Commentary Magazine

Flop at the OK Corral

Once again Hollywood is stupefied. As with A Perfect World, last year’s Clint Eastwood-Kevin Costner megaflop, so now Wyatt Earp, a $60-million Kevin Costner spectacular, carefully released at the start of the peak summer season and replete with gunslingers, gunfights, and the legendary shoot-out at the OK Corral, has come to grief at American box offices. Opening to weak reviews at number four among the week’s top-grossing films, and in only its third week diving by 64 percent to number ten (below Baby’s Day Out), the film has been a box-office humiliation.

As is usual in the film industry, stupefaction lasted only a nanosecond. Exactly as in the case of A Perfect World, Hollywood was quickly filled with seers who had known from the start that Wyatt Earp was doomed. It was too long (more than three hours). There were those negative reviews. Above all, the movie violated an inflexible law, now suddenly revealed to have been brought down by Moses from the mountaintop: thou shalt not release two films on the same subject within six months. For only last winter, Tombstone—a smaller-budget movie with more modest stars but with the exact same story and characters—had been a smash hit.

But one can think of a number of exceptions to this law. And anyway, two other films with the identical story and characters—the classic John Ford film, My Darling Clementine (with Henry Fonda), and the Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas Gunfight at the OK Corral—play regularly on cable but had no discernible effect on the fortunes of Tombstone. True, Tombstone’s release as a home video was timed to accord exactly with the big-screen release of Wyatt Earp. This might be an interesting first, but to my knowledge the Lord has yet to declare Himself on the morality of video releases.

What no one seems to have mentioned is that Tombstone is a hugely superior movie to Wyatt Earp in every respect. It is better acted, better directed, better costumed, better written. Kurt Russell (Earp) and Val Kilmer (Doc Holliday) are wonderful. But above all, Tombstone is a Western in the heroic mold. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Earp brothers are brave men. They face death without flinching. Their adversaries are weasels. And in the anarchic West, crawling with gamblers, swindlers, prostitutes, drinkers, liars, and cheaters of all sorts, they defend what they crudely understand to be the law, the order of civilized society.


Kevin Costner’s distinction in Hollywood—a distinction which might yet do him in—is that he plainly thinks of himself as a major humanist. A graduate of the University of California at Fullerton with a degree in business administration, he is a clear example of what is now a rather extensive breed: usually conservative in economic affairs, but faithfully liberal on matters social and cultural. Thus, Costner supported Phil Gramm in his campaign for reelection to his Texas seat in the U.S. Senate, but also Bill Clinton for the presidency. (For what it is worth, Kurt Russell, the star of Tombstone, is a registered Republican.)

Claiming a few drops of Oklahoma-Indian blood, Costner decided at some point in his career that the white man had given the Indian a raw deal. He then went through hell and high water, and risked a lot of his own money, to make Dances With Wolves which elevated the Sioux to a level of humanity, civilization, and environmental responsibility never before attributed to them by anyone, whether white or Indian. But the counterculture having done its work, and with the movie going young apparently as ignorant of American history as Costner himself, Dances With Wolves caught on like wildfire.

Still rectifying stereotypes, Costner then decided it was time for a modestly skilled white man (himself) to serve as humble bodyguard to a hugely successful black rock star (Whitney Houston). And The Bodyguard, too, was a hit.

Costner must have read somewhere that at the time of the Crusades, the civilization of Islam was superior to that of Christendom. So in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, Costner sends his hero on the Crusades and, in the interests of multiculturalism, has him stumble about like a hayseed in comparison with the sophisticated Arab (Morgan Freeman) he brings back with him from the Near East.

That takes us up to JFK and A Perfect World. By universal assent, the paranoia of the former film is not Costner’s (who plays New Orleans attorney Jim Garrison) but director Oliver Stone’s; and the disaster of the latter is to be laid at the feet of director-auteur Clint Eastwood. But Wyatt Earp, co-produced by and starring Costner, is all his.


Variety opened its sensible review of this movie as follows:

If you’re going to ask an audience to sit through a three-hour, nine-minute rendition of a story that has been told many times before, it would help to have a strong point of view on your material and an urgent reason to relate it.

Unfortunately, the review continued, such is not the case with the new Wyatt Earp.

My own view is slightly different. Setting up shop as an American Tolstoy, Costner seems to have turned his back on the meretricious and misleading mythology of the Old West, and nobly set out to create a work as rich and complex as life itself. He would show the world what the Old West and its lawmen were “really” like.

One consequence of this vast ambition is that Wyatt Earp’s plotting is muddy, and the film is totally obscure about any number of crucial issues—such as why the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday engaged in their legendary gun-fight with the Clantons and Mc-Laurys at the OK Corral; or why a man with such a checkered background as Wyatt Earp should have become the marshal, or the sheriff, or whatever he became in Tombstone (this was unclear even to the governor of Arizona); or why anyone with any connection at all to the police force should have as his best buddy Doc Holliday, a drunk, gambler, whore-monger, gunfighter, and all-around “sporting man.”

We first encounter Wyatt as a teenager running through an Illinois cornfield on his way to join the Union Army in the Civil War. It is a long run, and we realize it is going to be a long movie. His father (Gene Hackman) catches him, and we are subsequently treated to much moralizing on the part of this pater familias. “Nothing counts like blood,” he proclaims stentoriously to his daughter and five sons. “The rest are strangers.” And: “You should never draw your gun unless you intend to use it. But when you use it, shoot to kill.”

