The origins of Lawrence Kasdan’s “Wyatt Earp” lie in the troubled production of Kurt Russell’s “Tombstone” (and “Tombstone” East Russell’s film, but we will come back to this). In the early 1990s, Kevin Costner, who actively portrayed himself as an all-American hybrid of Gary Cooper and James Stewart, teamed up with “Glory” screenwriter Kevin Jarre to make “Tombstone,” an epic film about the legendary, real-life lawman. It would have allowed the ambitious Costner to link up with another red, white and blue screen icon, Henry Fonda, who delivered what was then considered Earp’s definitive performance in John Ford’s classic. from 1946, “My Darling Clementine.”
But Costner, who had just won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars with “Dances With Wolves,” disapproved of Jarre’s overall vision. He wanted his take on warts and all about Earp to be the sole focus of the film. When Jarre resisted, Costner stalled the project and continued with his own telling of Earp’s story.
Costner wisely took his movie Earp to Kasdan, who had directed him in the entertaining 1985 western, “Silverado,” and he set his goals high. With her producing partner Jim Wilson, the star envisioned her portrayal of Earp as a six-hour miniseries. In 2023, that would be a slam-dunk idea. In the 90s, however, television was under the directorship of “The Big Chill” and “The Accidental Tourist.” So Kasdan, a true movie buff who loves Westerns, introduced Costner to a high-profile movie event.
Speak the unvarnished truth of a slightly varnished man
As Kevin Costner told the Christian Science Monitor in 1994, Lawrence Kasdan asked him if he would let him write a three-hour account of Earp’s life. Costner owes his career to Kasdan in the weirdest way — the director cut him from ‘The Big Chill’ but then wrote a scene-stealing role for him in ‘Silverado.’ It was a solid showcase that led to breakthrough roles in “The Untouchables” and “No Way Out.” Because of this, Costner gave the four-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker all the leeway he needed.
Kasdan returned with a script that offered the nuanced portrayal of Earp that Costner wanted. As he told the Christian Science Monitor:
“We didn’t want Wyatt to be a note; we exposed his dark side, his flaws. At the start of the script, Gene Hackman, who plays Wyatt’s father, pierces his four sons – ‘Stay together, because there’s no ain’t nothing thicker than blood.’ So when you see them walking side by side to the OK Corral, not knowing if they’ll be dead in a few minutes, I wanted the audience to feel that family thing. ball for you.”
When the facts are less entertaining than the legend, film the legend
When Kevin Costner and Lawrence Kasdan got the go-ahead for “Wyatt Earp” at Warner Bros., the star played hardball through CAA superagent Mike Ovitz. In a 2006 interview with True West Magazine, Kurt Russell revealed that Costner and Ovitz killed prospects for “Tombstone” at every studio except Disney, which was not the ideal home for a Western in 1993. Russell s also clashed with Kevin Jarre over the direction of the film, which led to the filmmaker’s first firing. On the advice of his pal Sylvester Stallone, Russell hired “Rambo: First Blood Part II” director George Pan Cosmatos to put the film into production. Cosmatos accepted the gig knowing Russell wouldn’t undermine him in the press. Russell wanted to finish the film, but he didn’t need the credit.
Thirty years later, Kasdan’s “Wyatt Earp” is considered a star-directed madness, while Russell’s “Tombstone” is a beloved western classic. Neither film can touch “My Darling Clementine,” but “Tombstone” successfully blends American action movie aesthetics with the traditional trappings of an unassuming oater. “Wyatt Earp” wants to be more, but he doesn’t know where to go. If anything, it exposes Earp as a bore. He was an integral part of taming the West, but he wasn’t that interesting. You get a lot more mileage from Henry Fonda leaning on a chair outside the Marshal’s office than Kasdan’s strenuous movie mythos construction.