One of the most unfortunately overlooked Kevin Costner movies is leaving Netflix USA at the end of the month, so it is time to pick up the remote and get watching. That movie is 1994’s Wyatt Earp, which starred Costner as the legendary Old West lawman. By all rights, the movie should have been a smash. Costner had basically revived the entire western film genre single-handedly, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director in his directorial debut Dances with Wolves just a few years before. Wyatt Earp was directed this time around by Lawrence Kasdan, who had directed Costner to early stardom with Silverado, made a Boomer-zeitgeist defining hit with The Big Chill, and oh yeah, co-written Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back and The Bodyguard (among many others).
The man himself, Wyatt Earp, is still one of the most potent figures of American mythology, having survived the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The cast included heavy hitters like Gene Hackman, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Quaid, Michael Madsen, Tom Sizemore and Catherine O’Hara. So what happened? Why is Wyatt Earp the movie so forgotten?
In a word: Tombstone. In one of those bits of interesting Hollywood parallel evolution, Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp was released just six months after the Kurt Russell-starring Tombstone. Much like Armageddon obliterated Deep Impact, The Matrix put eXistenZ to sleep and A Bug’s Life squashed Antz, there simply was not enough audience draw for two movies about the same mustachioed Arizona lawman.
And whereas Tombstone restricted its scope to the events surrounding the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and gave us Val Kilmer drawling the word “huckleberry,” Wyatt Earp was a more dour, quiet character study that followed Earp from childhood to old age. It was also more than three hours long, which is a pretty big demand for a movie that prominently features a dying, gutshot Bill Pullman dragging himself through mud while calling out for his brother. It’s not a fun movie, in other words.
But here’s the thing: while Wyatt Earp is not a fun movie, it is perfectly in line with Kevin Costner’s work in the film western genre. Like Dances with Wolves, the star (and while Lawrence Kasdan directed, it is hard to deny that Costner was the ultimate auteur of the movie) is focused on the western as an examination of American history and mythology. Where Kurt Russell’s take on Wyatt Earp was the lawman as a steely-eyed gunslinger of moral authority, Costner’s was more complex. His movie does not shy away from Earp’s documented early history as a horse thief, his lifelong career failures at anything other than law enforcement, and his stint as a buffalo skinner. It does not ignore that the legend of men like him was built on the backs of the near-extinction of a species and its calculated use as a genocidal tool. And probably worst for audiences, it does not make the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral seem cool or heroic. It just seems like two groups of armed men shooting each other in the street for only a few seconds.
Maybe that was not what audiences wanted out of Kevin Costner in 1994. He was just coming off a monster run of hit films that included The Untouchables, Bull Durham, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Bodyguard. He was critically acclaimed and one of the hottest box office draws in history. But it had to end some time, and Wyatt Earp may have been just too somber of a bridge to cross. Costner had both Waterworld and The Postman coming up in the near future, movies that have developed a cult audience but were widely mocked and box office bombs at the time.
Kevin Costner saw his box office appeal drop off sharply in the early 2000s, and has never really got it back. Of course, before you feel sorry for him, probably worth remembering that he is currently one of the highest paid actors on television and naturally, is developing his first western film in 20 years.
In his 2-star review of Wyatt Earp, Roger Ebert had this to say:
More to the point, the movie isn’t sure what it wants to say about Wyatt Earp. Was he a hero? A civilized man who became a killer? A gifted lawman? A man who initiated violence? The movie votes for all four choices.
And with all due respect to one of the greatest film critics of all time, that was a feature of Wyatt Earp, not a bug. The entire point of the film was to examine a human being who had become an archetype and a cartoon. Even if it sank Kevin Costner’s star for a bit, it succeeded in what it was trying to do: humanize a legend, even if it made him more confusing.