How much did Wyatt Earp influence John Wayne and the Code of the West?

Once upon a time (circa 1928), in a Hollywood of our mythic imagination rather than historic reality, a 21-year-old aspiring actor named Marion Michael Morrison (later to become more well known as John Wayne) met 80-year-old former marshal Wyatt Earp. The aged gunfighter had been hired to appear in one of those newly invented “oaters” that had become a part of popular culture following the cinematic success of The Great Train Robbery (1903).

The two met on the set of a Western being directed by genius-in-embryo John Ford and the living legend of the Old West hit it off with the youngster who would come to embody the 20 century’s glorification of that time and place. Between takes, the tall tale goes, Earp recalled his hair-raising exploits as Duke (he’d been called that since childhood owing to his close attachment to a large dog of that name) sat spellbound, admiring and absorbing the old lawman’s personal code of conduct.

As a lawman, Earp (unlike some of his trigger-happy contemporaries) believed a gun must only be employed as a last resort. Even at the O.K. Corral shootout, Earp and his brother Virgil attempted to talk the Clantons and McLaurys into handing over their pistols before all hell broke loose on October 26, 1881. Despite the lawman’s misgivings about employing his weapon, three men lay dead on Tombstone, Arizona’s Fremont Street when the incident was over, ensuring Earp’s “reputation” as a fast-gun.

Though as Earp later explained: “I don’t think 30 seconds should sum up a man’s whole life.” The iconic Westerner would have preferred to be remembered for his 100-plus earlier gunfights in which only one man died, and this by accident. 

When Earp passed away on January 16, 1929, Hollywood myth places young Duke as one of his pallbearers. Shortly after, Wayne got his Western movie break. First came the 1930 sound epic The Big Trail, a box-office disaster and potential career-killer. However, Wayne survived by starring in low-budget items for Poverty Row studios, and by the decade’s end, Ford rescued his protégé from B-movie purgatory by casting Wayne in Stagecoach (1939), a critically acclaimed, financially successful big Western.

From then on, Duke placed on the A-list.

Throughout his career, whether he was working in cheaply produced program-pictures or in Cinemascope extravaganzas, Wayne never forgot what he learned from Earp and insisted on embodying the man’s code of honor on-screen.

For example, while filming The Shootist in 1975, Wayne noticed that in the rough cut, his character, dying gunfighter John Book, appeared to shoot an opponent in the back. Wayne requested that the sequence be re-edited. Never before, he explained to director Don Siegel, had Wayne shot a man in the back, this in deference to Earp.

Earp’s code influenced Wayne in other roles as well. Even during the deadly gunplay at the O.K. Corral, Earp refused to gun down Ike Clanton when the outlaw leader raised his hands, insisting he was unarmed. And Earp would not fire on that arch-enemy as Clanton ran away. Likewise, in Rio Bravo (1959), Wayne, playing sheriff John T. Chance, says: “Man gets shot and he’s got a gun, there’s room for reasonable doubt. Man gets shot that hasn’t got a gun, what would you call it?” By implication, he answers his own question: Murder.

As historian Gary L. Roberts wrote of Earp: “He lived his life according to a code that seemed right to him.” That holds true for Wayne’s characters as well.

Here’s where the tall tale ends. After all, the greatest Wayne/Ford Western produced—The Searchers (1956)—contains a sequence in which Duke’s character, Ethan Edwards, does in fact gun down a fleeing would-be robber. All of the above at once becomes an opened can of worms.

The reality of Wayne’s relationship with Earp is less romantic—though no less interesting—than the legend. Truth be told, Wayne wasn’t a pallbearer at Earp’s funeral (though two silent stars, Tom Mix and William S. