In the wake of the recent terrorism, President Bush used language such as "wanted dead and alive," which scholar Roy Peter Clark said on NPR hearkened back to "Wyatt Earp and the Lone Ranger." This, plus the 120th anniversary, make Earp's film/TV incarnation as the archetypal embodiment of law and order timely to examine.
UNTIL TWO YEARS AFTER HIS death, Earp was fairly obscure. Stuart Lake's 1931 biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal put the gunman on pop culture's map. According to Yale historian John Mack Faragher in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, Lake "concocted a legend ... an imaginative hoax, a fabrication mixed with just enough fact to lend it credibility," and "became the authority for nearly all the film portraits of Earp."
1932's Law and Order was based on W.R. Burnett's novel Saint Johnson; it was scripted by John Huston, starred his dad, Walter Huston, as Earp-like Deputy Marshal Saint Johnson, and co-starred Andy Devine, Walter Brennan and Harry Carey (as a Doc Holliday-type character). Law and Order is "climaxed by one of the most savage gunfights ever put on film," superior to High Noon's grand finale, according to George Fenin and William Everson in The Western, From Silents to the Seventies. In A Pictorial History of the Western Film, Everson contends Law's shootout is "the finest reconstruction yet [as of 1969] of the famous gun duel at the O.K. Corral."
The original Law and Order (remade twice) is considered one of the 1930s' edgiest Westerns; Faragher described it as a "dark and moody drama." This stark quality reflected the national mood, as America suffered through the Depression under President Hoover's misleadership. Law's bleakness appeared before Hollywood's Production Code, which censored movies. In Law, Huston/Earp tames a lawless cow town, suggesting FDR: Earp institutes a "New Deal" in Arizona, just as Roosevelt proposed government intervention to combat the Depression.
In 1939, tall-in-the-saddle Randolph Scott starred in a remake of 1933's Frontier Marshal as Wyatt Earp (technically a deputy marshal) himself (mogul Daryl Zanuck paid Josephine Marcus Earp $5,000 for rights to her husband's name). Latino leading man Cesar Romero played Doc Holliday as an ex-obstetrician in this Allan Dwan-directed actioner based on Lake's bio, co-starring Eddie Foy Jr. (Eddie Foy's vaudeville act actually performed at Tombstone's Bird Cage Theatre), Lon Chaney Jr. and Ward Bond. Faragher calls Scott's Earp in this post-Code horse opera "a paragon of virtue." If Huston's Wyatt mirrors the Hoover era's end, Scott's Tombstone tamer reflects a more upbeat America, after FDR's New Deal alleviated the Depression's darkest days.
WORLD WAR WYATT
HALFBACK-TURNED-"B" western star Johnny Mack Brown played Wyatt in 1940's Law and Order. Brown starred in Monogram and Universal cowboy series, and played the lawman as an all-American hero. Ward Bond returned in the next--and most highly regarded (from aesthetic perspectives)--Hollywood version of Earpiana, John Ford's My Darling Clementine, the third remake of the Lake-inspired Frontier Marshal in only 13 years. Ford is widely considered a genius, and Clementine a masterpiece. But from a strictly factual viewpoint, Clementine is wildly untrue.
According to Tombstone's official historian Ben Traywick, who's written 44 Earpomania publications, "My Darling Clementine is the most inaccurate" filmic incarnation of Earpiana. "With all the best actors in the world, it should've been the best," asserts the 33-year resident held in such high esteem by Tombstonians that a Bird Cage shrine to town hookers is dedicated to him. Traywick condemns Clementine's location shooting at Monument Valley, Utah as "ridiculous. The countryside doesn't even resemble" Cochise County.
Clementine's Holliday is on a holiday from truth. The tubercular Southerner Doc is depicted as a cultivated Easterner by Victor Mature, who would play Samson in C.B. DeMille's 1949 biblical epic. Traywick says Mature could be "a Packers linebacker; Doc never weighed over 165 pounds." He also grouses that the dentist is portrayed "as an M.D., who operated on gunshot victims. Doc also killed people at the wrong time, and people were shot at the O.K. Corral, such as the sheriff [John Behan], who weren't even there."
