AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s 'Wyatt Earp' examines the legacy of a man who—even in his own time—became a symbol of the American West. This PBS program delves into the life of the often-misunderstood legend.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s 'Wyatt Earp' examines the legacy of a man who—even in his own time—became a symbol of the American West. This PBS program delves into the life of the often-misunderstood legend.

Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp
Brave, courageous and bold
Long live his fame and long live his glory
And long may his story be told
.

So goes the theme song to the 1955–61 television western about the famous Western lawman, Wyatt Earp. It was a signpost in the life of a legend that became larger than the man, a statement that after his death the popularity of the frontier roamer greatly increased. Death has a way of injecting itself into stories of the Old West—it was a theme associated with Earp during his life and afterwards. Now American Experience adds the story to its documented tales of the Wild West. “Wyatt Earp” premieres at 9:00 pm Eastern time, January 25th, on PBS.

Wyatt Earp’s fame as a lawman in Kansas and in Tombstone, Arizona, is the part of the story that most people are familiar with, but a greater part of Earp’s life was spent searching for a future different from his past. Indeed, as Wyatt, his mother and four brothers were dragged across the West from Illinois to California by his father, Wyatt was not a happy child. Earp’s upbringing would play a great role in his life decisions according to Rob Rapley—writer, producer and director for the American Experience documentary.

Young Wyatt with his mother. He became a constable in Lamar, Mo., in 1869 before moving on to Wichita, Dodge City, and Tombstone. His famous 1881 "Gunfight at the O.K. Coral" in Tombstone would haunt Earp for the remainder of his life. Courtesy John Rose.
Young Wyatt with his mother. He became a constable in Lamar, Mo., in 1869 before moving on to Wichita, Dodge City, and Tombstone. His famous 1881 "Gunfight at the O.K. Coral" in Tombstone would haunt Earp for the remainder of his life. Courtesy John Rose.
“It was certainly a very difficult home environment. His father was very hard on his sons and other people; he was a drinker, a bit of a n’er do well. That really tightened the bonds between brothers, particularly between Wyatt and Morgan. Wyatt’s older brothers go away to the Civil War and Wyatt’s left as the oldest child at home with a borderline abusive father, and I think he really looks after his younger brothers in that situation. They’re traveling around all over the country and it’s only natural that they don’t form a lot of other attachments and they really develop very close and strong ties between the brothers. It’s also remarkable that they follow each other, that they all are rather footloose and they tend to end up in the same places.”

James and Virgil joined the Union army in 1861. Wyatt wanted to go off to war too but was too young. With the end of the war the Earps were among those experiencing a rapidly changing West, as progress that had developed slowly across the frontier suddenly expanded exponentially in post-war prosperity. At 17, Wyatt left home and, beginning in Southern California, worked his way across the country doing odd jobs on the railroad until he ended up in Lamar, Missouri, where his father was then living with Virgil and Morgan.

Tall, handsome, with blond hair and blue eyes, Wyatt Earp seemed to have a promising life ahead of him as he entered his 20s. He became a town constable in Lamar and married the daughter of a local hotelier. But when his young wife, then pregnant, died suddenly of typhoid his life unraveled. He started roaming again and picked up his association with the seeder side of life in the West. He engaged in petty crimes, spent time in jail, consorted with prostitutes and became a thug for hire. When bother James opened a brothel in Kansas, Wyatt drifted to Wichita and continued working as a bouncer and enforcer until by chance he got the opportunity to assist an off-duty lawman in capturing some thieves.

This portrait, dated around 1869–71, was taken during the time of his marriage to Urilla Sutherland, whose death in 1870 kicked off a self-destructive period in Earp’s life. Courtesy Craig Fouts Collection.
This portrait, dated around 1869–71, was taken during the time of his marriage to Urilla Sutherland, whose death in 1870 kicked off a self-destructive period in Earp’s life. Courtesy Craig Fouts Collection.
The incident was written up in the newspaper and it was a turning moment in Wyatt’s life. In Kansas he hired on as a deputy marshal in Wichita and Dodge City when the cowboys came to town in the summer. He was now on the other side of the law, even though law enforcement was still tricky business in the West. Keeping the cowboys out of trouble while railhead businesses emptied the cowpokes’ pockets forced these deputies to walk a fine line in their jobs. But with the position, Earp saw something he liked, as Rob Rapley points out.

“It (Wyatt’s ambition) manifests itself in different ways, but Wyatt is always running from his youth, and especially that period when he’s kind of a low-level criminal, when he’s put in jail and arrested for horse theft and so on … whorehouse bouncer … he’s always running from that. He wants to be included, he wants to be recognized. And that takes several forms. Money is obviously one form … power, recognition. He is fascinated by powerful men, wants to attach himself to them, or at least hitch his wagon to theirs. I think it’s just different versions of the same ambition. Wyatt Earp never belonged anywhere, and he wants to be on the inside. And whether it takes money or power or authority, whatever it is, that’s what he wants.”

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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