"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Wyatt Earp in fact and fiction, part 2/2: the fiction

After the first post on Wyatt Earp which dealt with the fact, this one looks at the fictional Earp.

2          FICTION: the myth of Wyatt Earp

Even when he was alive, Wyatt Earp had to read wild claims of his superhuman abilities as lawman without peer and equally extreme comments on his activities as a criminal desperado. Once he was dead, there was no limit to what was said and written about him. Pulp novels, biographies and Hollywood turned him into a myth, and the myth is still potent today.

Wyatt appeared in any number of dime novels
and pulp magazines

There were even pop records - The Marquees' Wyatt Earp, featuring Marvin Gaye in 1957, listen here (external link).

"Wyatt Earp, the king of the West, a better shot than all the rest".
The Marquees knew great poetry alright.
Walter Noble Burns

There had been an attempt while Wyatt was still alive to write a life story. Encouraged by William S Hart, John Flood, a mining engineer who had met the Earps in 1906 and who was an expert typist, interviewed them at length and came up with an indescribably bad manuscript that made the dime novels look tame. It never found a publisher. Meanwhile, a Chicago journalist, later a judge, Walter Noble Burns, who had scored a hit with the hyperbolic Saga of Billy the Kid, published his Tombstone: an Iliad of the Southwest in 1927, angering Wyatt and his wife Josie. It seemed that their last hope of a decent income, a biography, had been snatched away from them.

Billy Breakenridge has his say

But they did not give up. In June of 1928 Wyatt and Josie had a series of perhaps six meetings with Stuart N Lake, a magazine writer and wrestling promoter. They also exchanged letters. While Lake was working on his book, Billy Breakenridge, Johnny Behan’s deputy in Tombstone, brought out his own version of events in an autobiography, Helldorado, Bringing Law to the Mesquite, ghosted by a skilled professional writer, WM Raine. This of course painted a far from heroic portrait of Earp and told the story from the Behan/Democrat/Cowboy angle.
Billy Breakenridge
After Wyatt’s death in 1929, Josie made Lake’s life a misery as she nagged him about the book and what it should contain and not contain. She wanted, for example, no mention at all of how she had been Behan’s girl and then had an affair with Wyatt in Tombstone, or of Wyatt’s desertion of his common-law wife Mattie. In Tombstone, Lake interviewed many of the people concerned and he found the transcript of the Spicer hearing. He read such back numbers of the Epitaph and Nugget as had survived various Tombstone fires.

Rival accounts
Saint Johnson

In 1930 William P Burnett published a novel, Saint Johnson, a tale of brothers’ vengeance in Tombstone that did not mention the Earps by name but was clearly an account of their exploits. Hollywood sat up and took notice. Law and Order, starring Walter Huston as Frame Johnson (Wyatt Earp), went into production at Universal. Harry Carey Sr. was the Doc Holliday-esque Ed Brandt. Brian Garfield, the Delphic oracle (actually, he was a bit too outspoken to be Delphic), said, "[T]his may well be the definitive Wyatt Earp movie." He could be right (he usually was). Click the link to read more about it.
The first Wyatt Earp movie
Stuart N Lake

In June 1931, Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal was finally published. Rather to Lake’s surprise, it was a huge hit. Depression America, in an era of Dillinger, Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde, ate up the story of a tough hombre taking the law into his own hands and gunning down the bad guys. Lake called Earp "the greatest gunfighting marshal that the Old West knew" and said in his introduction to the book, to give you an idea:

The lover of swift and decisive action, Wyatt Earp's achievements surely must be of interest in themselves. His taming of Mannen Clements and fifty cowboy killers in the streets of Wichita; his play against Clay Allison of the Washita in the Plaza at Dodge City; his protection of insignificant Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce against a Tombstone mob; the sanguinary battle of the O. K. Corral, his sawed-off shotgun duel with Curly Bill--tales of these exploits could not fail, even were they meaningless, to stir a reader's blood. Through them Wyatt Earp moves steadily, surely, sagaciously, implacable on, guided by a philosophy fitted to his surroundings, to which he gave fullest expression in admonishment of Ike Clanton, braggart outlaw, cow thief and murderer.

