Revisiting Wyatt Earp, the 1994 Epic Starring Kevin Costner and Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

As I continue to stroll through 1994 for RetroPerspective on The Nerd Party, we hit the week I’d both been anticipating and dreading. The week that saw the release of Disney®©™’s classic animated feature The Lion King (the original one), and…Wyatt Earp, the second take on the legendary law dog six months after the supremely satisfying Tombstone.

Building Anticipation

A script co-written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, famous for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Big Chill (admission: I still haven’t seen it as of this writing), the clever Western Silverado (also starring Costner), and The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, secured my anticipation. As a nerd and burgeoning film obsessive I felt an obligation to see this movie.

It promised a more sober look at this legendary figure. From the previews, you could tell it was going to be an epic undertaking, informed by sober analysis of the truth behind the myth. This was going to be the mature answer to Tombstone‘s thrilling embrace – and tacit endorsement – of the legendary interpretation of Earp’s life. Tombstone was focused on one period, and the people close to Earp; Wyatt Earp was to be a biographer’s reliable accounting of history.

You could, of course, debate the artistic merit of it being “reliable” when we have documentaries aplenty. You could also debate that with so much apocryphal retelling and Earp’s own supposed self-promotion, accuracy is in the eye of the beholder.

This was the early 1990s though, and the shift in philosophy from romanticizing the Old West, or past in general, to re-examining it through modern sensibilities and judgments was finding fresh footing. In a sense, this philosophical shift is pointedly illuminated by the contrasts between Wyatt Earp and Tombstone.

The Nature of the Discussion

Is it inevitable to discuss Wyatt Earp without mentioning Tombstone? Yes it is.

Costner was originally involved with Tombstone. They battled each other for production services and resources. They filmed close to each other. Costner tried to use his pull to kill Tombstone in any way he could. They were nemesis productions from the start.

They look at the same historical figure and time period. I loved Tombstone, and its embrace of the mythical telling of Earp. It’s terrific.

Did I love Wyatt Earp? Read below. And listen to RetroPerspective for a fun story about one of my viewings of it…and also to find out why my cohost is a monster who doesn’t like The Lion King.

Wyatt Earp Tombstone Cowboy
This is his expression even in the emotional scenes.

My Review of Wyatt Earp from Letterboxd:

This is a stunningly boring film.

Wyatt Earp suffers from a total lack of narrative discipline, and a tendency to meander through events. It’s not even accidentally exciting during the scenes that rely most on adrenaline.

Costner’s Earp is devoid of charm, charisma, and energy. His performance is so deadpan as to suggest the legendary lawman was a part-time narcoleptic. There is an abscence of chemistry between him and his costars that damages the film beyond reclamation.

The overstuffed script would only have worked with the electric aura generated by actors finding those invisible rhythms that thrill an audience. The result is an antiseptic take on a passionate time.

The other performances are fine, but there’s not much for anyone to do except get bogged down in a self-indulgent biopic that mistakes running time for epic scale. It’s kind of mind-boggling to behold the talent onscreen and behind the camera that can’t breathe life into an inherently interesting tale.