Wyatt Earp, one of the Old West’s most notorious gunman, would be 168 years old this month. Actually he lived to be 80 dying in 1929. It is said that the victor usually gets to write the history but in Earp’s case it might simply be that Hollywood got the chance. But prior to Hollywood’s make over, Earp suffered a lot of what we would call today “misinformation” or simply bad publicity.
“I am tired of seeing so many articles published concerning me which are untrue,” wrote Earp. In order to correct the “record” and set the untruths right about his life Earp and John H. Ford went to work on Earp’s autobiography. Their attempts to peddle his autobiography were futile.
Cowboys for the most part had reputations as being a rambunctious crowd prone to drinking, gambling and shooting up saloons. This reputation, however, was slowly beginning to change with end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century. The cowboy was changing from a rowdy individual to the much admired rugged individual portrayed in the paintings of Fredrick Remington and novels like Owen Wister’s The Virginian.
It was in this shifting image that Earp tried to peddle his autobiography off on to silent film star William S. Hart. Hart was a popular Western movie star of the 1910s “and the most revered Western movie actor of the silent era.”
According to IMBd Hart was “A storybook hero, the original screen cowboy, ever forthright and honest, even when (as was often the case) he played a villain.” However, Hart did not buy into the Earp autobiography.
Although things did begin to change. Not too long after Earp died in Los Angles in 1929 Stuart Lake published Earp’s biography: Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. This 1931 publication turned the saloon owner, gun-fighting gambler into Hollywood folk hero.
But soon Hollywood buys into Earp as the stand up lawman needed to tame the West In 1939 Randolph Scott played Earp in Frontier Marshall. That same year Errol Flynn portrays Earp in Dodge City. Other leading greats like Jimmy Stuart, Henry Fonda and Burt Lancaster also portrayed Earp. Even Bret Maverick, James Garner, played Earp in The Hour of the Gun.
And of course there are the two 1990 revisions of Earp and his brothers in Kevin Costner’s epic film Wyatt Earp, which followed a year after Kurt Russell in the 1993 release: Tombstone.
But Earp’s story was not just for the big screen. In September of 1955 Earp made it to TV when ABC aired The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp staring Hugh O’Brian. The show ran until 1961 before going off after 229 episodes. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp premiered four days before Gunsmoke, which ran for 20 seasons going off the air after 635 shows in 1975.
There have been a plethora of Westerns on TV from Wagon Train to Little House on the Prairie as well as Epic movies like Dances with Wolves on the big screen. These shows and movies have given the world a shifting image of American history.
The Old West has been open to many interpretations and misinformation. The Western Genre in literature and movies has found a place in American culture regardless of the man and the legend.