This breathless tone (and slightly dubious grammar) continues throughout the book. Lake got a lot right and a few things wrong but it comes across as hagiography. Key events were omitted. Wyatt Earp, Frontier Gambler, Conman and Philanderer probably wouldn’t have sold so many copies. Or maybe it would…
Breathless, if not deathless prose
The worst aspect of the book is that in order to give an air of authenticity, Lake credited to Earp, in quotation marks and in the first person, long speeches that Lake had written himself or copied down from other speakers. This made Wyatt appear dishonest and even boastful (which he never was) when certain facts turned out to be wrong or others came to light. For example, according to Lake, Wyatt was always the top lawman, whereas Wyatt was always a deputy or assistant marshal.

Lake also came up with the story of the long-barreled pistol supposedly presented to Earp by dime novelist Ned Buntline which gave him superior firepower. This Colt Buntline Special (click the link for more on this mythical gun) became famous, of course, in the Wyatt Earp TV show. No such pistol has ever turned up and the Colt company has no record of such an order.

Buntline Special
But the Stuart Lake story of the bold lawman who could do no wrong was swallowed hook, line and sinker by thousands and thousands of readers and has passed into that zone where legend becomes fact.

A celluloid Wyatt

The movie rights to Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal were sold to Fox in 1932. The film Frontier Marshal came out in 1934 and starred George O'Brien as "Michael Wyatt" and Alan Edwards as "Doc Warren". Rather oddly in view of the success of the book, the movie sank without trace. I haven't seen it (woe!) but it is said to be a standard oater, without the class of Law and Order.
Stuart Lake's book hits the screen - and sinks without trace
In 1939 Fox took another stab at Frontier Marshal, this time with Randolph Scott and Cesar Romero in the lead parts. The real name Wyatt Earp finally appeared, so Randolph Scott had the honor of being the first in a long line of celluloid Wyatt Earps (well, Bert Lindley had had a small part as Earp in the 1923 William S Hart silent Western Wild Bill Hickok, but we can't really count that). Romero played "Doc Halliday". Filmed on the tenth anniversary of Wyatt's death, it had all the Lake-inspired myths firmly in place. Sadie was hired as consultant, a decision Fox certainly came to regret for she spent the whole time saying, “Oh, Mr. Earp would never have done anything like that” and insisting on rewrites.
Rather good...though don't expect historicity
Despite coming out in the same year as Union Pacific, Jesse James (also featuring Scott), Dodge City (an Earpish Errol Flynn blockbuster), Destry Rides Again and Stagecoach - so it could have been overshadowed – Frontier Marshal was a box-office hit and contributed greatly to fixing the mythic Wyatt Earp in people’s minds. It’s an entertaining Randolph Scott oater, directed by Allan Dwan, limited but still well worth a watch. Despite being based on the Lake book and having Wyatt’s widow as adviser, the film is one of the least accurate portrayals ever of Wyatt Earp. "Curley" Bill kills Doc Holliday then challenges Wyatt to the gunfight at the OK Corral. Oh well, never mind.

Revisionist books

In 1941, Eugene Cunningham’s famous (and famously sensational) work about gunfighters of the West, Triggernometry, came out. It relied on the Breakenridge story and was far from flattering about Wyatt Earp.
Allie, Virgil’s widow, now started talking to a young writer, Frank Waters. Allie, who disliked Wyatt and detested Josie ("a strumpet"), wanted to give much greater prominence to her beloved Virgil. Waters lodged his manuscript with the Arizona Pioneers’ Historical Society and it was not published till 1960 when all Earps of Wyatt’s generation were dead but Wyatt was all the rage on TV. On re-reading now (I found a first edition in a used book store in Brighton, England in 1990 and read it then), it comes across as almost obsessively anti-Wyatt. Waters had evidently swallowed the Cowboy/Nugget/Behan line as unquestioningly as those who made Wyatt a spotless hero. The book is sarcastic and I think the word that best describes its tone is snide. In the blurb we read:

