Justice for Wyatt Earp

by Brian Phillips

One hundred and twenty years ago the American West was a vast, open area brimming with natural resources and opportunity. Cow towns and mining camps sprung up across the landscape. From around the world, millions of people flocked to the Western territories with the hope of making a better life for themselves. Many came to find gold or silver. Others came to open saloons, general stores, and other small businesses. And still others came to steal from the productive members of the west.

It was in such a setting that Wyatt Earp lived and worked. Like many of his time, he skipped from one boom town to another, always optimistic that his fortune awaited at the end of another long, dusty ride. And in nearly every town he invariably found himself called upon to bring law and order to what was previously anarchy. Earp’s exploits in taming lawless cow towns and mining camps and his bravery in facing ruthless killers– particularly at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona– make him one of the great figures of the American West.

Western legends have long been a popular subject for film makers, and Earp has been one of the most popular. Indeed, no less than six movies have been made about him. I have seen five of these movies, and they vary widely in both their artistic quality and their historical accuracy.

Three of these movies, Wyatt Earp, Tombstone, and Gunfight at the OK Corral, depict, among other things, the feud between the Clanton and McLaurey gang and the Earp brothers– Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan– which culminates in a gunfight in Tombstone’s OK Corral. In addition, these movies also present the friendship between Wyatt Earp and John “Doc” Holliday, a former dentist who has come west to find relief for his tuberculosis. Despite the commonality of plot, the themes of these movies are quite different.

Early Westerns were generally Romantic in nature. They presented man as a volitional being, capable of choosing and pursuing his values. Early Westerns were movies which depicted a struggle between opposing value systems, between good and evil. The heroes of these movies are abstractions– characters who embody the essential qualities of greatness.

However, many of these movies were based on historical figures. Thus, the writers could not exercise complete selectivity– they had some responsibility to adhere to the historical facts. The result was a mixture of fact and fiction, an attempt to present heroes while being limited in the means of doing so.

But these movies are not documentaries either. For example, in the movies about Wyatt Earp, the writers had an entire life of events from which to choose. They could not present every event in the life of Wyatt Earp, and thus the writers had to exercise considerable selectivity in determining which events to depict, which to omit, and which to rearrange.

In this regard, such movies can be evaluated by esthetic principles. The writers literally recreate the subject of their film, be selecting those events which dramatize their vision of the fundamental nature of his character. They had the choice to omit or include every scene and each line of dialogue. They had the choice of depicting events precisely as they occurred, or identifying the essence of those events and dramatizing those abstractions.

As art it is not necessary for movies to depict historical events or characters with unerring detailed precision. What is necessary is that the essence of those events or characters be captured. Art is an essentialization, an identification of what is important. What appears on film is the writer’s statement of what is important about a particular event or character.

Wyatt Earp
Tombstone and Wyatt Earp are very historically accurate in terms of details and actual events. Each movie is filled with scenes and dialogue which any student of Wyatt Earp would appreciate for its historical precision. But the writers have not identified the essence of Wyatt Earp, and the result is an unessentialized series of scenes which add up to a mockery of the historical figure. Each fails miserably, not because of the historical facts they portray, but because of the premise which underlies both movies– Naturalism.

As a school, Naturalism holds that man does not possess the faculty of choice, that man’s actions are caused by forces outside of his control. Our values are forced upon us, by nature, by God, by society. Man is not a moral being, but a victim of fate. Neither success nor failure are one’s responsibility– we act as we do because we must. Thus, the hero should not be glorified, and the criminal should not be vilified.

This is precisely the message director and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan coveys in Wyatt Earp. Starring Kevin Costner as Wyatt, Kasdan presents a long, rambling tale which starts with Earp’s teenage attempt to join the Union army and ends with his middle aged venture to the Alaskan gold fields. The movie has no discernible plot– Kasdan merely presents a chronological report of Earp’s life. Rather than identify and present those events which dramatize the essence of Earp’s character, Kasdan simply overwhelms us with concrete events.

As Ayn Rand notes in The Romantic Manifesto, the key to understanding a character is his motivation. If we understand his motivation, i.e., his values and premises, we understand why he chooses one course of action rather than another. His actions make sense, because they are a logical result of his ideas.

A Naturalist, who denies volition, holds that man is motivated by something other than his chosen values. Man is simply swept along by the winds of chance, the will of God, or something similar.

Kasdan makes it clear what motivates Wyatt. Early in the movie, we see Nicholas Earp (Wyatt’s father) lecturing his children on the importance of family. “Nothing counts so much as blood,” he tells them. “All the rest are strangers.” At the time the family jokes about having heard this message “a hundred times”. Nicholas Earp does not make an argument for his often repeated claim– it is asserted as a self-evident fact which Wyatt accepts. At no time do we see him question his father, and he makes only one exception to this creed– Doc Holliday.

