July 29, 2021
So, I asked all my Wyatt Earp authors and friends to weigh in on whether they believe Wyatt Earp is still the hero of the Tombstone story after all the revelations of him being a horse thief and a pimp. I asked everyone to keep their comments to 100 words. You have perhaps seen some of their succinct commentary in the past several days on this blog.
One particular friend took his sweet time turning in anything and I kept bugging him to give me something, anything. I even called him and asked him to dictate a sentence, or two, over the phone. Then, the day before yesterday I get this.
Is Wyatt Earp Still the Hero?
One hundred and forty years after that perfectly named gunfight that made him famous, and ninety years after the publication of Stuart Lake’s biography that ensured him immortality, Wyatt Earp remains firmly fixed in the pantheon of America’s heroes. The tireless work of debunkers in history, fiction, and film has failed to tarnish the shiny star of the town-taming marshal who finally had to step outside the law to deliver true American gunpowder justice. Their work has had scant impact on public perceptions (and of course the sometimes sordid details of his life are far too deep in the weeds for most people to care about anyway). The latest Earpiana—most notably the books by Casey Tefertiller and John Boessenecker and the films Wyatt Earp and Tombstone starring Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell—have all cast Earp in a heroic mold. Earp’s supreme moment of truth at the O.K. Corral has become part of the American lexicon while also serving as the prototype for every western showdown written about or filmed since October 26, 1881.
Wyatt Earp was a late bloomer as a hero. While he was certainly well known on the frontier, especially in boomtowns, on the gambling circuit, and as an all-around “sporting man” of some distinction, he was never remotely as famous as Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, or Buffalo Bill Cody. The O.K. Corral fight was reported in the national press, but usually in a negative light as an example of uncivilized lawlessness in the West. Bat Masterson and Pat Garrett were far better known as frontier lawmen in their own time than Earp.
The seed of Earp’s fame was planted, fertilized, and carefully nurtured by Stuart Lake, a gifted writer who had once been a press agent for Theodore Roosevelt. Lake crafted a remarkable American epic in Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshal published by Houghton Mifflin in 1931. This was perfect timing for the public was eager for tales of the American frontier just as the generation that had “won the West” was dying off. Western histories by Walter Noble Burns, Emerson Hough, Frederick Bechdolt, and William McLeod Raine had all recently done well and Lake also enjoyed considerable success as his Earp biography became a bestseller and was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. Lake’s Earp was central to the frontier story. “The Old West cannot be understood unless Wyatt Earp is understood,” he wrote. “More than any other man of record in his time, possibly, he represented the exact combination of breeding and human experience which laid the foundations of Western empire.” Thanks to Lake an itinerant gambler and sometime lawman that lived rather precariously on the dark underbelly of frontier boomtown life emerged as the towering legend of the incorruptible marshal who tamed the toughest towns in the West. Lake’s book was optioned by Fox studio for $7,500 and would be filmed four times (Frontier Marshal with George O’Brien in 1934, Frontier Marshal with Randolph Scott in 1939, My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda in 1946, and Powder River with Rory Calhoun in 1953). Over forty films have been based on Earp’s career and Hollywood has played the critical role in creating and sustaining his glossy legend. Lake’s book also provided the inspiration for the ABC television series starring Hugh O’Brian that premiered in 1955. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp ran for six seasons and its success helped initiate a decade-long period where westerns dominated the small screen.
