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WYATT EARP: PART 2

By • Jun 20th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2 3

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Probably Wyatt Earp’s strangest appearance on film was on television in 1968 when he met the crew of the Enterprise in an episode of Star Trek entitled “Spectre of the Gun.” An alien intelligence entraps the crew within the bodies of the Clantons just before the O.K. Corral fight and creates the phantom images of the Earps and Holliday from Captain Kirk’s subconscious. Apparently Kirk has a low opinion of Wyatt because the Earps and Doc Holliday are as equally reprehensible as the Clantons. Ron Soble and Sam Gilman are implacable and mean tempered as Wyatt and Doc in this rather insipid teleplay from the series’ third and worst season.

In 1969, Will Henry’s novel Who Rides With Wyatt (Random House, 1955) served as the basis for Burt Kennedy’s YOUNG BILLY YOUNG but with the names, characterizations and plot considerably changed. Robert Mitchum is the Wyatt Earp character, renamed Ben Kane, whose friendship for the Billy Clanton character provides the thrust of the film. Ex-lawman Kane puts on a badge once again to find his son’s killer, who turns out to be the outlaw father of Billy’s friend. Strangely, the name of one of the villains remains unchanged from the novel; Jack Kelly portrays John Behan, a corrupt official who is killed along with the murderous father in the climactic gunfight. The plot developments are predictable and the story tends to sag, making this feature somewhat tedious.

In 1971, debunking popular heroes was fashionable and Wyatt Earp was a natural target for those who seemed intent only on defaming legendary idols. DOC, directed by Frank Perry from a screenplay by Pete Hamill, presents its Wyatt Earp as a sadistic murderer with Doc Holliday wallowing in self-pity. The characterizations waste the talents of Harris Yulin and Stacy Keach as Wyatt and Doc while Faye Dunaway as Kate Fisher seems to belong in another movie.

Filmed in Spain, DOC clumsily tries to draw an allegory between the O.K. Corral fight and the My Lai massacre with the Clantoris and the McLaureys the innocent victims of Wyatt’s political opportunism and repressed homosexuality. DOC is a terrible film, not because it features a Wyatt who is totally lacking in redeemable qualities and not only because the screenplay is so pretentiously dull or the direction so amateurish and unimaginative but primarily because it possesses an abundance of ignorance of the American West and its people. The inane dialogue, graphic violence, hypocritical piousness and one dimensional characters seem to exist not in any believable semblance of Tombstone of the last century or even on a convincing sound stage but in a patently phony setting which serves only to provide a forum for the personal and political beliefs of the director and screenwriter. DOC is a rancid mess and was a commercial and critical failure. It deserved to be.

In 1981, Bruce Boxleitner portrayed Wyatt in the television movie I MARRIED WYATT EARP, based on the recollections of Josephine Marcus Earp which were edited by Glenn G. Boyer (The University of Arizona Press, 1976. This book, incidentally, is an invaluable source of historical data due to the editor’s exhaustive research and annotations which follow each chapter.) Televised in 1983, the movie presents Wyatt as a dedicated lawman who admits his love for Josephine only after his second wife, portrayed as an alcoholic, dies. In this version of the O.K. Corral fight, Josephine saves Wyatt’s life by getting the drop on two Clanton gang members who were hiding in a shack adjacent to the corral. This, of course, is at variance not only with the facts but with the account of the fight offered in the book. Actually, only a portion of the book deals with Wyatt’s career as a lawman since Mrs. Earp was intent on proving that her late husband was primarily a businessman. The television movie, however, concentrates on the events in Tombstone and ends with Wyatt and Josephine leaving after the gunfight for a life of wedded bliss. The film is ordinary and undistinguished, though it does present the familiar story from a different perspective and it is the only version to depict the romantic rivalry between Wyatt and Behan.