This book reveals the story of Wyatt Earp’s tragic love affairs and his three marriages. It shows vividly how the current national TV hero was in reality an itinerant saloon keeper, card-sharp, gunman and confidence man.
Now Wyatt is a cardsharp, bigamist and conman
Still, in some ways it was a useful corrective and it did unearth facts that we now take for granted and which had been completely ignored by Lake (and the Hollywood and TV people). Josie wouldn’t have liked it one bit. She died in December 1944.

More film versions

Various films appeared in the late 1930s and early 40s using the Earp story either explicitly or in a vague way. Errol Flynn was a kind of Wyatt (named Wade Hatton) cleaning up the town in Warner Brothers’ energetic Dodge City, directed by Michael Curtiz, in 1939. There was another Law and Order in 1940 with Johnny Mack Brown as ‘Bill Ralston’ and in 1942 Paramount cashed in with Tombstone,The Town Too Tough To Die, with Western vet Richard Dix as Wyatt Earp and (a rather weak) Kent Taylor as, once again, 'Doc Halliday'. This last film is a bit dated and, honestly, pretty corny now, but it benefits from some good performances, notably Edgar Buchanan as Curly Bill and the splendidly villainous Victor Jory as Ike Clanton.  Once more the script plays fast and loose with the facts - in fact it's historical hogwash - but it’s a fun watch today.
Dated but entertaining
My Darling Clementine

The first really fine Wyatt Earp Western movie came along in 1946 with My Darling Clementine, directed by John Ford, with a magisterial Henry Fonda as Wyatt.

The Winston Miller screenplay developed the Sam Hellman story loosely adapted from Lake’s Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. It imaginatively cast Victor Mature as Doc Holliday. He was outstanding.
Fonda as Wyatt - magnificent
I have reviewed this film before so click the link to read more. It’s a marvelous tale of good and evil which is unburdened by actual adherence to the truth. Ford himself said that it was historically accurate, a frankly preposterous claim. He recounted how, as a young man, he had met Wyatt Earp who “told me about the fight at the OK Corral. So in My Darling Clementine we did it exactly the way it had been.” As Old Man Clanton was killed in Ford’s version of the fight and so was Doc Holliday, it is rather difficult to believe that Ford was following Earp’s recollections to the letter… As I have said before, I don’t mind Hollywood presenting an historically inaccurate picture; they are not producing documentaries but entertaining dramas. It’s only when they claim factual accuracy that I object.
John Ford: "We did it exactly the way it had been." What twaddle.
But it’s a fine, fine movie, one of the all-time great Westerns.

Wyatt appears everywhere

In 1950 the first Anthony Mann Western with James Stewart, Winchester '73, contained a cameo Wyatt Earp, played by Will Geer. Earp here is jovial but Geer attempts to show the steel beneath.

Ronald Reagan was in an anodyne color remake of Law and Order in 1953 and two years later Joel McCrea impersonated Wyatt in Wichita, a sweet movie. It repeated the story used in Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die that Wyatt first refused a lawman's badge but changed his mind when a young boy was killed in crossfire.

But what really set the legend of Wyatt Earp in stone was the phenomenally successful ABC TV series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which ran for no fewer than 229 black & white 30-minute episodes from 1955 to ‘61 and was still strong in the ratings when it stopped. The plan was to tell the truth. Well, as usually happens with big studios, it didn’t turn out like that. But the producers hired Stuart Lake as historical adviser, rather ironically considering how he had embellished the tale. Hugh O’Brian, in his fancy vest and absurdly long-barreled pistol, came to be Wyatt Earp for a whole generation, e.g. me.
Hugh O'Brian is Wyatt
Actually, Earp was never marshal of anywhere
John Wayne, who like John Ford was so proud of having once met Wyatt Earp in his youth, came across Hugh O’Brian at a dinner and said, “Hey kid, you do a perfect Wyatt Earp. I knew him, and you’re terrific.” Wayne said that he often thought of Earp when acting in Westerns and tried to model himself on the great lawman. “I often think of Wyatt Earp when I play a film character. There’s a guy who actually did what I’m trying to do [on screen].”

