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‘American Experience’ Explores Wyatt Earp

By Jay Wertz
1/22/2010 • Wyatt Earp

The Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, on October 26, 1881, was not an end but a beginning. Rapley’s film thoroughly explains the confrontation between Wyatt, his brother Virgil who preceded him to Tombstone, Morgan who came later, Wyatt’s pal “Doc” Holliday and local ranchers led by Ike Clanton. There were intrigue, politics, lies and—as many insist—murder surrounding the event. The shootout (which actually started in a space between two buildings and ended on Fremont Street) and its aftermath were complicated, like the coming 20th century West, not black and white like the West fast disappearing in the late 1800s. But, as Rapley explains, this tale made for great drama and the opportunity for Wyatt Earp to overshadow other lawmen of the West.

“There are two reasons. One, that revenge is a very powerful and deep-seated human emotion. It triggers a powerful response in any context. But also I think, as Gary Roberts points out in the film, that Wyatt Earp’s story reflects the essential conflict that’s happening in America at the time—that he really is part of a struggle between a modern industrializing America that’s moving in and extending its reach into the vast western interior at that time. It’s a lightning-quick transition from an old agrarian economy to a modern industrial one and it’s a violent, ugly struggle and he’s caught up in that.”

As one would expect, the production itself is a mix of historic still photographs and of authorities speaking on camera, but different elements invite audiences deeper into the feel of the Old West. Rapley talks about some of the considerations that went into designing the still-life tableaus that the camera explores as a representative of unseen participants to the moment.

“We actually shot at two locations in Arizona, at Mescal and Old Tucson, which are essentially sets for Westerns and themselves are now historical artifacts because they were built in the heyday of (TV) Westerns. We had to make sure that we had the right weapons and ammunition and so on. The other stuff for the bedrooms and the other sets was based on very careful research of archival photographs. There aren’t that many direct artifacts from that time, partly because Tombstone has burnt down so many times between then and now, but we used that as a basis and then our art department modeled research props that were as close to the original items as possible.”

Marvelous vistas also add punctuation and advance the story throughout the film.

“It’s such powerful scenery,” says Rapley, “Those pictures are really worth a thousand words. You don’t have to explain the myth of the West when you look at the scenery.”

It makes one yearn for even more views of the Western history that remains. I would have liked to see those on-camera personalities who are in costumes of the Old West speaking from out on the range or at some other historic location. Instead, they seem rather cramped in the traditional interview backdrop of this style of documentary. The other historians and writers in the film work well enough in this space though there seems to be a bit too many of them. The facts and views expressed on Earp’s life are not so wildly different that four or five people speaking on camera would be too few. But these are minor critiques of what is a very involving production.

Ironically, Wyatt Earp never got to see his life story as he imagined it on the silver screen and TV. He was a fan of cowboy movies in the 1920s and ventured out often from his Los Angeles bungalow to see them. He even contacted famed Western actor William S. Hart, writing that he felt the performer would portray him well in a movie. Though Hart never played Earp, many others did, including Burt Lancaster in the classic heroic telling of the Tombstone story, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Now American Experience reveals the whole story of the man based on timely research and modern understanding. And though he might not have seen it at the time, the truth is Earp’s ultimate redemption.

For further reading on this storied figure Rob Rapley recommends Wyatt Earp, The Life Behind the Legend by Casey Tefertiller.

Editor’s Note—Articles from Wild West magazine about Wyatt Earp, including an review of Casey Tefertiller’s book mentioned above, can be found on History Net.

Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend book review

Boyer vs. Tefertiller: Penslingers Face Off Over Wyatt Earp

OK Corral, a Gunfight Shrouded in Mystery

Not Married to Wyatt Earp: Glenn Boyer Interview

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