WYATT EARP (1994)

Scene Analysis

PALE RIDER

[1]     As a kid, a few of my childhood hero’s were Popeye the Sailor Man, Davy Crockett, Superman, and Scooby Doo.  I have spent countless hours in a daze with drool coming out of my mouth mesmerized by idealizations flashing on the screen.  Today, I still believe spinach will make me strong and is necessary for a healthy diet to build muscles.  The Davy Crockett jingle “King of the Wild Frontier” still rings in my head every time his name is mentioned.  “Faster than a speeding bullet.  Able to leap over buildings in a single bound.  Is it a bird?   Is it a plane?   No, it’s Superman!”   Evidently, Superman’s theme from the radio days is also lodged into memory.  Meanwhile Scooby Doo, crime-fighting dog, is an idol to all children capable of pushing a button.

[2]     The common thread these American heroes possess is the invention of the TV.  I have only come to know these heroes on the big screen at home.  I never went to the movies until the fourth grade, but the boob tube at home was the main source of documentation.  As a child, every flashing image on the screen was not just entertaining but also taken for face value.  Years past, I stopped believing in Santa Claus and came to realize Popeye, Superman, and Scooby Doo were pretend.  Perhaps my realization came when jumping off the stairs attempting to fly blackened my cushion.  However, Davy Crockett was real.  He fought in the Alamo, wrestled bears, and made peace with the savage Apaches taming the frontier.  To my dismay, last year I found out that this Tennessee boy, Davy Crockett was a racist bigot folk hero known for grotesque behavior.  Why did Disney have to lie?  Why inflate real people to legendary status?  Why do we need heroes?

[3]     The legendary lawman, Wyatt Earp is America’s most honored and celebrated hero ever to be idolized on the Big Screen.  Wyatt Earp has had over thirty films produced based on his role played as a frontier marshal.  In fact, it is quite possible every gunfight staged in a Western film uses Wyatt Earp’s famous 1881 shoot-out at the O.K. Corral as the standard.  American history has always nostalgically viewed the Western Frontier through the folk stories, media, and publications of Wyatt Earp.  The Wild West was immensely flavored with tales of lawless men, murderers armed with six-shooters—all of which were tamed by the Frontier Marshall, Wyatt Earp.

[4]     In the film Wyatt Earp, director Lawrence Kasdan courageously attempts to honor the man Wyatt Earp--nothing more.  As the film progresses, Kasdan reveals a human view of Earp unsuitable to the America that remembers the legend.  The beginning of the film starts.  The silhouette of a man in all black exhausts a huge cloud of smoke from his cigar.  He drinks steaming coffee and sets down his six-shooter.  He stares into the hazy light outside, which blurs into the sharp darkness of the saloon.  The symphony in the background has two stories to tell, that of a hero and that of a man. The music possesses two beats constantly moving up and down, not leading to a conclusion.

[5]     Kasdan zooms the camera past Earp’s shoulder, focusing on the cigar and coffee.  He exaggerates the smoke screen that hovers on the shoulders of the cryptic lawman Earp.  The focus then becomes Earp’s eyes staring into the hazy light.  Earp’s eyes become Kasdan’s as he attempts to show the audience the real Wyatt Earp past the smoke, moving out into the daylight.  Kasdan’s next scene warps Wyatt Earp to his past as Wyatt exits the dark and fades into the light.  Kasdan promises the audience a truth to the mysterious man remaining in the light.  As soon as Kasdan takes the viewer through the light, Wyatt’s life becomes documented from his childhood on.  By taking the observer through the door, Kasdan guides the viewer toward an ultimate pilgrimage that will reveal the true story behind the legend of Wyatt Earp.

[6]     Throughout the film, Kasdan introduces Wyatt Earp as drunk, a horse thief, and a cold-blooded murderer.  However, Kasdan concludes in his last scene (Tape II, 1:20:47 Alaska) the irrelevance of content portrayed.  The world will always view Wyatt as a Hero.  His legend is past the point of tarnish.  In the concluding scene Kasdan continues to blatantly smoother the viewer with darkness and smoke.  The camera pans the deep, dark, choppy ocean, as a contrasting subtext informs, “The Coast of Alaska17 years later,” directly symbolizing that over time history becomes blurred and darkened.  The camera then frames the chimney spewing blackened coal pollution into the air and quickly reveals a man smoking a pipe, then finally a different man smoking a cigar.  Through all of these clips of smoke, a harmonica is being played, almost as if it were being played over a campfire.  Men are heard passing time by telling stories and the name Wyatt Earp can be heard faintly over a crowd of gossip.  The next shot is Wyatt Earp.  Much like the first image of Wyatt, we see a man hidden behind a wall of smoke.

