Taken for Granted: In search of the real Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp, his gun-fighting days long over, was one of many real-life cowboys who, at the beginning of the 20th century, came to Hollywood in hopes of recreating their wild West on the silver screen.

The cowboy lifestyle having virtually disappeared, their knowledge of cows and horses was invaluable to early filmmakers. They were real cowboys seeking vicariously to become “reel” cowboys in the fantasy world of moving pictures. Earp and his fellow cowpokes frequented the studio lots, becoming friends with such screen idols as Tom Mix and William S. Hart. Earp allegedly taught Hart how to fast-draw, and others served as consultants, extras and stunt men. There is no evidence that Earp ever actually appeared in a cowboy movie.

Earp’s exploits had never been glorified in the pulp magazines that had created such Western legends as Buffalo Bill. Attempting to counteract newspaper accounts of his more illicit activities, including con games (he was arrested in L.A. in 1911 for attempting to pull a scam), gambling and horse theft, he struggled in vain to have the more heroic aspects of his life portrayed on film. Ironically, not until he passed away in 1929 at age 80 did a flattering, although controversial, biography appear. Written with Earp’s cooperation and exaggeration, author Stuart Lake created the myth of Wyatt Earp on which 22 feature films and the TV series were loosely based. The Hollywood names who have portrayed Earp on the screen include Randolph Scott, Ronald Reagan, Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Hugh O’Brien and, most recently, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner. My sentimental favorite is Henry Fonda’s 1946 portrayal in the highly fictionalized John Ford film, “My Darling Clementine.”

All of the movie versions center on the climactic shootout at Tombstone, Arizona’s OK Corral in 1881. Earp’s account of the bloodletting contrasted dramatically with various conflicting versions rendered by supposed witnesses — a crowd large enough to fill the cheap seats at Dodger Stadium. The credible version, espoused by most Western historians who have researched the episode ad nauseam, contends that the Earp brothers went looking for a fight and despite the pleas of the Clantons and McLowrys (one of whom was unarmed), probably fired the first shots. Three of the bad guys died, two of the Earps and Doc Holiday were wounded. The bloody vendetta that followed, including the killing of one Earp brother, the wounding of another and three revenge killings perpetrated by Wyatt, were never portrayed on the screen until the 1990s when “Tombstone” (1993) and “Wyatt Earp” (1994) were made. These two films lay claim to presenting the most accurate historical rendition of Earp’s life.

One detail accurately portrayed in these two films is Wyatt’s method of administering an NFL-style concussion through a practice known as pistol-whipping. Earp was renowned for this brutal and debilitating technique. It involved slamming his long-barreled Colt .44 into the side of a misbehaving cowboy’s head with such force that the victim was knocked unconscious, if not permanently comatose. Many of the early Earp movies reaffirm the questionable practice of opposing gunmen meeting in the middle of town, standing a good distance apart and waiting for the other fellow to “reach” before drawing and firing. Given the inaccuracy of hand guns at the time, this is a very unlikely scenario. More often than not, “back shooting” was the skill that many gunfighters employed in adding another notch to their totals and enhancing their deadly reputations. The idealized version of the Western duel is undoubtedly a figment of the American desire for fair play and the rugged, manly courage that the legendary Wyatt Earp came to represent.

A plaque at 4004 W. 17th St. in Los Angeles marks the location of the house in which Earp spent the last years of his life. Ironically, there is more risk of neighborhood gunplay today than when he resided there. He is buried in the Northern California town of Colma.

PAT GRANT has lived in Glendale for more than 30 years and was formerly a marketing manager for an insurance company. He may be reached at tfgranted@gmail.com.

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