Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp

Costner-athon Part Nine

This past week I went back to 1994 by way of 1881 for an arduous viewing of Costner’s sprawling epic on the legendary old west crime boss… sorry, I mean the legendary old west lawman known as Wyatt Earp.

Although a noble attempt was made to watch this as a teen when my parents rented it one time, I’d never actually seen it in its entirety before, and to tell you the truth, it never much interested me. There’s a few reasons for this; for starters, it clocks in at just over 3 hours, which isn’t a problem for a story that moves well and has a good rhythm—but Wyatt Earp is an extremely slow moving behemoth that at times engages one in their own epic struggle to stay fully awake. I did not need to see Wyatt Earp engaging in morning pillow talk with his lifetime collection of various sweethearts. I needed to see him chasing down bad guys, brooding darkly like Bruce Wayne over his terrible responsibilities, and riding like the fourth horseman of the apocalypse across the open prairie. This brings me to my second point—there was another movie about Wyatt Earp that came out only 6 months prior to Costner’s movie which shows him doing all the things just mentioned. Tombstone was not only a great film, but it was clearly the better of the two. It had a much more streamlined story, focused on a narrow section of Earp’s life instead of attempting to explain the entirety of his existence, and it sold the story with action sequences that were probably the best western style, carefully choreographed, and superbly filmed gunfights that had ever appeared in the movies up to that point. In Wyatt Earp, the infamous “gunfight at the OK Corral” is a confusing mess of closeups capturing quick snaps of men shooting guns followed by cutting quickly to closeups of other men falling down. In Tombstone it’s filmed with wide shots of the action that make it look like a dance performance—you can see where everyone is and you never lose track of what’s actually happening during the sequence. Tombstone was also first out of the gate, first to the finish line, and first to capture my imagination when my dad took the family to see it during the winter of ‘94. Lastly, in regards to why Costner’s version never really drew enough interest for me to watch it—our family had just gone on vacation to Arizona that Christmas break before, and I had actually walked through the streets of the real Tombstone—albeit the depressing leftover husk of a tourist trap that had been constructed amidst the bones of the original town. Even so, it was a memorable experience, especially walking through the cemetery connected to the old part of the town. All this to say, that in my mind at the time, watching the movie Tombstone was like the grand finale capping off the experience of seeing the place in person, and regardless of its historical inaccuracies and dramatic licensing, it cemented my perceptions of the characters. As far as I was concerned, Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer were Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. By the time Costner’s version of the story and characters hit theaters 6 months later I was too full. There was simply no room for it in the belly of my brain.

That’s not to say it’s a bad film. It’s just nowhere near as good as its competition. And there was a great deal of competition between these two movies. Costner was originally signed on to play Wyatt Earp in the Tombstone movie, but he clashed with the director’s vision of sacrificing historical accuracy for greater cinematic pay-off. Unable to resolve their differences, Costner jumped ship and began production on his own version of the film with his friend Lawrence Kasdan as the principal screenwriter. As a result, the Costner version does really well at presenting Wyatt Earp, his brothers, their wives, and Doc Holliday as real people, more closely rooted in historical accounts. But the result is that Costner gives us a portrayal of the man that is about as exciting as reading a description of him in a history textbook. On the other hand, Dennis Quaid gives us a version of Doc Holliday that is absolutely magnificent and unique in its own right. It would have been the best version of Holliday to ever be put on film—if Val Kilmer hadn’t already sucked all the wind from the character by disappearing completely into the role and giving the best performance of his entire career. In terms of the best Doc Hollidays to be portrayed in the movies—there can be only one. And (I have to mention this as well), Tombstone has one more thing that Wyatt Earp does not—Sam Elliot—the ace up the sleeve of any proper movie about cowboys and the old west.

