Call it 'Cowboys & Mobsters.'
Harrison Ford is following up his elder statesman role in 'Cowboys & Aliens' by playing a venerable Western lawman, Wyatt Earp -- but instead of battling desperadoes in spurs, he'll be fighting gangsters in pinstripes.
According to The Hollywood Reporter's Heat Vision blog, Ford is attached to star in 'Black Hats,' in which an aging Earp finds himself in Brooklyn, taking on the gangsters led by the young Al Capone. Helping the septuagenarian lawman is his old partner-in-arms, Bat Masterson, who has become a New York sportswriter. (In real life, Earp lived until 1929, though he spent his last years in Los Angeles, not New York. Masterson did indeed become a New York sportswriter, and he died at his desk in 1921.) The screenplay is based on a novel by Max Allan Collins, who wrote the graphic novel that became the 2002 gangster epic 'Road to Perdition.'
Ford would join a long line of iconic actors, including Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster and James Stewart, who have portrayed the legendary lawman. Still, with so many Wyatt Earps -- some 50 or so previous incarnations in movies and TV -- can Ford's fanciful take stand out? Here are some of the most memorable Earps in movie history; check them out and see if you think Ford's version can stand tall enough to fill those boots.
Randolph Scott in 'Frontier Marshal' (1939): Allan Dwan's version of the O.K. Corral story isn't really a great movie; to today's eyes, it is marred by racial and sexual stereotypes. Still, Western stalwart Randolph Scott gets bonus points for being Randolph Scott. Also for being unusually acrobatic, shimmying down poles like the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in Dwan's earlier movies.
Henry Fonda in 'My Darling Clementine' (1946): In the 1920s, the real Earp was an adviser on the sets of Hollywood westerns, where a kid named Marion Morrison used to fetch him coffee and an apprentice filmmaker named John Ford used to listen to him spin tales of the Wild West. Morrison, of course, became John Wayne, while Ford became Hollywood's premier director of westerns. He claimed his staging of the O.K. Corral gunfight in this film was based on what he heard from Earp himself, but it's pretty much a remake of 'Frontier Marshal,' with some of the same camera setups. Still, Fonda brings his usual gravitas to the role of Wyatt Earp, and the result is generally considered one of Ford's finest westerns.
Joel McCrea in 'Wichita' (1955): Jacques Tourneur's underrated Western, focusing on a pre-Tombstone episode in Earp's life, centers on McCrea as a reluctant lawman, all too aware of the human cost of his violent streak that the town businessmen put to work on the side of law and progress. In Ford's movies, such violence is necessary to tame the lawless frontier; Tourneur is much more ambivalent about whether all the gunfighting is worth it.
Burt Lancaster in 'Gunfight at the O.K. Corral' (1957): Lancaster does his usual slow-boil here, with the highlight here being his chemistry with longtime pal Kirk Douglas as the loose cannon Doc Holliday. Director John Sturges' version of the Tombstone shootout may be one of the least historically accurate, but, in his staging, it's also one of the most thrilling.
James Stewart in 'Cheyenne Autumn' (1964): In John Ford's somber act of penance toward the American Indians he so casually vilified in earlier westerns, a brief comic interlude featuring Stewart's poker-obsessed Earp seems out of place. The bit was cut from early prints of the film but restored on home video.
James Garner in 'Hour of the Gun' (1967): Sturges' sequel to his 'Gunfight at the O.K. Corral' focuses on the aftermath of the Tombstone shootout. With Garner as Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday, this is a much more psychological and brooding western, a character study of a man torn between his moral code and his desire for revenge. If you're used to the wry, easygoing Garner that characterizes most of his career, his Earp is a revelation.
James Garner in 'Sunset' (1988): Twenty-one years after 'Hour of the Gun,' Garner played Earp again, in a plot based loosely on his real-life mentorship of early Hollywood western stars like Tom Mix (played by Bruce Willis). In a plot that sounds quite like Harrison Ford's upcoming 'Black Hats,' Earp and Mix find themselves teaming up to solve a murder and fight Prohibition-era gangsters. In this rote Blake Edwards comedy/thriller, Garner is more his usual affable self than the angst-ridden Earp from 'Hour,' but his easy professionalism -- both as an actor and as the toughest, sexiest hero in the film -- is as welcome as a warm bath.
Kurt Russell in 'Tombstone' (1993): Russell's Earp is refreshingly antiheroic. He and his brothers come to Tombstone interested only in making money, not in law enforcement. After the famous gunfight and the bloody retaliation against the Earps, Russell's Wyatt becomes a bitter angel of vengeance. He's softened only by his tentative romance with actress Josie Marcus (Dana Delany), the woman he would eventually marry, and his friendship with Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer, who steals the movie). George P. Cosmatos' version of the saga is the most unapologetically pulpy -- and probably the most fun.
Kevin Costner in 'Wyatt Earp' (1994): Costner and Russell battled for a decade to bring dueling Earp projects to the screen. Russell's version beat Costner's to the screen by six months, and the Costner version seemed dull and listless by comparison. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, it's a biopic that covers most of Earp's life and runs more than three hours. Costner has enough time to trace Earp's life from a young man who vomits at the sight of violence to a gunslinger who dispenses it all too easily. He's not afraid to make the character unlikable, but he never makes clear why we should be interested in this man's story. It's hard to watch the film without thinking of how Russell or any of the other Wyatt Earps might have taken charge of the narrative.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.
Photos courtesy of Everett Collection and Universal.