Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp: Which Was the Better ’90s Western?
In the battle of the western biopics, does Tombstone or Wyatt Earp emerge victorious? Wyatt Earp is an Old West lawman who became immortalized after the firefight at the O.K. Corral. His story had been told many times before in movies like My Darling Clementine, Gunfight At The O.K. Corral and Hour Of The Gun, starring James Garner (The Great Escape). There’s a bizarre phenomenon that happens in Hollywood from time to time when two movies with eerily similar premises enter production around the same time.
This happened with James Cameron’s The Abyss and George P. Cosmatos Leviathan, Dante’s Peak and Volcano and most recently, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. It happened again with Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, two competing projects centered around the life of the legendary marshal. Both featured fantastic casts and unique takes on Earp’s life, but which biopic was the best?
The development of Tombstone and Wyatt Earp are hopelessly intertwined, with the former starting life as a vehicle for Kevin Costner. The star had scored a major success with Dances With Wolves so it seemed like a natural project, but he left following disagreements with screenwriter Kevin Jarre. Jarre’s script was more of an ensemble piece, giving joint focus to characters like Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers, but Costner wanted it centered on Wyatt. Jarre then shopped the script around with Kurt Russell (The Thing) loving it. He later revealed Costner was less than happy with the rival movie and closed off nearly ever avenue for Russell to get it financed.
Kevin Jaffe directed the first month of Tombstone but was later fired for falling behind schedule. George P. Cosmatos was brought on to replace him, but Russell revealed years after the director’s passing that he was really calling the shots, and essentially ghost directed it. Tombstone had a supporting cast that included Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Sam Elliott, Powers Boothe, Bill Paxton and Michael Biehn (The Terminator).
Because it shot on a tight budget and schedule Russell had to cut several subplots and reduce Wyatt’s role, which was a little more fleshed out in the script.
Wyatt Earp was ultimately directed by Lawrence Kasden and had an equally formidable cast, including Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, and Michael Madsen, who later lamented turning down the Vincent Vega role in Pulp Fiction for the movie. Tombstone would be the first out of the gate, being released in 1993 to positive reviews and earning nearly $60 million, doubling its $25 million budget. Wyatt Earp wasn’t so lucky when it released in June 1994, opening at fourth place behind the likes of The Lion King. It only earned $25 million too, making it a box-office dud.
To tthe question of which is better, Tombstone easily walks away with the crown. A great script and performances – especially from a scene-stealing Val Kilmer – make it the more entertaining biopic, while Wyatt Earp feels leaden and bloated, which isn’t helped by its 3-hour plus runtime. Despite the rivalry, there were clearly no hard feelings between Russell and Costner, as they later teamed up on 2001’s 3000 Miles To Graceland, and even discussed their time playing Earp during production. Some feuds die hard, however, with the two later disagreeing on the tone of 3000 Miles To Graceland. Both submitted a cut to the studio, with Russell’s being more comedic while Costner’s was more action-packed. Warner Bros opted for Costner’s version, though the film eventually flopped upon release.