As a footnote to all this, sitting silently in the background, is the actual history. And firmly planted just beyond the shadow of the actual history, is the legend. Both Costner’s and Russell’s Earps are based mostly on that legend, even with Costner making greater attempts to cut a path more in line with the history. And the truth is, the fiction of Wyatt Earp, American Hero, is much more interesting than who the guy really was—maybe that’s unfortunate, but it’s what we Americans do with our old west legends. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Clint Eastwood… all of them have had movies portraying them as legends who were much more grand, noble, and righteous than they ever could have been. The same is true of Wyatt Earp. We know a great deal more about him from documented historical accounts than what our collective cultural identity has chosen to remember. The truth is that the gunfight at the OK Corral was just one small engagement in a larger war for control of Arizona’s mining, gambling, and legal prostitution businesses at the time. The Earp brothers were in the process of building their own family empire on these endeavors when they ran smack dab into the established interests of the local citizen’s co-op known as the Cochise County Cowboys. At the center of their “disagreement” was money, politics, and women—the same things at the root of just about every disagreement since the dawn of civilization. Just to give you an idea of how crazy this was—at one point, before things got really heated, and tensions completely boiled over between the two groups—Wyatt attempted to run for county sheriff against Johnny Behan (the de facto political leader of the Cowboys), but decided to forfeit the race when Behan offered him a deal that would make him deputy sheriff and cut him into a percentage of the Cowboys’ earning pool. After Behan won the race he reneged on the deal, and Wyatt responded by running off with Behan’s fiancé Josephine. Then after all that happened, dudes began firing bullets at each other. Anyway, that’s just a little side note if you’re interested in history.

In conclusion… While I applaud Costner for his commitment to making the film he wanted to make, and sacrificing box office success in the process—I can’t, in good conscience recommend that anyone intentionally set aside three hours of their lives to watch this film. If you want to see the best movie on the subject, just watch Tombstone. If you want to know the real history, well then you have to do something radical and downright revolutionary in this day and age—read a book.


McFarland, USA

McFarland, USA

Something that I’ve found interesting about reviewing Costner’s filmography, and something I hadn’t thought about before entering into this endeavor, is how many of his films remind me of experiences I had while growing up. Sometimes it’s the subject matter that causes me to remember things from my childhood, and sometimes the movies are just a reminder of where I was when I first saw one of his films, and who I was with—either way, it’s been a really cathartic process—using his film career as a vehicle to process some of these old memories lying tucked away in the back rooms of my brain. I didn’t expect that to be the case with the movie I watched this past week. I had never seen McFarland, USA, and I honestly would have most likely overlooked it if a couple of friends had not given me a copy for my birthday (thank you, Jalen and Jordan). But true to form, this movie, which was only released a couple of years ago in 2015 still managed to stoke up some old memories.

You see, this particular Costner film showcases something that I’ve had a troubled personal relationship with throughout my life—running. I guess it all started back in the summer of ’91… well it probably started before that, but back in ’91 some buddies and I were hunkered down in a ditch next to State Road 75 in Coatesville, Indiana, arsenal of water balloons in hand, when without warning I was suddenly called upon to run for my life. I’m not sure who it was that landed a direct hit on the windshield of the passing Audi—but when we heard the tires screeching, and the sounds of a man exiting his vehicle with a slew of cuss words and phrases we had never dared to speak, the concept of trying to hide disappeared—running was the only option—running to avoid being murdered. Alas, to my eternal shame, I was the slowest that afternoon. Being the last to reach the perceived safety of my friend’s garage, and not quick enough to avoid the eyes of our pursuer, I gave away our position and put all of us in jeopardy. I won’t go into the details of what happened in that garage as violence ensued, but if it happened today that man would definitely have been arrested for assaulting and battering four minors. It honestly wasn’t that bad, but he did have two of us by our throats before we managed to reassure him that we were only throwing water balloons and not rocks. Eventually he calmed down, probably realized he would be in more trouble than we would be, and off he went. But we were all pretty shook up. We had suffered our first real defeat at the hands of a madman, and as we went home in shame that evening, it was my head that hung the lowest for being the reason we were caught. I wasn’t fast enough. Running wasn’t my thing. And I was reminded of this fact many times over the next several years, not by my friends, but by a rogues gallery of villains made up of rabid P.E. teachers, chowderheaded jocks, and draconian football coaches. (I know that not all gym teachers, jocks, and football coaches are bad people, but I certainly had to deal with some real jerks in my day). I was the ongoing butt of jokes for the duration of my entire 7th and 8th grade years—all because I was the last guy to finish running laps in gym class everyday. I was on display for the whole class to stare and laugh as I struggled to finish while they stood next to the bleachers and waited. It’s hard not to feel like a low-life in junior high when the entire class is laughing at you, and the teachers are encouraging them to do so. I guess I was just too young at the time to realize they were all morons. So I tried to do better. I even went out for the football team, pressured to do so by the coaches aforementioned, but I couldn’t handle the insane amount of running required during the practices, so—my failure was complete.