As is the film's title--and most egregiously ahistorical--character. Cathy Downs' chaste, refined Clementine goes West to pursue former beau Holliday. Doc dies due to the Clanton-Earp feud (although the real Holliday was wounded during the O.K. Corral shoot-'em-up, he died in 1887 in a Colorado sanitarium), while virginal Clementine winds up as Tombstone's school marm and Earp's gal.
In this hagiography, Henry Fonda plays Wyatt as virtue's incarnation. By 1946, Fonda was an American icon, embodying mom and apple-pie values, often cast as a hero, sometimes in Westerns, like 1943's anti-lynching The Ox-Bow Incident. Fonda starred in Ford's 1939 Young Abe Lincoln and 1940's The Grapes of Wrath, portraying Okie union organizer Tom Joad. Heroic on and off screen, Fonda won a Bronze Star in World War II.
In Clementine's finale, Fonda's Wyatt leaves law enforcing for cattle driving, telling Downs/Clementine he'll pass through Tombstone with his herd. Clementine tells Earp to pass her one-room schoolhouse, which moves Wyatt to kiss her cheek, as music swells. Aesthetics aside, this concocted conclusion is so absurdly false that Ford should be known for fatuousity, not virtuosity.
Clementine epitomizes Earpomania's mythification and falsification. Many details are so stunningly untrue; where does one begin to deconstruct the legend (later said to be preferred to fact in Ford's 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)?
Eponymous Clementine is a fictionalized, composite character loosely suggested by two or three actual women. In contrast to the movie's pristine image, all three were linked to prostitution and the frontier netherworld. Doc arrived at Tombstone with Kate Elder (or Fisher), a gambler nicknamed Big Nose Kate. Wyatt went to Tombstone with Mattie Blaylock, a substance abuser Earp dumped for entertainer Josephine Marcus. Sadie Jo (as she was called) was the lover of Sheriff Behan, whom she left for Wyatt, fueling their feud. Faragher writes that Mattie became a hooker again after Wyatt deserted her, overdosing in 1885.
According to Billy Hunley, whose family has owned the Bird Cage Theatre since the 1930s, Sadie Jo plied her trade in a room in the basement of the casino-saloon. (What's purportedly an authentic 19th-century birth control device is still displayed there.) Today, the Bird Cage is a major Tombstone tourist attraction that sells souvenirs like reproductions of Josephine's alleged city license for prostitution--supposedly signed by none other than Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp. Traywick denies the Bird Cage room was Sadie's, and asserts that Wyatt had no authority to sign licenses for the red-light district. However, Sadie Jo posed for a now famous semi-nude photo, also reproduced, exhibited and sold at the Bird Cage.
One of Clementine's most famous scenes features Wyatt and Clementine at a church being built. In reality, Josephine Marcus was Jewish--part of the Neiman-Marcus family.
The most realistic character in Clementine is Linda Darnell as Doc's Mexican harlot upstaged when his old Eastern flame appears. She was, like Big Nose Kate, Sadie Jo and Mattie probably were, "a soiled dove." But the puritanical Production Code of 1940s Hollywood mandated that the sweetheart of sexless, sanctified Wyatt be innocent--a schoolmarm townsfolk would sing "oh my darling" to.
Fonda's one-dimensional good guy doesn't reveal that the real Earp stood on both sides of the law. He was a convicted rustler who, Faragher writes, jumped bail, as well as a drinker and gambler. At Wichita, Wyatt's sister-in-law ran a whorehouse; the Earps were called "fighting pimps." As a buffalo hunter, Wyatt helped deplete the West of key Indian resources. As a lawman, Earp didn't merely do the right thing--he was a hired hand protecting establishment interests.
Ford's Wyatt reflects America emerging triumphant from a global shootout with fascists, represented in Clementine by Walter Brennan's Clanton and his gang. Earp mirrors the self-confidence of an ascendant superpower sure of its purity and role as world policeman. Just as the U.S. defeated fascism, Americans brought the rule of law to Dodge City and Tombstone, conquered and settled the Wild West, ushering in a new, superior civilization guided by supreme moral virtues. World War II was the O.K. Corral, and Fonda's Earp embodied postwar America's optimism.