In one scene, after the brothers have moved to Tombstone, the brothers are discussing their business ventures. One of the wives asks Wyatt why the brothers are his only consideration, why the wives aren’t allowed any input. “Wives come and go,” he says. “They run off. They die.” They are, he implies, strangers and not a part of the family. Even wives are not “blood”.

Logically, if this premise is true of the Earp family, it must also be true of the Clantons and McLaureys. If devotion to one’s family is inherent, the nature of one’s family is irrelevant. If the good guys aren’t responsible for their actions, if their actions are not tied to moral values, then neither are the bad guys. Indeed, if individuals can’t choose their values, classifications such as good and bad are arbitrary. Morality involves choice; Naturalism denies choice.

Following the gunfight with the Clantons at OK Corral, Sheriff Johnnie Behan, an ally of the Clantons, seeks to arrest the Earps and Holliday. Rather than depict a confrontation between good and evil, between men on opposite sides of the law, we are presented with the spectacle of the law representing both sides. The town Marshal and his deputies– the Earps– on one side, and Sheriff Behan on the other.

In the Naturalistic world of Wyatt Earp, there is no right or wrong, moral or immoral. Men act as they must, and their actions should not be judged. When the Earps claim that the Clantons are hiding behind Behan’s badge, the audience is simultaneously presented with the same claim against the Earps. Indeed, at one point Holliday remarks that Wyatt is both a Marshal and an outlaw.

This is the dead end of Naturalism’s amorality. Rather than project heroes, it makes no distinction between a lawman and an outlaw, between self-defense and murder. The men who defend the lives and property of productive citizens are no better or worse than those who defend the lives and “property” of cattle rustlers and killers.

Shortly after OK Corral, Morgan is assassinated and Virgil’s arm nearly blown off as the remaining Clantons and their friends seek revenge. The Earps decide to flee Tombstone and join their father in California. But Wyatt does not join the family. Instead, he tells Doc that he wants to “kill them all,” and he promptly sets out to accomplish that task, searching the countryside for those he suspects attacked his brothers.

When he finds them, he kills them. There is no talk of justice, and no attempt to capture the suspects alive and bring them to trial. Kasdan makes no distinction between Earp’s actions and those of the Clanton gang, each seeks revenge for the deaths of family members. After killing the first suspect in Morgan’s murder, Wyatt tells Virgil, “That’s one for Morgan.” We see two warring gangs, each seeking revenge for the deaths of family members.

Historically, Wyatt Earp did hunt down those he suspected of being involved in the murder of Morgan. And he did kill them with no attempt to bring them to trial. But there is another part to the story which Kasdan omits, a part which explains and justifies Earp’s actions.

While Kasdan makes it clear that Sheriff Behan is a corrupt lackey of the outlaws, the scope of his corruption is minimized. Outside of Tombstone, southeast Arizona was virtually lawless during this period. The outlaws stole cattle from Mexico and from American ranchers with virtual impunity. They regularly robbed stage coaches and trains without punishment. In Behan’s jurisdiction, the law went un-enforced.

Following the murder of Morgan Earp, the federal government intervened, appointing Wyatt U. S. Marshal and giving him warrants for those he hunted down. Those warrants did not require that the suspects be brought to trial– they were for their capture, dead or alive. Further, Wells Fargo and Company, Southern Pacific Railroad, and citizens of Cochise County donated $15,000 for expenses.

Thus, in truth Wyatt’s actions were not solely those of a vengeful brother, but also those of a lawman carrying out his legal responsibilities. While we may question Earp’s actions, he was not the reckless vigilante presented in the movie.

Kasdan does not explicitly condemn Earp. Instead, he shows that even heroes have flaws, that they are actually “human”. While it is true that Wyatt Earp had character flaws, those flaws paled in comparison to his virtue. By including these flaws, the writer states that they are an important aspect of Earp’s character, that those flaws are part of what defines him. As Ayn Rand noted, “In life one ignores the unimportant; in art one omits it.”

These deviations from the historical truth are not mere lapses, but purposeful actions on the part of the film makers. Lawrence Kasdan is a well-known and successful director, and he knew precisely what he was doing.

In contrast to the film, the efforts of Wyatt Earp put an end to organized criminal activities in southeastern Arizona. He brought law and justice to that region, and that is what the movies should depict.

Starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Tombstone succumbs to the same Naturalistic premises. Rich in historical detail, the movie depicts many of the same events seen in Wyatt Earp and has the same basic theme. But Tombstone goes further, depicting Wyatt as confused and non-purposeful, while projecting the self-destructive Holliday as intelligent, insightful, and sophisticated.

