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Kasdan and Costner's Lyrical, yet Uneven Western...
WYATT EARP, the second of the epic films about the legendary lawman released between 1993-94, lacked the commercial values that made TOMBSTONE successful, but was a far riskier film, with higher aspirations. Writer/Director Lawrence Kasdan, whose previous Western, SILVERADO (1985), had paid homage to Hollywood's Western clichés, wanted, with WYATT EARP, to cut through the myths, and create a film that would honestly examine an all-too-human Earp's life in the 'real' West, set against vistas of that were nearly overpowering in their immense size and beauty. Unfortunately, the result was a mixed bag; while the film is beautiful to look at (with one of the most majestic film scores of recent years, composed by James Newton Howard), the characters (with the exception of Dennis Quaid's 'Doc Holiday') lack charisma, with Kevin Costner's portrayal of Earp so flat that it is difficult to arouse much interest in him (it would be nearly ten years before he finally 'got it right', in OPEN RANGE). The film ultimately comes across as overblown and overlong, with it's memorable moments nearly lost amid panoramic views of the West.
I still think, however, that WYATT EARP has a few redeeming qualities which make it worth viewing. Foremost is Dennis Quaid, giving the performance of a lifetime as the dying Doc Holiday. The actor lost over forty pounds to play the role, and is physically the closest in appearance to the dentist-turned-gambler/gunfighter of all the actors who have ever portrayed him. Gaunt, dripping sarcasm with a Southern accent between hacking tubercular coughs, Quaid seizes each scene he's in, and certainly deserved Oscar consideration. It is ironic that his performance had to follow TOMBSTONE's flamboyant 'Doc', Val Kilmer, who created such an over-the-top, audience-friendly character, that Quaid's more realistic portrayal would be forgotten.
Another reason to watch WYATT EARP is it's presentation of the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and it's aftermath. With the exception of John Sturges' HOUR OF THE GUN, no Westerns before TOMBSTONE and WYATT EARP had told the full story of the events, from the brief but deadly shootout, through the subsequent murder trial against the Earps, and Ike Clanton's vengeance, afterwards, resulting in Morgan Earp's murder, and Virgil Earp being crippled for life. Wyatt's bloody vendetta against Clanton and his allies was a grim reminder of 'frontier justice' and his ruthlessness even appalled Doc Holliday. The film doesn't attempt to gloss over or glorify Earp's actions, but does try to explain it, as an obligation to his family, who were the cornerstone of his life. Unfortunately, it took WYATT EARP nearly two hours to finally reach Tombstone, by which time audiences were fidgeting in their seats!
Uneven, but at times powerful, WYATT EARP was a major box office failure when released, and it never achieved the 'Classic' stature TOMBSTONE has, over the years. But it isn't a bad film, and Kasdan should be credited for his willingness to take an original look at a Western legend. It will be interesting to hear his comments, if a 'Director's Cut' DVD is ever released!
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