So Wyatt Earp was seeping into movies in all sorts of subtle ways. Snippets from the Lake story, such as the Johnny Behind The Deuce incident started appearing in many different Westerns as again and again brave lawmen stood down lynch mobs. Matt Dillon in the hugely popular TV series Gunsmoke was really Wyatt Earp. There never was a Matt Dillon in Dodge but it didn’t matter; James Arness was still contributing to the Earp legend.

More interest

The TV series inspired a whole new wave of interest in the Wyatt Earp story. In 1957, right at the peak of popularity of the TV series, one of the most successful and well-known movie Westerns of all time came out when John Sturges directed Gunfight at the OK Corral for Paramount. Burt Lancaster was Wyatt and Kirk Douglas was Doc and they were both very good. Once again, though, it was far from a historical Tombstone that was portrayed.
Sturges I

The Waters book The Earp Brothers of Tombstone was finally published in 1960. Western magazines were at their peak of popularity and it hardly seemed possible for an issue not to have an article on Wyatt Earp, pro or con. Some of them were poorly researched and/or based on the dubious recollections of people who ‘knew’ Wyatt more or less well. Judging by the number of witnesses of the gunfight at the OK Corral, they must have been selling tickets that day and set up bleachers on Fremont Street. Ed Bartholomew published The Biographical Album of Western Gunfighters in 1958 and unearthed various uncomplimentary details of Earp’s life. Lake died in 1964 when the debunkers were in full flow.
A burlesque Wyatt Earp (James Stewart) with Arthur Kennedy as Doc
Hollywood reacted. John Ford’s last (and rather weak) 1964 movie Cheyenne Autumn had James Stewart as a clownish and none too honest Earp, and in 1967 John Sturges went back to Tombstone and directed James Garner as Earp (and an excellent Jason Robards as Doc) in Hour of the Gun, which showed a harder and more vengeful Earp. Unusually, this story started at the OK Corral and recounted Wyatt’s vendetta, with Robert Ryan (fine as always) as Ike Clanton. Annoyingly, this was another of the Wyatt Earp films that began with the mendacious claim that this was “how it really happened”. Historically, it was nonsense (Wyatt and Doc go down into Mexico to kill Ike Clanton...) 
Sturges II

In 1971 came Hollywood’s most debunked Earp of all with Doc, which had Stacey Keach leading as the consumptive killer dentist and Harris Yulin in a secondary role as an especially unpleasant and corrupt politician Wyatt Earp.

Harris Yulin as a corrupt Earp in Doc

The ‘real Wyatt’ claims became wilder and wilder. In 1958, Virgil Edwin Earp, Newton’s son, appeared on $64,000 Question and told how he had helped his Uncle Wyatt in Tombstone and how he had killed Indian Charlie. He must have been a precocious child, given that he was four at the time.

As the popularity of film and TV Westerns declined, so of course did portrayals of Wyatt Earp. In the first half of the 1980s, between Heaven’ Gate and Pale Rider, there were no major A-Westerns made. Many thought Wyatt Earp on the screen was was finished. As if.

In 1983, a 1976 book by Glenn Boyer purporting to be the memoirs of Wyatt Earp's wife was made into a TV movie I Married Wyatt Earp with Marie Osmond (Donny’s sister) as Josie and Bruce Boxleitner (from Tron) as Wyatt, directed by Michael O’Herlihy who had done the Disney ‘Western’ Smith! It does have aspects which are more accurate than in some other screen versions but the ending is patently untrue (and ridiculous) so we wonder if Mrs. Earp was forgetful or mendacious, or Mr. Boyer very gullible or the TV company cynical. Or a bit of all of the above.