We are introduced to Holliday near the beginning of the movie. A dispute over a card game results in Holliday stabbing a man to death. While the act appears to be self-defense, Holliday retreats from the saloon with the intention of fleeing town with Kate. But simple retreat is not enough. On his way past the faro table, Holliday stops to rob the dealer, adding robbery to his list of “accomplishments”. When we next see Doc, he is being warmly greeted by Wyatt in Tombstone. The friendship between the legendary lawman and the indisputable thief is never explained, and yet is a central aspect of the movie.

Wyatt’s uncertainty and Doc’s sophistication are clearly depicted in two scenes early in the movie. In the first, the Earps are standing outside on a clear night, looking at the stars. Morgan Earp asks Wyatt if he believes in God. Wyatt stammers, “Yeh. Maybe. Hell, I don’t know.”

“Well what happens when you die?” Morgan responds.

“Something. Nothing. Hell, I don’t know.”

Morgan then proceeds to tell Wyatt of a book he has read on spiritualism. When people die, he says, they see a bright light, which some think is the light leading you to heaven.

What about hell? Wyatt jokingly asks. Do they have a sign there?  The only reference I found in regard to such an incident was in Stuart Lake’s book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. In that book, Wyatt is quoted as saying that he and Morgan had a similar discussion camping in the desert. During that discussion, Wyatt flatly rejected Morgan’s suggestion. Rather than show a confident and certain Wyatt, the scene depicts him as confused and uncertain.

In the next scene, the Earps and Holliday are at the faro table. Wyatt is the dealer for the popular game when the notorious outlaws Johnny Ringo and “Curly Bill” Brocius approach the table. Ringo and Holliday, both men of considerable repute as killers, exchange insults in Latin. Doc turns to Kate and remarks, “Mr. Ringo appears to be an educated man. Now I know I hate him.”

Ringo pulls his pistol and holds the barrel at Holliday’s forehead. Smiling, he returns the gun to his holster and then abruptly pulls it again and begins a display of gun handling prowess. When he is done, the crowd applauds as all eyes turn to see Doc’s response. Doc drains the last of the whiskey from the small tin cup in his hand, and then begins twirling the cup on his finger, mocking Ringo.

In these few minutes we see Wyatt unable to respond to such a fundamental issue as belief in God, while Holliday is able to converse in a foreign language. From this scene on, Holliday is depicted as the sophisticate, while Wyatt stumbles along, confused and often purposeless.

After Morgan and Virgil are attacked, the Earps choose to leave Tombstone. Ike Clanton and Frank Stillwell follow the family to Tucson, with the intention of killing them. At the train station, Wyatt kills Stillwell, and tells Clanton to carry a message back to his colleagues: “I see a red sash [worn by members of Clanton’s gang], I kill the man wearing it.” Wyatt makes no pretense of his intention– those wearing a red sash deserve to die.

As in Wyatt Earp, what ensues is a manhunt in which many are gunned down. But in Tombstone an attempt is made to explain this as a matter of justice. After a shootout in which Curly Bill is killed, a member of the party remarks to Doc that if it had been his brothers, he’d want revenge too. Make no mistake, Doc says, it’s not revenge that Wyatt is seeking, but the reckoning. But aside from this one remark, the movie presents no evidence to support Holliday’s claim. Again, the warrants which Wyatt carries are not mentioned.

As Wyatt is cleaning up the countryside, Ringo arranges a showdown with the Marshal. As he prepares for the shoot out, which he believes he will lose, Wyatt confesses to Doc that he has never known what he wanted out of life. What makes a man like Ringo, he asks Doc.

“A man like Ringo got a great empty hole right through the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to fill it.”

“What’s he need?”


“For what?”

“For being born.”

Holliday, who is bedridden and appears to be dying, asks Wyatt if he can wear his badge. But Doc has faked the seriousness of his illness, and he beats Wyatt to Johnny Ringo. The fight will be legal, he tells Ringo, because Doc is now wearing the Marshal’s badge. Wyatt reaches the site as Ringo dies from Holliday’s gun. Doc places the badge on Ringo’s chest. “My hypocrisy only goes so far,” he tells Wyatt.

The movie depicts Holliday as a man who understands the motivation of both Earp and Ringo, i.e., of good and evil. Yet he rejects justice, calling himself a hypocrite for killing in the name of the law. Thus, the man who most clearly understands the fundamental issues involved acts contrary to his own understanding. And the man who is acting in the name of justice does not understand his own values or motivation.

Again the historical truth is considerably different and we must question why the writers would make such changes. Doc Holliday was a horrible shot, and Wyatt Earp was regarded as one of the best of his time. By rearranging the facts, the writers create the impression that Holliday was the confident marksman. Furthermore, Holliday was a Deputy Marshal under Wyatt, and therefore did not consider it hypocrisy to enforce the law.