THE NEXT MAJOR Earpomania screen treatment came after postwar euphoria faded, during the Cold War and McCarthy era. As the Korean War raged, 1953's version of Law and Order depicted a fanatical Wyatt standing for the rule of law, even if it turned brother against brother. Ironically, the actor who played the overzealous lawman during the Red Scare was Ronald Reagan, who, as California's governor, eventually ordered police to break up antiwar campus demonstrations and, as president, faced down the "Evil Empire."
Law and Order alludes to historical events and persons, but is filled with inaccuracies, and scenery not resembling Arizona. This entertaining flick begins with Frame (not Saint, as in 1932) Johnson busting the Durango Kid (not Johnny Ringo), and taking him to Tombstone. A sign near a cemetery suggests some of the witty epitaphs on Boot Hill gravestones. An undertaker, played with comic panache by Chubby Johnson, has a wood-and-glass hearse reminiscent of the Black Mariah displayed at the real Bird Cage (a prop from 1993's Tombstone). Frame prevents townspeople from lynching the jailed Kid (a probable reference to Earp's saving Ben Thompson from a lynch mob at Ellsworth, Kansas), then surrenders his badge, retiring from law biz.
This version of Law added plenty of sex. Before leaving Tombstone, Frame bids farewell to busty Dorothy Malone as Jeannie, seen spinning a roulette wheel at her casino (a reference to Tombstone's real saloons and bar girls). Dreaming of a rancher's quiet life, Frame moves with his brothers, Jimmy and Luther, to a Cottonwood ranch.
But the Durling (not Clanton) gang rides roughshod over the town, led by Preston Foster as patriarch Kurt Durling, a Dr. No-like character with a metal hand. Initially, Frame declines to confront the Durlings' (literally) ironfisted rule, supported by a corrupt counterpart to Sheriff Behan. However, after a young man is killed and strung up on a tree (how Johnny Ringo was found) by the Durlings, Luther Johnson pins the marshal's badge on. After Frank Durling (Dennis Weaver) shoots Luther (just as Wyatt's brothers actually were shot), Frame reluctantly agrees, with a vengeance, to replace him as marshal, on one condition: The town bans guns within city limits (which the historic Wyatt enforced).
Jimmy falls in love with voluptuous Maria Durling; her brother Frank catches them in her room, with Maria clad in lingerie. Jimmy shoots Frank in self-defense. When he tries fleeing Cottonwood, his brother punches and incarcerates him; Frame is sure a fair trial will clear Jimmy. But masked men break Jimmy out of jail, and he beats it. Believing it's a frame job, the Durlings confront Frame, charging that he freed his brother (just as Wyatt's father arranged for him to escape a rustling rap in Indian Territory). A rousing fight ensues between Frame and metal-fisted Kurt, who dies. Injured, Frame saddles up to recapture his brother and bring him back to justice. Before riding off, an incredulous Jeannie asks monomaniacal Frame, "Must you always think like a marshal? Can't you think like a human being--just this once?" Like ex-Reds--and Reagan off-screen--informing on commies, Frame is a 1950s friendly witness.
In a desert minus saguaros, Jimmy and Frame shoot it out. Frame is shot--astoundingly ahistorical, knowing how close and loyal the Earps were. Remorseful Jimmy brings his wounded brother back to Cottonwood. All ends well; the brothers Johnson are reunited with gals wearing the pointiest bras in the West.
In the TV show The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Hugh O'Brian is as relentless a law and order enforcer as Reagan. From Ellsworth to Dodge to Tombstone, O'Brian rode the range 1955-1961. The series culminated with five episodes about the O.K. Corral showdown. O'Brian is shown trying to avert the violence, although many historians believe the Earps spoiled for conflict and Wyatt shouted at Clanton, McLaury and company, "You son of a bitches have been looking for a fight, and now you can have it!" One of Wyatt's friends was the center of TV's 1959-1961 Bat Masterson. This debonair dandy of Dodge and Tombstone, known for his duds, derby and cane, was portrayed by Gene Barry, who went from Earp's lore to Burke's Law in a '60s series.