And then, a few years later, something really awesome happened to me—something life changing. During my Junior year of high school, my English teacher read some of my papers, noticed that I had a gift, and told me that whatever I chose to do in my life, writing was supposed to be a part of it. She didn’t just tell me that I was good at it—she told me I was the best in the whole class. And she helped me to see something about myself that I didn’t know was good. Every kid out there has something special, something good to offer the world—they just need a good teacher to see what it is, and tell them it’s ok to pursue it with everything they have… unless they’re a psychopath or a pervert, and in that case, maybe they need therapy or tranquilizers, I don’t know.

Now, if you’re still reading this, and I hope you are—you might be asking what this all has to do with McFarland, USA which is a sports film about a high school cross-country team that won the California state championship in 1987. The truth is, that’s only the description you’ll find on the back of the DVD case, or on the IMDb page. A passing first glance will give the impression that this is only another sports drama, but it’s not. This film has something much more rich to offer because it touches on an issue that many Americans seem to still be struggling with these days—cross cultural communication. Unfortunately, xenophobia is alive and well in these United States. I don’t understand why. Racism, nationalism, and the irrational fear and persecution of minorities and people from other countries and ethnic groups are clearly and openly condemned throughout the ENTIRE Bible. And in a country where the majority of people at least claim to be Christians, this type of behavior and these ways of thinking are irrational. But if you don’t read the Bible, and you just listen to the news, or to many Christians in this country, you would think the opposite is true. I don’t know all the reasons why Costner chose to be in this movie—he long ago reached the point in his career when he could make or be in whatever movie he wants to—but maybe it has something to do with what lies at the heart of this film. Costner has always been good at making movies which cut through the barriers of culture and ethnicity. Several of his movies do this. His co-stars are often people of different cultures than his own. In Robin Hood his best friend and fellow soldier is a Muslim warrior. In The Bodyguard he falls in love with a black woman. In Dances with Wolves he assimilates himself into the Lakota. In The Man of Steel he adopts alien Kal-El from the planet Krypton. In Message in a Bottle he becomes enamored with Forrest Gump’s wife. Wait… scratch that last one. You know what I mean.

In McFarland, USA Costner plays the role of Jim White, a real gym teacher and coach who moved his family into the predominantly hispanic and latino town of McFarland in the Central California Valley back in the late 80s. The film takes us through his journey of learning to understand and adapt to the fact that he and his family are the minorities in the town. It’s not an easy journey for them. The film doesn’t sugar coat this. It lays bare all the difficulties that arise when two different cultures have to learn how to live and work with each other. And it shows how beautiful this kind of thing can really be when humility and vulnerability take precedence over pride and ignorance. And as Jim White learns who his students really are, and what their lives are like, he begins to enter into their world. Once he does that, he’s able to find the things that make them special. It’s not just the ability to run quickly—it’s the ability to be relentless, to overcome difficulty, to spit in the face of adversity—and to do so without sacrificing their commitment to their families and friends. Like any good mentor, like any good coach—like my high school English teacher—he finds their gift, and he encourages them to throw everything they have behind it—body, mind, and soul.