In a snide 1959 article on the western TV boom Time magazine noted that the real Earp was “a hardheaded businessman, less interested in law and order than he was in a fast buck.” The success of the show Time attributed less to history than to O’Brian’s muscles and square jaw. “Actor O’Brian (real name Hugh Krampe) looks like an Oklahoma Olivier. In his flowered vest, ruffled shirt, string tie and side-burns, and with two 16 in. Buntline Specials strapped to his thighs, he really cuts the mustard with the teenage cow bunnies.” This television white knight was ripe for debunking and Ed Bartholomew and Frank Waters promptly obliged. Their Earp, a con artist and ruthless killer who hid behind a badge, was copies by a string of lesser talented researchers and writers. Waters, a distinguished western writer, was a caustic forerunner of the current “woke” generation. His attack on Earp was also meant to deconstruct the
frontier myth of American progress and exceptionalism that he blamed for many of the planet’s problems. The source of all these ills, according to Waters, was “America’s only true morality play—the Cowboy and Indians movie thriller…the basis of our tragic national psychosis—a fixation against all dark- skinned races, beginning with the Red, which was killed off, and carrying through to the Black, which was enslaved, the Brown legally discriminated against, and the Yellow excluded by legislation.” Waters felt that if only he could dismantle the heroic Earp legend he could begin to destroy the whole frontier narrative. Lake’s Earp was central to his task: “this veritable Wild West textbook…[the source] of other books, pulp-paper yarns, movie thrillers galore, radio serials, a national TV series, Wyatt Earp hats, vests, toy pistols, tin badges—a fictitious legend of preposterous proportions.” In two books, The Colorado in 1946 and The Earp Brothers of Tombstone in 1960, Waters attempted to bring down the Earp legend and the American frontier story that it was such an integral part of. Waters failed in his own time to destroy the heroic story of the frontier movement but his writing foreshadowed the so-called “New Western History” that would come to dominate college classrooms a generation later. That dark vision of the American past in turn spread to public schools across the nation. The result is the bitter debate over our shared history that dominates public discourse today. With the gentlemen on Mt. Rushmore targeted for cancellation it may be that Wyatt Earp is low enough on the totem pole of American heroes to escape attention—but do not count on it. If he does raise the ire of the “woke mob” it will not be in response to the reality of his life, but rather to the frothy legend so lovingly constructed by Stuart Lake and his posse of fellow travelers in Hollywood. Heroes are but a reflection of the beliefs and aspirations of those who embrace them. People identify with heroes, and as society evolves and changes old heroes are often replaced by new figures. But some characters are so great that they have resisted change. These heroic figures, from the time of Homer’s tales of Greek and Trojan warriors to the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae, from the legends of King Arthur and El Cid to the battles between Richard the Lion Heart and Saladin, to the forests, mountains and plains of the New World where the names of Boone, Crockett, Carson, and Cody would become legendary alongside those of their foes Tecumseh, Red Eagle, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Geronimo, have all shaped national identity. Our heroes define us. If these hero tales (no matter the truth of them) are rejected it indeed makes a powerful statement and can erode any sense of national unity.
Is Wyatt Earp still a hero? Time will tell.
—Paul Andrew Hutton
Okay, for the record, that is 1,000 words and it is not a comment at all, but it is a brilliant essay, cutting across all of the historical currents and nailing the current status of the "Lawman who was flawless."
"When the facts get muddied, go to the Top Secret Writer."
—Old Editor Saying
Wouldn’t have expected anything less from “The Secret Writer!” Well developed and presented! Again, as expected!ReplyDelete
Wouldn’t have expected anything less from “The Top Secret Writer!” Well developed and executed! Again, as expected!ReplyDelete
I have long felt the film "Ride the High Country" is a film about the battle waged for Wyatt Earp's soul. Joel McCrea had portrayed Wyatt Earp in "Wichita" (1955) and Randolph Scott had portrayed Earp in "Frontier Marshal" (1939). Two years before the film was released, Frank Waters' "The Earp Brothers of Tombstone" was published. So, at the time "..High Country" was in production, there were two decidedly different takes on Wyatt in print. Stuart Lake presented "Wyatt the Good", while Frank Waters presented "Wyatt the Bad". In the Peckinpah film, McCrea plays a lawman of high principle, "Wyatt the Good". Scott plays a former lawman who has taken to exaggerating his exploits and who is not above breaking the law to increase his wealth, "Wyatt the Bad". There are hints in the film that Wyatt is being dealt with in the film's story. First, the Earps are mentioned by McCrea, seeing a banner that claims Scott had cleaned up Dodge City, McCrea says, "I didn't know you ran with the Earps." Then, the final gunfight is obviously based on the OK Corral shooting. When Warren Oats yells out, "Start the ball Old Man!" to start to shooting, he is echoing Ike Clanton, who on the day of the OK Corral shooting, said, "The ball will open when Holliday and the Earps appear on the street." So, while the film tells the story of the conflicts in Wyatt Earp's soul, by extension, it is also covering the conflicts in the soul of America, a nation conflicted by noble ideals on the one hand, and unprincipled opportunism on the other hand.ReplyDelete
Excellent points as always, Jeff.Delete