The Reagan and O'Brian do-gooders are Cold War Earps, their Durlings and Clantons Red Menace emanations. (In Jimmy Stewart's 1950 classic Winchester '73, Will Geer played Earp in a cameo--shortly before being blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.) John Sturges' 1957 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is the transition point for Hollywood's Earpomania. To be sure, the Wyatt scripted by Leon Uris and depicted by Burt Lancaster remains heroic. But a psychological dimension complicates Earp's relationship with Kirk Douglas as a muscular, if consumptive, Doc.
Homoeroticism is alluded to, and Jo Van Fleet's wannabe Big Nose Kate plots to have Wyatt killed, because he's a rival for Doc's affection. As Manhattan film historian Brian Camp notes, "Both men suffer romantic failures in the movie. When push comes to shove, Wyatt and Doc are the only ones faithful to each other." The shift from Earpiana's one-dimensionality began as the strict Production Code loosened its grip, when the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected movies.
The showdown was (like other Earp pics) lensed at Old Tucson Studios. The movie's shootout lasts much longer than the actual 60-second or less gunfight. The grand finale's constant running about in a still-standing Old Tucson set is an over-the-top, if entertaining, over-dramatization of the real gunplay. (Mannequins and historical reenactments at contemporary Tombstone reveal the gunfight was basically a split-second, face-to-face confrontation.)
THE NEXT FILMIC EARPOMANIA incarnation took place following history's most infamous Western shootout: Kennedy's assassination. JFK's 1963 murder marked the death of America's innocence, and the '60s became synonymous with protest and rebellion.
1964's Cheyenne Autumn was Ford's last Western. In his Wild West last hurrah, Indians are no longer marauding savages to be conquered by an ever-advancing, Westward-ho!-bound superior civilization. Instead, sympathetic Cheyennes are victims of history and ethnic cleansing.
This lyrical lament reflects the emerging 1960s civil rights and antiwar ethos. In the Super Panavision epic, Jimmy Stewart plays Wyatt in a brief Dodge City comic interlude cut from the film after its debut, later restored in video. Stewart's Earp is a gambler, who joins a posse chasing the Cheyennes.
With its compassionate portrayal of Hollywood's most maligned minority, Cheyenne Autumn set the tone for reexamining and deconstructing the Western, spurred on by 1966's end of Hollywood's censorial Code. In 1967, John Sturges made a sequel to his Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Hour of the Gun, starring James Garner as Wyatt and Jason Robards as Doc, begins with the famous showdown (which, true-to-life, lasts less than a minute). However, unlike previous features, Hour focused on the battle's aftermath: the Earp faction's obsessive tracking down and pitiless execution of enemies.
Hour opens with disclaimers asserting the film's factualness (although Doc's abandoning a Colorado sanitarium to join Earp on a train to resume the manhunt is apocryphal, and Traywick notes that Hour's Tombstone train didn't exist until 1903). Like U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, the avengers are on search-and-destroy missions suggested by massacres in Indochina. But unlike McCarthyite Earps--implacable, upstanding foes of communism--sympathy shifted away from the not-so-good guys as antiwar demonstrations shook America.
The most offbeat example of Earpomania is 1969's Easy Rider. The smash hit seemed to be a squares vs. hippies morality play. However, in retrospect, Easy Rider is largely the unconscious reworking and reprise by his son of some of Henry Fonda's greatest roles. Peter Fonda is so obsessed with his father that in 1998 he wrote the memoir Don't Tell Dad.
Easy Rider is The Grapes of Wrath meets My Darling Clementine on acid. The bikers of Easy's odyssey reverse the Oklahoma-to-California trek of Grapes' Joads, Okies on an epic cross-country quest for jobs in Depression-wracked America. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper travel in the opposite direction; after a big drug deal, they leave L.A. and go east, young men, to retire in Florida. The Joads' jalopy has turned into motorcycles, and during their transcontinental ride the bikers cruise through Monument Valley--Clementine's location.
