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Inventing Wyatt Earp
By Allen Barra
Carroll & Graf; 426 pages; $27 cloth

Allen Barra sorts through the facts and fictions that made Wyatt Earp a legend

By Michael S. Gant

IN A RECENT episode of The Simpsons, Homer went looking for an SUV at Springfield's O.K. Car-ral. The pun is one more indication that the single event of the American West with the most staying power is the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., on Oct. 26, 1881, between Wyatt Earp, his two brothers and Doc Holliday and some cattle rustlers known as the Cowboys. As Allen Barra (who is an occasional Metro contributor) notes in his new study of the famous lawman, "[Wyatt Earp] rides on the eternally unsettled territory of our national consciousness."

In addition to sorting out some of the considerable confusion about the historical record, which has been heavily colored from the beginning by pro- and anti-Earp factions, Barra traces an even more fascinating process: the creation of the Earp mythos. Through a series of popular if highly romanticized books, movies (most notably John Ford's lovely if not exactly accurate My Darling Clementine, with Henry Fonda), TV shows and even children's toys, Wyatt Earp has come to symbolize our ambiguous feelings about how the West was really won.

Earp has been portrayed as a stalwart civilizing force, a bully, a gambler and a representative of Republican eastern industrialists bent on subjugating the West. As his reputation waxes and wanes, so does that of his eternal foes--the Clantons, the McLaurys and Johnny Ringo--who are variously characterized as sagebrush scum and proud individualists standing up against centralized big government.

The "brave, courageous and bold" hero of the '50s TV show The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp morphed into a "symbol of a predatory America whose armies were ... bogged down in Southeast Asia" in Frank Perry's debunking film Doc (1971). In an astute bit of analysis, Barra even demonstrates that David Mamet's script for Brian DePalma's The Untouchables has more to do with Earp than with Eliot Ness.

With the exception perhaps of Billy the Kid, no other Western figure resonates so powerfully in our consciousness. Not only was Earp a remarkable figure in his own right, he has become a handy exemplar of all the other great Western lawmen--Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, Bill Tilghman, Pat Garrett. More than once, Barra quotes the famous line from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance--"This is the West, sir. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend." That advice guarantees that Wyatt Earp will never be forgotten.

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From the February 25-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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