If you’ve been keeping a close eye on your anniversary dates for western movies, then I’m sure you’ve already set aside a nice three and a half hour block to watch Wyatt Earp. The grandiose Kevin Costner biopic came out 20 years ago today, and immediately drew comparisons to the other movie about Wyatt Earp — Tombstone.
Tombstone had been released exactly six months prior on December 24th and gave audiences the first film take on the O.K. Corral shootout and legendary lawman in over 20 years (James Garner’s Hour of the Gun portrayed Earp’s latter life in 1967). Whereas George P. Cosmatos’ Tombstone stuck to the gun-slinging action of Earp and Doc Holiday within a tight two-hour running time, Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp was more about the man and his transformation from quiet family man to name-taking ass-kicker. (The latter also stretched to over three hours, perhaps in an effort to beat some kind of western endurance record that Costner had set for himself with Dances With Wolves, just my guess.)
The production of the films was a bit like the disputes of the old West, guns may not have been drawn, but resources were fought over and people changed sides. Kevin Costner was actually set to be a part of Tombstone, before ever teaming up with Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan and Costner had worked on a western before with 1985’s Silverado, and saw more eye-to-eye on their portrayal of Earp. Costner was all set to star in Tombstone screenwriter Kevin Jarre’s version of Earp, but became frustrated over Jarre’s refusal to flesh out the Earp character. Costner’s jump from Tombstone to Wyatt Earp wasn’t an entirely clean break, according to Kurt Russell, Tombstone was nearly left without a home. Via True West:
“I got a phone call, and it was just before Val was going to come on—we had to have a release. Costner had shut down all avenues of release for the picture except for Disney, except for Buena Vista. …He was powerful enough at the time, which I always respected. I thought it was good hardball.”
While Costner might have made it difficult for Tombstone to get off the ground, the film was able to begin production before Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp, which meant it had first dibs on props. Production on Wyatt Earp was actually delayed because Tombstone had nabbed all of the period piece clothing, forcing Wyatt Earp’s producers to put on the brakes while they tracked down costumes in Europe.
Both films had amazing casts — Tombstone had 83 speaking roles — and were eagerly anticipated by critics and fans of the genre, but in the end, Tombstone emerged the lone gunman standing. Wyatt Earp had a bigger budget, Oscar-nominated cinematography, and a grandeur of the western landscape that Tombstone didn’t match. Actors in both films deliver genuine performances, but Tombstone’s chemistry between Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer — along with its near non-stop action — put it above Earp for most fans and critics. Oh, and let’s not forget that Tombstone had Sam Elliot — nobody can compete against that voice.