Jack Nicholson's Oscar-nominated Southern liberal lawyer dies the same way Grapes" union organizer, Preacher Casey (John Carradine), does--clubbed by reactionaries, who also injure Peter, just as his father was bludgeoned as ex-con Tom Joad. Afterward, Fonda and Hopper cavort at a New Orleans bordello (shades of Tombstone's Bird Cage). Easy Rider ends with rednecks gunning down the bikers--a psychedelic replay of the O.K. Corral shootout set in '60s America.
Peter sells and uses dope, and frequents prostitutes in Rider; nonetheless, his character is a decent, stoic--Fonda-esque--hero who rides tall in the saddle atop his high-handle-barred chopper. Its gas tank is painted with Old Glory, which also adorns Peter's leather jacket and helmet. His character is nicknamed "Captain America"; however, in the most telling link to Earpomania, the character's proper name is none other than Wyatt. (Hopper is Billy--as in Billy the Kid?)
Peter co-wrote, produced and starred. Co-star Hopper, who appeared in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, co-wrote and directed Rider, further inserting Earpomania into the youth culture classic. Interestingly, Peter's first role after Easy Rider was in 1971's The Hired Hand, and Hopper starred in 1973's Western Kid Blue.
If Easy Rider was a hip Earp allegory set in the '60s, 1971's Doc was an explicit Vietnamization of Wyatt's saga. This was the anti-Western era of 1970's Soldier Blue and Little Big Man, depicting Custer as a genocidal, imperialist maniac. Stacey Keach's Holliday is Doc's protagonist; Faye Dunaway is Kate, with Harris Yulin as Wyatt. In this debunking, the Earp camp is clearly the bad guys, and the O.K. Corral shootout is a My Lai-type massacre. Lefty screenwriter Pete Hamill said, "Indochina was Dodge City, and the Americans were some collective version of Wyatt Earp." Doc was helmed/produced by Frank Perry, who directed/co-scripted 1981's Mommie Dearest. Traywick doesn't think much of this doctored Doc Dearest.
DURING THE REAGAN YEARS, even though an actor who'd played Wyatt was now president, only one feature dealt with Earpiana. Blake Edwards' 1988 Sunset is a comedy minus most details Wyatt is usually associated with. Sunset takes place in 1920s Tinseltown, with James Garner reprising his Hour of the Gun role as an aging Earp who teams up with Bruce Willis' Tom Mix for one last adventure: solving a murder mystery in Hollywood. Wyatt actually spent almost the last quarter century of his life in L.A., where he knew many filmmakers, and was, Traywick says, a Hollywood adviser. However, Tombstone's historian insists, "Sunset never happened. ... It's a bunch of bullshit." Nevertheless, the '80s personification of the lawman as a comic figure reflects Reaganism's "morning in America" optimism.
IN 1992, VOTERS ELECTED A president tainted by scandal, and screendom's Earps were likewise shown as flawed. The Bird Cage's Hunley cites 1993's Tombstone and 1994's Wyatt Earp as his favorite movies retelling Earp's saga. Hunley believes, as does critic Camp, that these are the most historically accurate film versions, citing details such as characters' long, heavy black frocks and dusters. Hunley praises Dana Delany's Josephine (whom he dubs "Shady Sadie, the $40 lady") in Tombstone, and Val Kilmer's wry Doc. This Earpiana authority contends, "Tombstone's the closest to the actual O.K. Corral gunfight."
Traywick, who plays Wyatt in a closed-circuit TV docudrama screened at Tombstone's Historama, also enjoyed Kurt Russell's take on Earp lore. But the historian says, "Tombstone's director liked to think he was historically accurate." After its release, George Cosmatos asked Traywick what he thought about his film. "George, I really liked it; it was entertaining, but not very accurate," the historian replied.
Traywick cites Tombstone's historical inaccuracies: "Doc fired his double-barreled shotgun three times. It appeared Virgil and Morgan were shot the same night--it was actually two months apart. It had Doc kill Ringo; that didn't happen. Wyatt got him. When they left Arizona, [the Earp camp] shot 24 people--actually, they only shot four. The mayor [seen onscreen] couldn't have been at the opening of the Bird Cage, due to his societal position--and his dying a year earlier. Wyatt corners Ike [Clanton] at a Tucson train station the night he killed Frank Stillwell--Wyatt never caught Ike, [but] in the movie he marks Ike's face like a spur."