The family seems to drift all over the West, the father announcing at one stage that he is setting out for California, “where civilization has flourished for hundreds of years” (this, in the 1870’s). Wyatt, who does not leave for California, kills and skins buffalo for a living, hires as his helper the young Bat Masterson (another legendary Western gunfighter and lawman), and gets married. But his wife dies of typhoid (historically in childbirth), and he goes to the dogs. He becomes an alcoholic, commits robbery, steals a horse (a hanging offense in those days), flees, and heads for Dodge City. There he teams up with his old buddy Bat Masterson in the “Dodge City Wars.”

Somehow or other, and after many peregrinations, the Earp lot find their way to the godforsaken mining town of Tombstone, Arizona, where their pal, Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), and three of the Earp brothers have their great and still highly controversial shootout with the Clantons and Mc-Laurys. The movie ends with Mr. and (the third) Mrs. Wyatt Earp, gray-haired, dignified, senior citizens by now, on a steamship off the coast of Alaska, with Wyatt being congratulated by an enthusiastic young man for his brave deeds of yore.


Curiously, the real Wyatt Earp lived long enough so that, in retirement in Los Angeles, he actually met the stars of the first Western movies, William S. Hart (The Gun Fighter) and even Tom Mix. They regarded him with awe, as the legend he had by then become.

How had this happened? The gunfight at the OK Corral, which occurred in 1881, could easily have remained just another obscure, violent, frontier incident, no more glamorous or heroic than a drug shoot-out in any one of a dozen modern American cities. But in the more peaceful parts of America there was a great thirst for dime novels and other adventure tales of the Wild West. This audience had been through Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday—seized on by the new generation of hack writers—suddenly became the latest thing.

Historically, it is still very much in dispute whether the Clantons and McLaurys were thieves and murderers or whether the thieves and murderers were Doc Holliday and the Earps, whose criminal connections were abundant. If things had gone only slightly differently, Hollywood and Kevin Costner might well have just released a $60-million Western called Ike Clanton. But the Earps and Holliday won the gunfight and, since then, it has been Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday all the way.

Also of historical interest is the fact that Wyatt Earp’s third wife, Sadie (as she was known to her friends and husband, but not in this film), was born Josephine Sarah Marcus. She was living, unmarried, with a rival lawman, Johnny Behan, who had been divorced by his wife for pimping. When Sadie Marcus ran off with the new gunslinger, Wyatt Earp, she was identified in the press with heavy irony as an “actress” (always in quotes), much as it might have been reported that she was a “dance-hall girl.”

Sadie, a wild runaway from her San Francisco Jewish family, had actually come to the metropolis of Tombstone playing a role in a wandering road company of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. For anyone familiar with the social standing and customs of minor female entertainers of the 19th century, this is about all one needs to know. But Sadie Earp grew very respectable in her old age, insisting to her ghostwriter that hers “must be a nice, clean story.” (Incredibly, she lived on until 1944.) And it is true that in their old age, Sadie and Wyatt Earp were a devoted couple: they lie buried side by side in the Hills of Eternity Jewish cemetery near San Francisco.


To some extent—but only to some extent—Costner’s movie is faithful to the historical record of the Earps and their women. Thus, we see that Brother James runs a saloon in Tombstone (apparently a brothel), and brothers Wyatt and Morgan are sometime faro dealers and gamblers at Tombstone’s Oriental Casino. It is clear, too, that Wyatt’s second wife, Mattie Blaylock, the one he leaves for Sadie Marcus, was a registered, full-time prostitute, as was James’s wife. The other brothers, as a genteel historian put it, also “had liaisons with young women of dubious social standing.” Eventually, after Wyatt runs off with Sadie, Mattie commits suicide through a combination of alcohol and laudanum (an opiate).

Innocently, as it were, Wyatt Earp asks his brother James in the movie if he minds being married to a “whore.” James takes this well, indeed laughingly. Why, what other men pay for, he gets for free!, he answers gaily: it is all good fun. But it was not good fun. In her Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-90, Anne Butler makes a particular point of demolishing, with plentiful documentation, the myth of the bawdy, sexually easygoing West, and her account could not be more relevant to the family story of the Earps.

For if an activity is illegal yet extremely widespread, almost everyone in authority has to be in on it: police, judges, mayors. In the American West, the sheriffs and marshals often ran the whole operation. Given the Earps’ extensive relationship with prostitutes, and Wyatt’s position as lawman (he was in and out of the post of deputy-sheriff, and his brother Virgil was a U.S. Marshal), it seems highly probable that a great deal of the Earp family business—along with gambling (then also illegal), drinking, mining speculation, “law enforcement,” and a variety of other high-risk enterprises—was in simple fact prostitution. Not for nothing had they been known in Dodge City as the “Fighting Pimps.”

If there is anything more ludicrous than Kevin Costner setting up as the Tolstoy of the American West, it is his romanticizing of the wonderful spirit of sisterhood among Western prostitutes (a theme that has popped up in a half-dozen new movies, most recently Bad Girls, another super-flop). Being a whore in the Old West was a nasty business. And there was virtually no way out.


Kevin Costner seems to be unaware that what he is dealing with in Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral is in fact folk legend. Someone, some day, might have the capacity to transmute this base metal of popular myth into the gold of a great humanist work. But neither Costner nor his director, Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill, Grand Canyon), has the historical erudition, intelligence, or maturity for the job.

But neither did they have the sense to accept the legend as given. In folk legend, the man who wears the star of a lawman of the Old West represents the craving for order and justice. This is something the makers of Tombstone (not to mention My Darling Clementine and Gunfight at the OK Corral) knew instinctively. Kevin Costner either never knew it, or thought he was somehow above it. No wonder he came to grief.


See my review, “Indian Love Call,” in the March 1991 COMMENTARY.

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