Well, after last week’s foray into the dark world of JFK assassination conspiracies, I decided to keep it a bit lighter this week with a viewing of Waterworld. Released in 1995, almost a decade and a half into Costner’s movie career he finally reached his peak — and in the process went careening off the mountaintop in what could best be described as an atomic cannonball into the deep end of a 200 million dollar sea water tank — tank being the key word here. On record as the most expensive movie ever made at the time, Waterworld was a domestic box office disaster. Several months before it was released into theaters that summer, news reports were already decrying it as an inevitable flop; a shambling mess of cinematic production wrought with infighting between Kevin Costner and the director Kevin Reynolds, with a wildly overblown budget that smelled like the hubris of an actor and director who had no where else to go after winning the hand of Maid Marian, rescuing a tribe of Sioux from annihilation, becoming a Baseball prophet, putting Capone in the slammer, saving Whitney Houston from a stalker, and uncovering the plot to kill president Kennedy. I mean, what else can you do after all that?

Well, if your name is Kevin Costner, you can dump millions of your own money into recreating the Madmax franchise in the ocean, grow a pair of gills and webbed feet, blow up an army of chain-smoking numbskulls on jet skis, play it cool while Dennis Hopper calls you a “turd that won’t flush,” bungee jump from what looks like a hot air balloon straight out of the Flintstones, save a group of smug refugees from extinction by salt water, take crayons away from an orphaned 5 year old, and fall in love with Jeanne Tripplehorn before sailing off into the sunset like you just don’t care while on your way to make The Postman. The opening shot of the movie is Costner taking a whiz into a cup, running it through a make-shift chemistry set to give it some carbonation and then drinking it. Yes, folks, the first thing we see in this movie is Costner literally drinking his own urine. Is this a metaphor for the entire production of the film? No comment.

Critics gave Costner a lot of crap for this movie, for all the reasons just mentioned, but I don’t care — I think it’s awesome. Is it a brilliant film? Of course not. Is there anything in it to justify its ridiculous budget? Heavens no. Is this what happens when a man accumulates enough wealth and clout to put whatever he bloody well wants to on film? Heck yes it is. Is it pure 90s action extravaganza? Absolutely. In the same year that gave us Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, Sylvester Stallone as Judge Dredd, and Val Kilmer as the freaking Batman — Waterworld was right where it belonged, forever enshrined between Billy Madison and The Brady Bunch Movie, but inevitably eclipsed by such classics as the first Toy Story, Braveheart, and Apollo 13.

I’ve always had a soft spot for post apocalyptic dystopia… and Taco Bell. The two things go together quite remarkably. And like Taco Bell, which is great in small doses, but gastricly deadly when the object of overindulging, so these post apocalyptic movies and television shows have begun to leave a bad smell behind them nowadays. I apologize, that’s a really gross metaphor… I don’t know where I was going with that. The point is— I was lucky enough to see Waterworld when I was still a young guy, and back then, in the middle of the 90s, these types of stories still had happy endings for the most part. Waterworld, unlike many of the dystopian futures being conjured up in today’s market, still left us with some hope when the credits rolled. That’s good story-telling in my book. And beyond that, it’s just a really fun movie.