[7]     A few shots later, Francis O’Rourke recognizes Wyatt Earp by his face (Tape II 1:20:47 Alaska).  Curiously, he confronts Wyatt Earp about saving the life of his uncle, Tommy Behind the Deuce.  Kasdan very subtlety imposes a father teaching his son in the background, since Francis admits his father told him this story many times so it must be true.  When Wyatt gives a small sign of recognition of knowing Tommy Behind the Deuce, Francis concludes, “Well you’d remember this if the story is true.”   Francis then proceeds to tell Wyatt Earp the events that took place.  Although he was not alive during the event, Francis insists on elaborating the heroic deeds that made Wyatt a legend.

[8]     As the boy explains to Wyatt the story about Tommy, the scene changes to the night of the story being told.  However, Kasdan makes this scene incomplete and dark.  He stretches the facts, and recalls names, words, and movements, as choppy as the brain patches them together.  The story is a memory that was passed on from father to son, told many times, each time becoming grander and grander.  Kasdan exaggerates how Wyatt heroically and single handedly held back a cutthroat vigilante mob wanting to kill Tommy.  Just as imagination pieces together facts in one’s own head, Kasdan attempts to do so with the camera.  In this reenactment Wyatt and the mob remain in tight focus through the eyes of the camera; meanwhile they are surrounded by a sea of black.  The darkness in this scene represents the details that are left out in the story, where the imagination draws a blank, thus incomplete.  However, the heavy enclosing darkness exemplifies the exaggerations, misconceptions, lies, and myths that have been formed over the past seventeen years about Wyatt Earp.

[9]     After Francis leaves, Wyatt confesses to Josie, his wife, “Some people say it didn’t happen that way.”  By stating this, Wyatt admits not everybody glorified and praised his name.  He knew he had enemies that would take the opposite extreme and remember him as a villain.  Yet, Josie responds, “Never mind them Wyatt.  It happened that way.”  As soon as she says this, Wyatt and Josie turn to face the sea and sky.  Now the ocean is crystal clear, and the dark cloudy sky is penetrated with rays of sunlight.  Thus, Kasdan concludes, no matter what truth is believed about Wyatt Earp, the legends of the lawman will always be the image remembered.

[10]     Our American culture is constantly searching for heroes to look up to, heroes to model a way of life after, and heroes to live through.  Wyatt Earp has proven to be America’s favorite hero.  He stood for justice, law and order, and courage.  He possessed the magical ability to always make the best decision at any given confrontation.  Wyatt Earp was an entrepreneur on the move trying to make it rich off the land and people.  He took the law into his own hands, killed the bad guys, and survived endless gunfights unscathed.  Wyatt Earp was immortal; no bullet could touch him.

[11]     The film Wyatt Earp exposes the darker side of Wyatt Earp.  However, the public was generally bored by the monotonous minutes of the truest rendition dramatized on film about him.  Evidently, when a film is not loaded with violence and action, the film becomes a waste of time.  Kasdan tries to make Wyatt Earp mortal, but the public rejects it.  America must be looking for another Christ, perhaps the pale rider on horseback come for the second reckoning.  Maybe society needs a present-day Christ to model after: “Wyatt Earp the Christ of the Wild West, protecting lives of the righteous entrepreneur.”  Let’s make the movie.  Perhaps the kid in all of us remains as the TV pulses with heroes fulfilling our fantasy.  As we irresistibly watch, we become the lone cowboy riding out into the demonic wasteland and play the part.  We need someone to kill our “bad guys” for us.  We need someone fighting for us. We need our hero.  America is all about becoming a hero.

America lies to her children.  She guides them to violence. 
(Left) Professor Ed Gallagher in his early years stares blindly at the world.  His pistol cocked and pulled, ready to save America. 

 (L-R) Randolph Scott, "Frontier Marshal": Fox (1939); Ronald Reagan, "Law and Order": Universal (1953); Joel McRae, "Wichita": Allied Artists (1955); James Garner, "Sunset": Tri-star (1988); Kurt Russell, "Tombstone": Cinergi (1993); Kevin Costner, "Wyatt Earp": Warner Brothers (1994). All photos courtesy of Dr. Paul Andrew Hutton:
    Found on the fireman's homepage URL: http://www.techline.com/~nicks/movie.htm
 
 

Copyright (c) 1999 by Joseph Daniel Gibbs, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.

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