In 1988, James Garner once again played Wyatt Earp in SUNSET. Written and directed by Blake Edwards from a story by Rod Amateau, SUNSET is a fictional story about how an elderly Wyatt and movie star Tom Mix, played by Bruce Willis, solve a notorious murder case in Hollywood in 1928. Garner adds a bit more humor to his characterization than he did 21 years earlier. His aged Wyatt is not above exaggeration and even an occasional white lie about his legendary past. In the sunset of his years, Wyatt is able to look back on his life with some amusement as the reel West” transforms the “real West” into myth. Yet while watching a filming of the O.K. Corral gunfight, a closeup of his solemn face followed by a brief flashback to the actual gunfight reveals an indication of his true feelings. This Wyatt is a full and willing accomplice to his own myth-making and accepts his status as a living legend, not out of conceit but out of resignation. He knows that the past is concealed by more than a “lie or two” but any doubts by cynical studio executives about his courage are quickly banished by a series of confrontations which establish his moral superiority. However, only the Western movie within the film has a happy ending for while Wyatt and Mix succeed in bringing the killers to justice, he is unable to save the life of the woman who loves him. After bidding farewell to Mix, the most famous lawman of the Old West rides away on a train, the symbol of progress, while the most popular Western film star and his horse salute him. It is a poignant end not only to a bittersweet movie but to an era.

James Garner as Earp with Bruce Willis in SUNSET, 1988

In 1989, another aged and more domesticated Wyatt Earp appeared on the small screen. Thirty-four years after first playing the role, Hugh O’Brian once again portrayed Wyatt in a two-part three-hour episode of the CBS-TV series, PARADISE. In this fictional story, Wyatt comes out of retirement, much to wife Josephine’s displeasure, to aid the hero of the series who has been falsely imprisoned. After this plot is resolved (with the aid of Bat Masterson who is again played by Gene Barry), Wyatt is then challenged by a surviving Clanton brother who seems determined to avenge the O.K. Corral killings. The chief interest of the teleplay was in seeing O’Brian and Barry convincingly return to the roles they had made famous over three decades before.

Incidentally, while the mystery plot of SUNSET is fictional, the basis of the story is factual. Wyatt lived in Los Angeles in his twilight years and he often visited motion picture sets where he became friendly with many Hollywood personalities, including John Ford and William S. Hart as well as Tom Mix. In fact, both Mix and Hart along with John Clum served as pallbearers at Wyatt’s funeral. Thus, one of the last remaining figures from the Wild West probably realized that his life would eventually be interpreted on the screen. And in view of the controversy surrounding him during his lifetime and the widely divergent views of his exploits already in print, he most likely envisioned that both positive and negative viewpoints would be filmed. In collaborating with Stuart Lake on his biography, he was no doubt ensuring that his own viewpoint would be presented. For this, he has been accused of being at least hopelessly vain and at most a contemptible liar-when he was only being human.

Thus, the films of Wyatt Earp have been many and of varied quality. One film has not been mentioned yet because it is not usually considered a Wyatt Earp movie,” officially or unofficially. But it is one, and it is one of the finest Westerns ever made.

In 1958, Oakley Hall’s novel Warlock was published to almost universal acclaim. Warlock is a mining town in the Southwest in 1880 that is being terrorized by a gang of lawless cowboys from the McQuown ranch just off the San Pablo River. The cowboys had originally been hired by mineowners to quash labor problems but they extended their power to forcefully rule the town while pursuing their illegal activities. Frustrated by the incompetence of official law, the town citizens hire legendary gunfighter and marshal, Clay Blaisedell, to bring law and order to the community. Blaisedell and his close friend, gambler and reputed killer Tom Morgan, arrive and set in motion a series of confrontations that explore the foundations of the legends and myths of the Old West. It is a powerful narrative with compelling and realistic characters and events, one of which is the hotly-disputed “Gunfight at the Acme Corral.”

If readers of the novel found the story familiar, it was definitely by design. In his preface to the novel, author Hall states that while the town of Warlock is a fabrication, many of the characters “are composites of figures who still live on the frontier between history and legend” and that “by combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened.” And Hall’s version of what should have happened emerges as a literary achievement of rare distinction and a major American novel of the Western frontier.