Gunfight at the OK Corral
Made earlier this century, when better premises and values dominated, Gunfight at the OK Corral stars Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. From the beginning, Lancaster’s Earp is a man dedicated to justice. We do not see arbitrary events from his life, but a grown, confident man. He enters the town of Griffin on the trail of Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo. Wyatt has telegraphed Sheriff Cotton Wilson, an old friend of Wyatt’s, to hold the men. But Wilson has permitted the fugitives to continue on their way, telling Wyatt, “I got no quarrel with Ike Clanton.” Wilson further justifies his reluctance to get involved by citing his long career as a lawman and the lack of material wealth he possesses. The same will happen to you, he tells Wyatt.

Disappointed that his old friend has become an ally of outlaws, Wyatt must turn to Doc Holliday for information regarding Clanton and Ringo. Holliday, a former dentist who is now a professional gambler, greets Wyatt by remarking that if he had known Wyatt would become a lawman, he wouldn’t have been so kind when he pulled Earp’s tooth years ago. Wyatt expresses similar contempt for Holliday’s chosen profession.

Wyatt tells Doc that Ed Bailey, who is waiting for Doc in a saloon, has a small derringer in his left boot. Holliday uses Wyatt’s tip to defend himself when Ed Bailey reaches for the pistol. As Bailey lies dead with a knife in his chest, Holliday is placed under house arrest. Kate Fisher, Doc’s lover, pleads with Wyatt to intervene. Wyatt responds that she should “let the law handle it.” An angry mob forms to hang Holliday and Kate again pleads with Wyatt to save Doc. “It don’t matter whether Doc is right or wrong. He don’t deserve to be hung by a pack of animals,” she says.

Wyatt helps Doc escape. “I didn’t think you liked me,” Holliday tells Wyatt.

“Don’t take it personal, Doc,” Wyatt replies, “I just don’t like lynchings.”

This emphasizes the movie’s theme of justice. Kate correctly states that Doc’s innocence or guilt is not the issue when a mob lynching is about to take place. Justice demands a particular process, and that process was about to be denied. Wyatt recognized this. He had witnessed the killing, which was clearly an act of self-defense. But he did not attempt to intervene when Doc was arrested– he wanted to let the judicial process take place, but when he saw it about to be denied, he did intervene.

Doc soon arrives in Dodge City (where Wyatt is an officer), with the intention of thanking Wyatt “properly” for his aid. Wyatt intends to run Holliday out of town, but Doc responds by offering to split his gambling winnings with Wyatt if Earp will loan him the tool of his trade, money. Impressed by Doc’s confidence, Wyatt agrees, on the condition that there are “no knives, no guns, no killings.” Doc gives his word, and for the first time we see hints of a budding friendship. Each man acknowledges that he likes the other’s “cut”, i.e., character.

When they first meet in the movie, each has made an evaluation of the other. But each reexamines his evaluation as he is confronted with new facts about the other. Wyatt sees that Doc is a brave man who does not run from trouble, but doesn’t seek it out either. Doc sees that Wyatt is truly concerned with justice. The friendship between the two is justified within the movie, and is another dramatization of justice– neither grants his friendship promiscuously.

Unlike Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, OK Corral does not present the feud between the Earps and the Clanton gang primarily as a dispute between two families. OK Corral makes it clear that the Clantons are upset because Wyatt is interfering with their operations. They plot to murder him while he makes his nightly rounds. That evening, one of Wyatt’s brothers volunteers to make the rounds, and he becomes the Clanton’s victim. The scene is set for the confrontation in the OK Corral.

Cotton Wilson, who is now the corrupt Sheriff of Cochise County, stands with the Clantons as the Earps approach. When he asks Ike Clanton to allow him to leave, Ike barks out an order, which Wilson dutifully obeys. The exchange makes it clear that the outlaw is in charge. When Wilson attempts to flee, Ike shoots him in the back.

Thus, the gunfight at OK Corral becomes something other than merely a shootout between two gangs. It’s an act of justice in which lawmen stand up to outlaws and a corrupt sheriff. While Wyatt is not portrayed as a man of ideas, he does not have the confusion and character flaws of the later movies.

Ironically, few of the events in Gunfight at the OK Corral occurred precisely as they are depicted, yet it is the most historically accurate of the movies. By essentializing Earp’s character and dramatizing that, Gunfight at the OK Corral is the more historically accurate movie (in terms of fundamentals). The Naturalistic movies depict Wyatt Earp as a man who was partly good, and partly bad, rather than the defender of justice he truly was.

Wyatt Earp was a truly remarkable man. He was dedicated to the rule of law at a time when lawlessness abounded. He brought civilization to an uncivilized region, and demanded that men act as men. To depict him any differently is to mock the one virtue most synonymous with his name — justice.

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