The Legend Becomes Fact in New Wyatt Earp Documentary
And With Him Came the West explores the truth behind Hollywood's favorite cowboy
The Western is a genre of contradictions, caught between historical fact and romanticized fiction. While the events and characters are often based on something real, the complex essence of reality is often sacrificed. Mike Plante's documentary And With Him Came the West meditates on those embedded contradictions by focusing on the life of Wyatt Earp: the U.S. Marshall whose heroics are threaded into the DNA of Hollywood Westerns, from 1923's Wild Bill Hickock through horse opera standards like My Darling Clementine and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and modern cowboy tales such as Tombstone.
Earp was involved in one of the five "actual gunfights" in the history of the Old West, where men faced their opponent out in the open, Plante said. The shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., lasted only 30 seconds. Earp's opponents dropped dead, but he left the bloodbath unscathed. "He's already a pretty interesting character," Plante explained. "He's got a cool name, this event happened at the O.K. Corral, which sounds cool, and then through dumb luck he lives long enough to go to Hollywood in the Twenties to tell his story."
The result is the rise of a myth: Suddenly, Earp the movie character is a paragon of American virtue, the spirit of the West itself, and that becomes the public perception of Earp the man. For Plante, that's part of why the Western becomes more pivotal to America's view of itself than the era's other great genre, the gangster flick. He explained, "It's something about the fact that [in gangster films] there are cars and people are wearing suits we recognize, so we think, 'That's still my era.' The closest thing we can get to this 'prehistoric' American era might be the Wild West." Even so, he said, the West wasn't the brutal, lawless territory we were brought to believe in by movies. Tombstone in the late 1800s was flush with cash, essentially cosmopolitan. You could catch a performance by a renowned theatre troupe and order seafood at a restaurant in town on the same night, a far cry from the iconic saloon brawls and shootings immortalized in film.
Earp helped write his own Hollywood story and the Hollywood version of the Wild West. He drew five maps to explain what happened at the O.K. Corral to writers and Hollywood producers, but each version recounts events differently. The movies, too, emphasize and ignore certain aspects of Earp's life, embellishing the details for the sake of entertainment. Plante said, "The fact that he had the wherewithal to see movies and understand people would believe what happens in them takes him to the next level."
And With Him Came the West asks the viewer to question who makes history. Is it the people involved in the event, or the way we remember it? More than that, who stands to profit off the way we remember a particular moment? "You want to feel like [the past is] built on something good, and you know, it's really built on something complex," Plante said. "For me, learning that people who are pretty huge in history were fairly normal – who did some incredible things and some things that were of the moment – really humanizes them. They weren't superheroes."
AFS Doc Nights presents And With Him Came the West, July 17, 7:30pm, @AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35 #3100. Director Mike Plante in attendance for a Q&A. Tickets and info at www.austinfilm.org.