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Wyatt Earp was a philanderer, a self-proclaimed murderer (although his Johnny Ringo story never quite checked out), a lawman who operated well outside the law, an old man who embellished his reputation at the expense of the truth.

Wyatt Earp was an American icon.

He wasn't much of a good guy, just as Benedict Arnold wasn't a total villain. But we shun detail and nuance in our American pantheon, and so Earp is popularly depicted as a crusader for truth, justice and the American way, not as a bully who instigated a famous gunfight with a frankly unsavory clan.

Oddly enough, there's long been a nest of history buffs who actually revel in the nuance and detail of Earp's character. They've argued among themselves for decades about what's true, what's probable, what's fable.

Among them are some Earp worshipers, some Earp detractors and a lot of middle-ground Earp enthusiasts for whom much of the fun is sorting out his personality's many shades of gray.

In this week's issue, on the 120th anniversary of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, Ed Rampell examines Wyatt Earp's changing image in Hollywood. Rampell posits that Earp is a chameleon who blends in with the political preoccupations of each era.

We should keep Earp's malleable image and complex nature in our thoughts right now, reminding ourselves that it's no simple matter to sort our friends from our enemies.

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