Mrs. Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp,
known first as Sadie, then Josie
James Garner reprised his Earp role in 1988 in the rather charming Sunset, directed by the late Blake Edwards. In this he is an aging Wyatt Earp, advisor on the set of Hollywood movies in the 20s and he gets into an adventure with cowboy superstar of the period Tom Mix, played, rather well actually, by Bruce Willis. It's a fun film.
Bruce Willis as Tom Mix and James Garner as Wyatt Earp in Sunset
The 1990s

But as violent crime became a major preoccupation of Americans (and not only Americans), at a time when some cities, with their gang warfare and drive-by shootings, seemed more dangerous than Dodge or Tombstone in the frontier days, the attraction of the Wyatt Earp tale took on a new lease of life. In the pulp Death Wish movies of the 70s and 80s, Charles Bronson had taken the law into his own hands and gone after the crooks and punks. Dirty Harry was doing the same as a rogue policeman with a huge six-shooter.
Kurt Russell (Wyatt) and Val Kilmer (Doc)
In the early 1990s, two rival Tombstone stories were made pretty well concurrently. First to screen was Tombstone on Christmas Day 1993, followed by Wyatt Earp in early ’94. I have reviewed these (together), so click one of the links for more. The George P Cosmatos-directed Tombstone, with Kurt Russell as Wyatt and Val Kilmer as Doc, was probably the more colorful and enjoyable, while the Lawrence Kasdan production Wyatt Earp, with Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid in the leads, was longer and more earnest. These two movies still gave us a sanitized Wyatt Earp but they were closer to the reality than any screen version to date.
Kevin Costner (Wyatt) and Dennis Quaid (Doc)
Also in 1994 Hugh O’Brian, then nearly 70, appeared in a TV show Return to Tombstone, shot in Tombstone itself, in which colorized clips from the old shows were used as flashbacks.

The 21st Century

In 2012 Val Kilmer was back in Tombstone – or rather Dodge - but this time as Wyatt in Wyatt Earp’s Revenge. Actually, Val Kilmer’s part, as an old reminiscing Wyatt in 1907, appears tacked on and is probably only there to give a star name to an otherwise lackluster straight-to-video movie. It’s about the murder of Dora Hand in Dodge and the chase and arrest of Spike Kenedy. Wyatt was supposed to be in love with Dora (no evidence for that whatsoever) and to have raised and led the posse (Bat Masterson did). It’s a bit of a plodder, I’m afraid.

Probably no movie will ever show the real, true Wyatt Earp. It would perhaps be impossible to make one that satisfied everybody because the Earpists and anti-Earpists are still out there in large numbers.

On the other hand, every generation has its big Wyatt Earp movie, just as there is always a new Robin Hood or Zorro one, without fail, so maybe…

What I’d really like to see is for Ron Hansen to write a great Wyatt Earp novel and the team that made The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to go to work on it!

In 1955 Will Henry published the novel Who Rides with Wyatt, which was later filmed as Young Billy Young. In 2001 the crime writer Robert B Parker wrote a Western novel, Gunman's Rhapsody, which tells of Wyatt's time in Tombstone. It's well written and like all Parker, tight, gritty and fun to read.

Well, that’s it for the Earps. I hope you have enjoyed reading these posts and hope you will enjoy reading some of the books and watching Wyatt movies. They should keep you busy for a week or two. So long, e-pards.


  1. Great summary of the Earp movies. I think the idea of Hansen and company doing a Wyatt Earp story and movie is an excellent one. Finally, somebody got Jesse right and I think they could do the same for Wyatt.

  2. Jeff, Did you review Wyatt Earp Speaks!

    by John Richard Stephens,

  3. Not sure if you still haven't seen Law and Order, but here it is: https://youtu.be/SEiendPhZ2M