In a famous moment from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a reporter, having learned that the legendary bravery of a U.S. Senator isn't quite the tale of heroism that he expected, tears up his notes and says, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

It's not just a great line that efficiently sums up the movie's theme. It's also a savvy commentary by Ford on the way Hollywood approaches Western lore. And nowhere is it more true than with the legend of Wyatt Earp and the showdown at the O.K. Corral.

Most people don't realize how little time has passed since the glory days of the Old West, when cowboys herded cattle across country, bad men robbed stagecoaches, and law was established from territory to territory. Wyatt Earp lived until 1929, and spent his latter days in Hollywood where he advised on Westerns and hung out with movie cowboys William S. Hart and Tom Mix. Earp became a legend because he sought to become one.

Much of Earp's reputation was manufactured out of whole cloth by pulp-magazine biographers, with Earp's approval. He was also a man who'd spent a lot of his life dancing back and forth between both sides of the law, and his role (as well as his brothers') in the legendary O.K. Corral gunfight has been whitewashed repeatedly, most effectively by Hollywood films.

In truth, the Earps -- and Doc Holliday -- were hired guns, brought in to serve as muscle in the rapidly growing (and increasingly crime-ridden) cattle town of Tombstone, Ariz.. Wyatt was made unofficial sheriff thanks to the pull of his friend, professional gambler and TB sufferer Doc Holliday, and the authority of his brother Virgil's U.S. Marshall badge.

The rent-a-cop jobs taken by the Earps included work for Wells Fargo, riding shotgun on silver shipments and unofficially punishing anyone who dared to rob a Wells Fargo stage (just how far that punishment went is hazy, but the stagecoach company and the banks were known to send hired killers after thieves). And the Earps' issues with the "cowboys," led in part by the Clanton brothers, had less to do with their tendency to disturb the peace as it did with their cattle rustling -- the Earps were on the cattlemen's payroll, and so had a vested interest in driving out the rustlers.

The history books, not the movies, tell us that the Earps initiated confrontations with the cowboys by provoking gunfights, then killing or arresting those involved ... which is really what riled up the Clantons and the other cowboys, thus leading to the most famous 30-shot gunfight in Western history.

But Hollywood knows that we like our heroes more clear-cut, so the Earps of the movies are straight-shooting Men of the Law, just doin' their jobs, ma'am, and keeping the streets safe on sheer principle.

Ford himself took on the legend in 1946, with My Darling Clementine. Henry Fonda plays a straightlaced, if a tad tightly wound, Wyatt Earp, with Victor Mature as a robust Doc Holliday:




In 1957's Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt (Burt Lancaster) forms an unwilling alliance with Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) -- keep in mind that, in real life, the two were friends long before the Earps came to Tombstone:



A personal -- and controversial -- favorite Earp movie is 1993's Tombstone, with Kurt Russell as Wyatt and a superb Val Kilmer as Doc. The movie's a mess, having been rushed mid-production when Kevin Costner announced his own Earp flick, and historically preposterous.

But Tombstone's damned entertaining anyway. Take, for example, this scene between Doc Holliday and gunman Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). In real life, this exchange never happened, as Holliday and Ringo were taken before a judge and fined for carrying weapons in town before they could have their planned showdown. By most reports, Ringo committed suicide -- he died almost a year after the O.K. Corral incident, from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. But that doesn't change the fact that this scene is a whole lot of fun:



Interesting note: James Garner played Wyatt Earp twice, in Hour of the Gun (1967) and again as a decidedly more mature Earp during his Hollywood period in Sunset (1988). Heck, even Star Trek sent Kirk and Spock to the O.K. Corral.

There's something about this legend, if not the fact, that just keeps folks coming back. And there are a ton of movies not mentioned here -- feel free to share your own favorite in the comments.
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