Nevertheless, in keeping with Clinton country's greater candor, the two '90s Earp pics are explicit about private lives: Wyatt's drug-abusing common-law wife Mattie Blaylock; Sadie's affairs with Behan and Earp; James Earp's prostitute wife.
Three hours and 15 minutes long, Wyatt Earp is more than an hour longer than Tombstone. Although starting with an O.K. Corral flash forward, this biopic deals exhaustively with Wyatt's life, beginning with the Civil War and Illinois. Gene Hackman's patriarch stresses, "Nothing counts so much as blood. The rest are just strangers." (Director Lawrence Kasdan's dialogue reflects 1990s preoccupation with "family values" and contrasts sharply with 1953's brother-versus-brother Law and Order.)
The epic follows the Earps west. In Wyoming, Wyatt's (Kevin Costner) relationship and marriage to first wife Urilla (Annabeth Gish) has some of Clementine's "aw shucks" quality. After Urilla's typhoid death, Wyatt becomes a street person, mugger and horse thief, who is jailed. His father bails out Wyatt, who jumps bail and becomes involved with buffalo hunting, skinning, gambling, business enterprises and lucrative law enforcing.
At Dodge, Sheriff Earp forbids firearms within city limits--a reference to the Clintonian gun control debate. Wyatt and his cohorts are shown as "buffalo"--or cold-cock--cowboys, alluding to police brutality (Rodney King's beating was fresh in the national psyche). Josie's Judaism and nude photo are dealt with, as are her and Wyatt's infidelities. Mattie's laudanum use (an anti-drug reference) and Tombstone's Chinatown are depicted. Isabella Rossellini is an inexplicably accented Kate, while Dennis Quaid's emaciated, witty, deadly Doc goes to a sanitarium.
Costner's Earp is essentially a Fonda-esque hero, more icon than iconoclast, but he's revealed warts and all. In Past Imperfect Faragher writes, "Wyatt Earp's filmmakers clearly did their research well, taking their commitment to history seriously," but it "tells viewers far more than they ever wanted to know about Earp." Tellingly, as with the revelatory Doc and Hour of the Gun, not many fans went to see Wyatt Earp. What does this say about American audiences?
120 YEARS LATER: "YOU CAN'T STAND THE TRUTH"
AS SUNSET SHOWS, WYATT WAS on filmdom's fringes, and knew Tinseltown figures--including two directors who canonized him onscreen. Frontier Marshal's Dwan called the real Earp a "racketeer ... as crooked as a three-dollar bill." Ford also knew Wyatt, who would regale "Pappy" with Wild West tales. If they knew the real Wyatt and the truth, why did these directors falsify and mythify him?
Despite '60s/'70s debunking and '90s frankness, the full story of that Arizona silver mining boom town remains to be told. Part of this is due to America's recurring nightmare: racism. Earpiana movies distorted the real lives of members of the dominant majority culture, who, like most creators of films and audiences they're intended for, are Caucasian. It took Hollywood 60 years to admit that Tombstone had Jews, and representations of nonwhites has been negligent to racist.
Camp points out the "drunken Indian" troublemaker whom Fonda subdues and chases out of town in Clementine was played by Charles Stevens, Geronimo's actual grandson. (Today, Fly's studio beside the O.K. Corral exhibits Fly's photos of Geronimo and his Apaches' surrender.) Camp insists there's no record of this incident between Wyatt and a Native American. By contemporary standards, this scene is racist, a celluloid stereotype and example of jingoistic ethnic cleansing. Fonda's symbolic civilizer of the West sends Geronimo's grandson packing with significant dialogue: "Indian, get out of town, and stay out!" Indeed, this sequence--which won Fonda his star--is reprised in Costner's more politically correct version, with a paleface drunk.
Camp points out that Dan Gordon's novelization of his Wyatt Earp screenplay contains extensive scenes cut from the film dealing with Tombstone's Chinese population. Mexicans, too, are generally missing from Earp pics. The historic mining town's minorities are largely Ralph Ellison-like invisible men.
