Kevin Costner’s Forgotten Western Flop Is Now On Netflix
Kevin Costner is the king of modern Westerns, but that did not save this forgotten flop newly arrived on Netflix.
Kevin Costner had a fall from grace at the end of the 1990s the likes of which had not been seen in decades. He was not only one of the most successful actors in Hollywood but one of the most critically acclaimed directors and producers in the industry. He had gone from successes like The Untouchables to greater success like Field of Dreams to the highest heights of success with Dances with Wolves, and then it all came crashing down. While the misunderstood debacle of Waterworld is generally considered the moment when audiences turned their backs on Kevin Costner, a movie one year earlier had actually rung the first bell of his decline. That movie is 1994’s Wyatt Earp, and it is now streaming on Netflix.
Let us get this out of the way first: yes, there was another movie about famed Western lawman Wyatt Earp in 1994. Yes, it was called Tombstone and starred Kurt Russell and a whole lot of mustaches. And yes, despite being far less anticipated, having a much lower budget, and starring a less popular lead actor (which was pretty much everyone in Hollywood at the time, to be fair), Tombstone ate Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp for breakfast, lunch, and diner. While Tombstone has become a cult Western classic and outperformed expectations at the box office, Wyatt Earp has largely been forgotten in Kevin Costner’s filmography.
Which is not particularly fair to Wyatt Earp. Much like Waterworld, the essential fault of the movie is its ambition. Where its rival film starring Kurt Russell focused almost exclusively on the famed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona and its aftermath, Wyatt Earp tries to cover the entire life of a man who became synonymous with the idea of an Old West lawman. This means Wyatt Earp not only covers the gun battles and exciting horseback pursuits audiences might expect, but it also covers his childhood on an Iowa farm, experiences as a wagon driver, bison hunter, faro dealer, boxing referee, his first marriage and his wife’s death by typhoid fever, his time as a drunk drifter and horse thief, and finally as the hardbitten, callous patriarch of a clan of bartenders and lawmen. Even spread over a staggering 190-minute runtime, it is an overwhelming amount of biography and Kevin Costner on screen.
To be fair, it is understandable that Kevin Costner felt audiences would stick through it with him. Just a few years earlier, Dances with Wolves had grossed nearly half a billion dollars (in 1990 money, no less) and won seven Academy Awards, all with a runtime of 181-minutes. However, that movie stuck with a relatively contained and straightforward story (colonists bad, indigenous peoples good) and the people were apparently up for a revitalization of the Western genre. More importantly, Kevin Costner spent most of that film as a well-intentioned, semi-goofy outsider, who audiences could relate to. While he deploys that same legendary “aw shucks” energy in the first act of the movie, the death of Earp’s first wife reportedly forever changed him into a distant and stern man and Kevin Costner acts like it. In effect, this means audiences have about 160-minutes of Costner being a stone-cold jerk to people. As Waterworld would soon demonstrate, people did not like Kevin Costner as a brooding misanthrope.
Wyatt Earp was originally envisioned by director/co-writer/Kevin Costner collaborator Lawrence Kasdan as a six-hour mini-series, which would have suited its ambition far better. Ironically, Costner was originally attached to the project that would become Tombstone, but ditched it after allegedly not liking the amount of screentime it gave to supporting characters like Doc Holliday. While Val Kilmer’s portrayal of the historical person as a waxy, drawling dandy of a man quickly became part of Tombstone’s cult, Wyatt Earp saw Dennis Quaid do an equally compelling portrayal of the man as a volatile, dangerous man clinging to his aristocratic Southern manners even as he slowly dies of tuberculosis.
Quaid was just one of the huge cast of stars that joined Kevin Costner in what must have seemed like a sure thing. Gene Hackman, Michael Madsen, Tom Sizemore, Catherine O’Hara, Isabella Rossellini, Bill Pullman; the cast list is basically a who’s who of 1990s stars, all of whom do their level best in the movie. They merely had the misfortune to get on board just at the moment when Kevin Costner’s hubris finally caught up with him. Wyatt Earp grossed a measly $55 million at the box office (a far cry from massive hits like JFK and The Bodyguard) and was savaged by critics. It currently holds a dismal 32% on Rotten Tomatoes, but do not let that fool you. Wyatt Earp is fascinating in its attempts at historical accuracy and its gorgeous shots of the American West, but also as the moment when the crack in Kevin Costner first showed.