The novel was bought by 20th Century-Fox and in 1959 the film version was released. Directed by Edward Dmytryk from a screenplay by Robert Alan Aurthur, WARLOCK stars Henry Fonda as Clay Blaisedell and Anthony Quinn as Tom Morgan. Richard Widmark also stars as Johnny Gannon, the former member of the McQuown gang who becomes legal deputy sheriff and Blaisedell’s antagonist. Though some of the sub-plots and characters of the long novel-such as the labor problems and a military martinet-had to be eliminated, the film is a faithful adaptation of the novel and captures the complex characterizations and relationships that made the original work so enthralling.

WARLOCK begins with the humiliation of the town sheriff by the McQuown gang who celebrate their victory over law and order with a night of hell-raising which ends with the senseless killing of a barber. The stage is thus set for the arrival of a savior as the desperate and frightened citizens realize they need someone to do their killing for them. But Clay is not a professional killer; he is an honorable and complex man and when he and Tom arrive they bring not only their guns but a deed to the local gambling palace. They come to Warlock not only to bring law and order but also to increase the size of their bankrolls. This a practical act, not a greedy one, for Clay knows that the money he is being paid to endanger his life will hardly pay for his ammunition. As they arrive in Warlock, Clay and Tom see just another town to tame and more money to earn. They have no premonition that Warlock will be the last town they will tame together, that their souls will be bared and that one will have to kill the other.

There is a sense of inevitable tragedy about Clay Blaisedell. He knows that he is gradually becoming an anachronism but he accepts his fate with grace, figuring there will be enough towns in need of his services to last his lifetime. Cultured and sophisticated, he is gratefully welcomed by the citizens who place all their hope in him, though he predicts they will eventually turn against him. Like the criminals he is hired to destroy, he is also outside the law. But though he has no legal status, he is righteous and takes pride in his professional ethics not as a hired gunfighter but as a hired lawman. He has no organization and no person to back him, except for Tom Morgan, and by the end of the film even Tom will be gone.

Clay is excessively loyal to Tom, whose physical disability doesn’t prevent him from being fast on the draw whenever Clay needs him. Crude, unmannered and crippled by a clubfoot, Tom is reluctantly accepted by the townspeople as part of the package. Embittered and shunned, Tom cares about nothing except his devotion to Clay. Tom will do anything to keep Clay’s friendship, partially because Clay is the only person who ever looked at him and didn’t see a cripple.

But in WARLOCK that friendship is about to be threatened by the arrival of Lilly Dollar, Tom’s former mistress, as well as by the presence of Jessie Marlow, who though initially disapproving of Clay finds herself gradually attracted to him. Meanwhile, Gannon’s guilt over past crimes propels him to seek repentance by challenging Clay as well as McQuown, a challenge that will also affect the long standing friendship.

The intricate relationships are never confusing and the reasons for each character’s actions become gradually understandable. Despite the unexpected twists and changing loyalties, the simultaneous plots are interwoven seamlessly. And at the center of it all is the friendship of two legendary figures whose trust of one another is the basis of their close relationship. Thus, it is a shattering moment when Clay learns of Tom’s duplicity and the pain in each man’s face is highly distressing. Tom’s shame as he pleads understanding for what he knows is unforgivable is just one example of the film’s ability to reveal the very soul of its characters.

In Clay’s case, such exposure is startling simply because he is the living legend whose exploits have already made him seemingly infallible. One of the many virtues of Warlock is its ability to mythologize Clay Blaisedell while at the same time display his humanity. There is a profound sadness about Clay who is content to be a legend until he falls in love with Jessie. But like a mythological hero of a Greek tragedy, he is forced to realize that a man can become a legend but a legend cannot return to being a man.

There are an abundance of memorable scenes in WARLOCK: the initial confrontation between Clay and McQuown when it becomes immediately clear that the two will not be able to co-exist; the gunfight at the Acme Corral (which takes place in the center of town in the film) when Clay almost pleads with young Billy Gannon not to draw before having to kill him; McQuown’s infuriated reaction to Gannon’s challenge. Certainly one of the most dramatic highlights of the film is the duel between Clay and Tom. Very rarely has a gunfight been filled with as many conflicting emotions as this one. Clay, angry and hurt, feels betrayed by Tom and yet responsible for him. Tom, grief-stricken at the loss of his only friend, wants to strike out at everyone but mostly at himself. Neither man wants to kill the other but yet they both have to fire.

