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Wyatt Earp (American Experience) (DVD Review)

29 Mar, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

Let’s see. There’s John Ford’s My Darling Clementine leading the artistic pack (if not necessarily in historical accuracy) plus Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, which dueled it out in consecutive years: 1993 and 1994. Director John Sturges went 1-for-2 with star-potent Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and stillborn Hour of the Gun, while Joel McCrea covered the earlier days (with a whitewash Wyatt would have probably liked) in early widescreen Wichita, available as one of Warner’s on-demand titles. Frontier Marshal is a solid 1939 'B' that inspired Clementine in the first place, and what baby-boomer backyard gunslinger can forget Hugh O’Brian’s Earp-ing on TV?

These are just some of the bio sagas that have made it to the screen, which means that the lawman is a good subject for an "American Experience" documentary when so many differing interpretations abound. Even momentarily putting aside gunplay, you have to wonder about the complexity of a guy who ended up being in a common-law arrangement with the same woman for decades after putting in a lot of brothel time following his young wife’s death. Wyatt even lived in a brothel for a while — a floating whorehouse on the Illinois River (what would Mark Twain have made of this?).

Maybe the single most interesting thing I learned here is that at one point later in Tombstone, lawman Earp and nemesis Ike Clanton (since played by such specialists in screen malevolence as Robert Ryan and Lyle Bettger) once cracked a dicey deal. Wyatt told Clanton he could pocket the reward money for offering assistance in the nabbing of some outlaws — an offer that fell through but then created significant tension due to their shared secret. Just what their mutual animus needed: more tension.

This is one of the short AE’s (60 minutes), but a lot is packed in. There’s the early home life with the five Earp brothers and dad (a bully, deadbeat and drinker). Also the personality traits: Wyatt was dour and no laugher but handsome in his youth (a trait that didn’t transfer too well to his twilight years). He invents himself in Wichita, gets good press and begins to think the booming West may offer opportunities to improve his lot.

But Tombstone (growing from silver prospecting) has a lot of la-di-dah society that he can’t crack – so despite psychological fatigue over the lawman’s lot, he becomes a deputy there after time spent riding shotgun for Wells Fargo. What this didn’t do to put the glass ceiling on his social standing, friendship with the socially disreputable Doc Holliday did.

Avenging his killed or maimed brothers, the Earp saga turns brutal (this time Wyatt got bad press). So it’s rather surprising that he more or less settled down, became a movie fan, visited John Ford on his sets and deeply hoped that William S. Hart would play him and redeem his reputation. This didn’t happen (at least via Hart), but at least that cowboy superstar was one of Earp’s pallbearers. You can’t make this kind of stuff up, even though a lot of Hollywood features concocted material that wasn’t this interesting.

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