When I was about five years old, two things happened that drastically altered my innocent perception of the world at the time. The first thing was seeing President John F. Kennedy’s head exploding on the living room television set while getting ready to go to bed one night. I think I was probably too young for that. I had no idea what a Zapruder even was. The second thing was discovering my grandpa’s stack of Playboys during a game of hide-and-seek at my grandparents’ house. I was definitely too young for that experience. 1983 must have been a rough year for Mom and Dad. They had a lot of explaining to do that year. Their explanation about the magazines was pretty straightforward, though to be honest, after witnessing my mother unleash Hellfire on my grandfather, no explanation was really necessary. But the explanation they provided about the president getting whacked was not as clear. I remember Dad having to assure me—though I remained skeptical for awhile afterwards—that the president I had seen on the television was not the current president at the time. That president, he explained, was Ronald Reagan, and he had survived his shooting. Imagine my five year old brain trying to work this equation out while moping around the playground at recess as the other kids were chasing each other around like monkeys, and you’ll have a pretty accurate picture of my early grammar school days.

I obviously have no idea what it was like for those who lived through those times – not just the Kennedy assassination, but everything else from that era, the Vietnam War, the seemingly imminent threat of nuclear annihilation, the deep division in the country, the riots, the following assassinations of Dr. King and President Kennedy’s brother… but as a kid who gradually discovered these things from a considerable distance, and always through the foggy lens of other peoples’ differing views, it all sounded a lot like a very dark fairy tale—the kind you didn’t want to hear before going to bed at night. I knew I was supposed to learn something from it, that there was some kind of moral to the story, but I had no idea what it was, and no one else did either. My dad just told me it was a mystery, and that as much as we wanted to know what really happened to JFK, we probably never would. And he encouraged me not to think so much about it. So I didn’t. And when Oliver Stone’s 1991 film about the assassination was released it completely escaped my radar. As far as I knew, Kevin Costner was still just Robin Hood.

Then, about 10 years ago, while attending seminary, my brothers and I decided to unwind one evening with a viewing of JFK. I’m sure we had a pot of something on the stove, primed and ready, as we settled in for the three-hour duration of the film, but even so, the experience of seeing that movie wasn’t a relaxing one. It was exercise. It was a marathon of the mentally exhausting variety. Don’t get me wrong though. The film is brilliant; the work of a mad genius, and I’m pretty sure it accomplished exactly what Stone wanted it to accomplish – which as far as I can tell was to drudge up something from the nasty bog where United States History goes to die, and shine light on it in an effort to make people do that thing that we sometimes prefer not to do in these matters – think. And by the time I was done thinking, I was exhausted. The same was true this week when I watched it again. Stone and Costner didn’t just make a film about the determined lawyer in New Orleans named Jim Garrison who wanted to dig until he found the truth – they made a documentary of the crime, presented all the evidence, stated their case, and then used the film medium as a vehicle to get it where it needed to go so ordinary people could access it and make sense out of it. They succeeded in this. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the hypothesis, they did an excellent job in presenting it. The true brilliance of the movie is that you can’t separate the film from the historical account. They’re woven together in such a way that forces the viewer to examine the facts and consider the possible explanations in the same way the courtroom jury is doing in the third act of the movie. Wherever possible, Stone used real video and audio from the time period, along with painstakingly accurate recreations of incidents that were captured on film, including Abraham Zapruder’s home movie, and the news footage of Oswald’s murder. And to drive the intention of all this home, in the final courtroom scene, as Costner’s character is making his closing argument to the jury, he looks directly into the camera to deliver his final line, “it’s up to you.”

So what is the hypothesis of the film? If you haven’t seen it, or you don’t think you ever will, I’ll try and break it down for you as best I can. And there’s really two parts to the hypothesis. The first part deals with HOW Kennedy was assassinated, and takes a very simple and direct look at the forensic evidence – the Zapruder film which establishes the time frame and the exact place of the assassination, the number of shots that were fired, where they were fired from, the trajectory of the bullets, the autopsy photos, and other things of this nature. This is basically all the stuff that could not be faked, so if there was a conspiracy, the forensic evidence had to be cleaned up, wiped away, lost, or hidden from the public, and most of it was – even the Zapruder film was hidden from the public for many years after the assassination. An honest look at the HOW leads to one basic conclusion: that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have killed President Kennedy alone, even if he was the best sniper to have ever lived. Just to clarify: I’m not commenting on what I personally believe, I’m just relaying what the filmmakers have shown.

