp and spoken by Josephine Earp. Several years after the events of the film, while on a ship bound for Alaska, an older Wyatt and Josie are approached by a young man who tells Wyatt how he saved the young man's uncle from an angry mob in Tombstone. After the young storyteller leaves Wyatt says to Josie, "Some say it did not happen that way." To which Josie, letting us know she has already become protector of the Earp mythos, says, "Don't worry Wyatt, it happened that way."

This is the West, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend

— Newspaper Editor, Maxwell Scott. John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"

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