Boot Hill is an example of American apartheid. At a far corner of the cemetery, an ex-slave is buried in a grave with a headstone praising him. But this African-American wasn't "good enough" to lie amid whites (even criminals); he's interred among segregated Chinese gravesites. Down the separate-but-equal hill is a Jewish monument, its inscription thanking Indian friends of Tombstone's Jews. (Hunley calls this Tombstone's "caste system.")
If racism is America's aboriginal sin, as scandals from the oval office to Gary Condit reveal, sex remains this puritanical nation's original sin. From the pointy-busted women in 1953's Law and Order to Dunaway's Kate (whom Faragher calls a "vibrant and life-affirming whore") in 1971's Doc to Dana Delany's lusty, nude-posing Josie in 1994's Wyatt Earp, the sexuality of the wide-open boom towns is suggested.
But according to Hunley, out of an 1880s population of 18,500 Tombstone residents, up to 3,400 were registered prostitutes. There were also 106 saloons in what was, at the height of the silver boom, one of Arizona's largest towns. These statistics have only been alluded to in flicks about not-so-lonesome cowboys. By some accounts, miners outnumbered cowboys 400 to one. But films are made as mass entertainment for profit, and cowboys are generally far more entertaining than miners, so our Tombstone image is of Stetsons, not helmets.
Although the O.K. Corral shootout is the Old West's most famous gunfight and most oft-filmed gunplay in Westerns, none of the movies fully explains why it occurred, or what it was all about. Politics was an important part of the equation in the post-Civil War West (O'Brian's TV series and Hour of the Gun do refer to Earp's political dimension, and in some films, like Doc, Wyatt runs for office).
The Earps were armed defenders of Republican urban/business interests. Clanton's faction included ex-Confederates, Democrats and rural ranchers. The feud was partially a North vs. South thing (Holliday was a Southerner but no rancher). Faragher writes, "The trouble in Tombstone was just one episode in a series of local wars that pitted men with traditional rural values and Southern sympathies against mostly Yankee capitalist modernizers." Although Wyatt and county sheriff Behan vied for Sadie Jo's affection, they also competed at the polls; Earp lost the 1881 sheriff election to him. Theirs was a turf fight, too, of federal vs. county jurisdiction. According to sources such as Hunley, even the famed Corral's "O.K." moniker had a political significance.
But don't look to movies for this information, for while cinema is a mass medium that could educate, it usually merely entertains. Features are not primarily concerned with historical veracity. Consider that according to Traywick, of the 165 Earpiana productions, only a couple were shot at Tombstone (David Wolper's documentary Showdown at the O.K. Corral and Legends of the West, with Jack Palance and Brooke Shields). More were lensed at Old Tucson Studios. Indeed, even today's touristy historical reenactments by the Wild Bunch and Boothill Gunslingers don't take place precisely where the battle royale raged.
Traywick comments, "Most people don't pay attention to the details. ... Viewers just go to see and believe. ... Because filmmakers don't know any better, they put their imaginations to work. It's the way they wanted it to be. I've seen directors who knew better put their own stamp on it." Auteurism and accuracy often clash. Despite debunking and candor, the definitively deconstructed, historically accurate Earpiana feature hasn't been made yet.
Perhaps the answer lies in the dialogue of Easy Rider's Jack Nicholson in 1992's Marine drama A Few Good Men. On the witness stand, Nicholson's officer screams: "You want answers? ... You can't handle the truth!"
To paraphrase black militant H. Rap Brown, violence is as American as apple pie. One hundred fifty-three years after Earp's birth and the Mexican-American War, the genocide, racism, sexuality and foreign conquest that is much of Arizona and U.S. legacy is too difficult for many to confront. It's threatening for Americans today to squarely confront the sheer violence of Wyatt's real story. Even Hunley says he'd like to travel back in time to 1881 Tombstone--but he'd "bring a lot of ammo."
Tombstone's cinematic epitaph is yet to be written, and the 21st century's Earp is still to be filmed. Will Washington mercilessly hunt "Osama Bin Clanton" terrorists down around the world like Wyatt did Ike's gang? Will future Chinese, Mexican, black or Indian filmmakers shoot their versions?
If Tombstone is "the town too tough to die," Wyatt Earp's saga remains the true tale too tough to tell.