The second part of the film’s hypothesis is much more difficult to process. This deals with WHY Kennedy was killed. This is the realm where all the conspiracy theories come into play, and though there are many, the film focuses primarily on one. Most of the exposition for this theory is delivered by Donald Sutherland who shows up in the middle of the film as a sort of retired black ops agent with no name – his character delivers the goods to Costner who incorporates it into his investigation. The theory is as follows: John F. Kennedy was a very young man who inherited the presidency of the two old war horses before him, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. From the beginning, he was at odds with the Military Commanders in the Pentagon and the CIA. He failed to support their actions, fired many of them, and ultimately planned to keep the U.S. from fully committing to open war in Vietnam. None of that stuff is conjecture, and in fact, there’s a recent Ken Burns documentary available from PBS on the Vietnam War that is probably the most exhaustive work ever done on the subject. I watched some of the episodes before writing this review just to make sure I had somewhat of a grasp on what was going on. But it explains the troubled relationship between Kennedy’s White House and the rest of the government in 1962 and 1963. All of that is undisputed fact as far as I can tell. What isn’t provable, and where the film has obviously received the most criticism, is the theory that, because of the disagreements that Kennedy was having with the rest of the government, the CIA and the Pentagon decided to remove him from office via an invisible coup d’etat, for the purposes of putting Lyndon B. Johnson into office – a much more pliable president who was in agreement with the tide of power, rather than planting himself as a levy against it. The additional part of the theory is that Oswald was a very experienced spy, and black ops agent that the CIA commissioned to orchestrate the assassination, and once it was done, they sent Jack Ruby to kill him so no one would ever know. The best conspiracy theories, as they say, are the ones that can neither be proven or disproven.

One very interesting result of the film’s release in 1991 was the overwhelming public demand for the truth. The outcry was apparently so great that George Sr. signed into law the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which was to make all of the government’s documents on the assassination available to the public in 2017. If you’re following the current news, this is beginning to happen, at least in part – though “surprisingly” nothing of any real significance has been discovered. As of the date of this review, there are still a handful of the “most sensitive” documents waiting to be released by the President. If any of Oliver Stone’s theory were true, would they still have documents laying around 50 years later that could prove our government hasn’t been our government since 1963?

I guess, to sum up my honest thoughts about all this—not necessarily the JFK movie—but all the stuff it makes me think about, I have to go back to that part of myself that is still the little kid wandering around the edges of the school playground trying to figure things out for myself. The conclusion I couldn’t seem to find back then, just because I was too young, is the one that I accept now—that there used to be this mythical place called the United States of America. And at some point before I was alive, the king of this land was murdered in broad daylight with the whole country watching. And no one had a definite answer as to why he was killed… just conjectures, just fog, uncertainty, lies, smoke, and shadows. And on that day, because no one could stand up and tell the truth – the myth of America died along with him. And ever since then, we’ve been looking at ourselves, and seeing what is actually here, not the myth, but the reality. My generation, and the generations after us—we grew up in the reality, while being told about the myth. But the two things don’t match. So we’ve found our myths in other stories… in galaxies far far away, in cinematic universes, in books and in fairy tales about people and places that never existed.

And what about the reality of November 22, 1963? What really happened that day? The next guy took the throne and sent over 58,000 Americans to their deaths in an effort to stop a little country in southeast Asia from doing the same thing that our founding fathers did to the British Empire in the 1780s.

My Church History professor in seminary once said that, “given enough time, every institution eventually becomes the exact opposite of what it was originally intended to be.” I’ve pondered his quote many times in the years since I first heard him say it, mostly in an effort to convince myself that it’s not always true. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found any evidence that it’s not. The older I get, the more I read, the more I learn—the more it seems like that old professor knew what he was talking about.