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American Experience: Wyatt Earp

PBS, 2010, one disk, 60 minutes, $24.99.

“Wyatt Earp loved cowboy movies,” begins the latest installment of PBS’ award-winning history series American Experience. That line—narrated against film footage of silent-era cowboy William S. Hart, riding hard and rounding up outlaws—is both an apt and ironic way to frame its subject. Earp, perhaps history’s best-known lawman, led a blockbuster life but didn’t live to see that life played out on film, though he wrote Hart some twodozen personal letters, pleading with his screen idol to “[set] me right before the public.” Wyatt wrote his last letter to Hart just less than a week before his death in Los Angeles on January 13, 1929.

Hart never did portray his legendary friend, but dozens of “cowboy movies” have since cashed in on the Earp brand. Among the stars to take a turn at wearing Wyatt’s five-pointer were Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea, Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner. And Hugh O’Brian spent as many years portraying Wyatt on TV (six seasons) as Earp did serving as an actual lawman.

“Tombstone and the O.K. Corral would become part of America’s creation myth,” affirms the PBS narrator, “and Wyatt one of its most enduring heroes. But that myth left out the confusion and loss that haunted the real Wyatt Earp.” And that is where Rob Rapley, who wrote, directed and produced this latest Earp offering, jumps the romanticized rut of past films and gets into the skin of the man. He does so with help from a posse of Earp authorities, including Casey Tefertiller (Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend), Paul Hutton (Investigating History: Wyatt Earp), William Shillingberg (Wyatt Earp & the Buntline Special Myth) and Gary Roberts (Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend).

Wyatt’s story starts at home in the Midwest in the 1850s with a transient father who skirted the edge of legality, as both bootlegger and lawman. Forged in adversity and the isolation of farm life, the Earp brothers followed each other from one boomtown to another, eventually settling in Lamar, Mo., with their father in 1868. There, Wyatt pinned on a badge for the first time. Suddenly, he had a steady income and a measure of respectability— something clicked. He married, bought a parcel of land. Soon Urilla was expecting.

But life isn’t a greeting card, and Wyatt suffered the first in a string of personal tragedies when Urilla died of typhus, along with her unborn child. Darkness consumed Wyatt, setting a recurring pattern of loss and redemption that marked much of his life and links this narrative.

The strengths of Rapley’s approach lie in tight editing and innovative filming that alternates historical portraits of Wyatt and the Old West with contemporary full-color scenes that eerily omit live actors: A fan spins on the bedside table of a 1920s bungalow, shotguns slide from ambush on a darkened street, a shadowy profile slips past the back door of a billiard hall. The climactic gunfight scene—shot on high-speed film at the Mescal town set just east of Tucson—is a masterpiece of tension, as bullets float dreamlike from smoking barrels to something like calliope music, simulating the slow-motion sensation people often report in moments of great stress. Earp aficionados are familiar with the denouement. Virgil is shot. Morgan is killed. Wyatt is again consumed in darkness. Vengeance is his—until, of course, he drifts too far over the line.

Exiled from Arizona Territory, Wyatt finds love and, like his father before him, spends his days searching for the next big thing—but also for redemption. “He died unsure of what his legacy would be,” concludes the narrator. “His last words, whispered to Josephine: ‘Suppose, suppose.’”


Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here