It's as if they remember it wrong. Baby boomers, Kevin Costner and Lawrence Kasdan included, have the lyrics to a hundred mid-'50s TV series theme songs inscribed in their cerebellums, but somehow, when those two were calling up the last line from the hokey chorus to Hugh O'Brian's "Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp," they didn't remember: " . . . and long may his story be told."
Oh no. They remembered, ". . . and may his story be told long."
This may explain why the extreme length of "Wyatt Earp" pushes it beyond the merely mediocre and into the realm of the ordeal. In the packed theater where I saw it, the walk-outs began halfway through the first hour, and by the third -- it's three hours and nine minutes long -- women and children were being cavalierly trampled by bored men trying to beat it to the parking lot.
The first hour is junk. Really, wasted time: You'll do better, much better, if you check the starting times and show up an hour late. Young Wyatt, growing up on a farm in Missouri. Wyatt the buffalo hunter; Wyatt the married man; Wyatt the mourning husband (his first wife dies of typhoid; he burns the house down); Wyatt the drunken Arkansas horse thief.
Not merely does director Kasdan fail to weave these unrelated episodes into a theory of character while at the same time over- mythologizing them (assisted by the Big Important musical stylings of James Newton Howard), but he can't seem to get the story started. Nothing is happening, there's no real drama, other than the question: What will Kevin Costner do to his hair next? The episodes tell us nothing about the man Wyatt is to become; he seems born anew when he gets a job as a deputy marshal in Wichita, where his tactic of clobbering the bad boys first and only inquiring later as to whether or not they were really bad begins to earn him a reputation for controversy.
But the key question Kasdan never answers is: Why should we care? Costner isn't much help, either. His Earp is glum, oppressive, self-important, a dire presence. Contemporary accounts suggest that the real Wyatt had two extraordinary strengths: He was always deadly calm, and he was one of those rare men who was quite literally fearless. He'd just stand there, aim and fire, no matter the lead whizzing in the air. He himself expressed it most eloquently: "Take your time -- fast." Costner suggests neither of them: He's more like your grouchy short-tempered old dad, always pulling up his pants and about to slap you on the back of the head for not mowing the lawn. (Best Earp: Fonda, in "My Darling Clementine.")
The movie begins finally to find some shape when Wyatt, by then (but why?) the unacknowledged Earp brother CEO, moves himself, his common-law wife and his brothers and their wives to Tombstone, Ariz., in 1880, in search of the entrepreneurial freedom to make money. What they found, of course, was another kind of El Dorado: The famous gunfight on Oct. 26, 1881, at Fly's Photographic Gallery. (True fact; the O.K. Corral was next door.)
This part of the film works largely because it's very difficult to screw up a gunfight in a movie. You have guns, you have men, you have shooting, what else do you need? But Kasdan comes very close to screwing it up. It was an enormously complex event, essentially involving the Earp boys, plus Doc Holliday, against two other clans -- the Clantons and the McLowrys -- as seen through a prism of intensely tangled municipal politics in a city that had two competing units of law enforcement -- City Sheriff Johnny Behan (Mark Harmon) and U.S. Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp (Michael Madsen). Why did the fight happen? Kasdan has no idea. Who were the Clantons and the McLowrys? Don't ask Kasdan.
In fact, none of the many movie accounts of the famous fight, including the pulpy "Tombstone" of last year and "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1957) and "My Darling Clementine" (1946), has so completely botched the telling of the story and mangled the context so thoroughly. Thus, other than as an event of some compelling action dynamics, the gunfight has very little dramatic meaning. Who are these guys? I must say that to the degree that I understand it, the actual event is re-created authentically: Ike Clanton was unarmed, Billy Clanton did fight heroically, Wyatt did kill Frank McLowry and Doc did kill Tom McLowry with Virgil's shotgun. It was over in about 30 seconds; three men died, two (Virgil and Morgan Earp) were maimed for life, which in Morgan's case wasn't to be much longer. And no, contrary to the Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas version, Johnny Ringo, who had taken up with Doc's paramour Kate "Big Nose" Elder, wasn't there.
As did "Tombstone," "Wyatt Earp" somewhat hastens through the aftermath of the fight, itself the subject of a movie (John Sturges' "Hour of the Gun") and its last gunfight, a crazed shootout in a gulch, doesn't make a lot of sense and seems perfunctory. Doc kills Johnny Ringo in this one, but we have no sense of the drama between them; Wyatt also kills Curly Bill Brocious, an event unsupported by the historical record.
As is usual in these cases, it's Doc who gets all the good lines, though Dennis Quaid's lines aren't as good as Val Kilmer's in "Tombstone," nor is he as dynamic as Kirk Douglas in "Gunfight DTC at the O.K. Corral." He's so gaunt he looks as if he's made out of bone china; I worried that one of his more complex epigrams would shatter his delicate bones.
Nothing really works. The sleepily dangerous Michael Madsen is lost as Virgil, JoBeth Williams and Catherine O'Hara never get a chance to do much but pout and simmer as various Earp brothers' wives, and Joanna Goings, as Wyatt's third wife, Josie, has far too contemporary a face and attitude for a period piece like this.
"Wyatt Earp" certainly never acquires the majesty, the thunder or the resonance of "Dances With Wolves" or even "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." It's a myth in search of a man.
Starring Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Released by Warner Bros.