The scene that follows the duel is one of the most poignant in the history of the Western film. As Clay, tears streaming down his face, carries Tom’s body into the saloon and forces the citizens to sing a hymn in homage, his inner torment is painfully visible. When he kicks the crutch out from under the hypocritical judge and then forces him to crawl for it, his suffering seems unbearable. And when he smashes the lantern against the curtain, burning the building down around Tom’s body, he sets the stage for the final confrontation, between the past and the future, between his humanity and his legendary status, between the civilization he brought about and the violence he now represents.

At the end of the film, when Clay appears with his celebrated gold-handled guns, walking down the street to meet Gannon, he knows that he is totally alone. The people who begged for his help are now against him. The town he has tamed has no room for him. His only friend is dead. And the woman he loves cannot travel with him from town to town any more than he can stay with her. When he throws away the symbols of his legendary fame, smiles sadly at Gannon and then rides away, it is one of the most memorable evocations of a fallen hero that has ever been captured on film.

WARLOCK is a superb film with excellent performances. Henry Fonda is one of the very few actors who could have so believably conveyed all of the facets of Clay Blaisedell. Throughout the entire film, Fonda displays his extraordinary ability to realistically bring to life such a complex character. Self-assured and proud, melancholy and laconic, calm and deadly, Fonda captures all sides of Blaisedell perfectly. It is an unforgettable performance that deserves as much praise as his more celebrated roles.

Quinn and Widmark excellently complement Fonda. Dorothy Malone and Dolores Michaels are equally fine as Lilly and Jessie respectively. Of the many capable supporting performances, Tom Drake, Wallace Ford, Frank Gorshin, Walter Coy and DeForest Kelley stand out. Each actor, no matter how small the role, creates a believable three-dimensional character.

It is interesting to compare Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Wyatt Earp in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE with his portrayal of the fictional composite, Clay Blaisedell in WARLOCK, particularly since both films are totally different interpretations of the same historical events with the same actor playing variations of the same real life person. In MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, Wyatt Earp is the famous marshal without any taint of corruption. Sincere, idealistic, forceful, he is a noble figure. He brings civilization to Tombstone and fits in perfectly with the pioneers who endure hardships to build a future out of the wilderness. When he dances with Clementine on the foundation of the church, his place in that future is assured. He is a model and an inspiration for everyone else. Yet after he has rid the community of evil, he cannot stay in Tombstone even though the people want him. He has fulfilled his destiny and no longer has a purpose to stay. He must ride away and never reappear again-except as legend.

In WARLOCK, Clay Blaisedell is already a legend, but one that is tainted by his reputation as a professional gunfighter. He becomes the town’s savior, not because of destiny or idealism but because he is being paid for his professional skills. During the course of his stay in Warlock, the decay at the core of his profession is exposed. Jessie can fill the emptiness within him but he is forced to realize that it is too late for him to enjoy the happiness she can give him. Clay cannot fit into Warlock the way Wyatt fits into Tombstone. The people of Warlock are not grateful to him the way the citizens of Tombstone are to Wyatt. And as Clay rides away, there is no Clementine smiling tenderly at him, only Jessie crying bitter tears of sorrow and loss.

The real Wyatt Earp may not have been the noble hero of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or the tragically flawed hero of WARLOCK. He didn’t disappear into legend after Tombstone but instead settled into a mundane life of various business ventures, unfulfilled promise and ordinariness. Quite possibly, after such a controversial life, he was more than happy to be ordinary and out of the limelight. Then again, maybe the dejected and weary Frame Johnson at the end of LAW AND ORDER is an accurate portrayal of how he really felt after Tombstone. Or perhaps the embittered and empty Wyatt at the end of HOUR OF THE GUN is closest to the truth.

Most likely the complete truth will never be known, though Hollywood will probably continue to provide its versions.

Mortals die, but legends live on.

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  1. “good post”

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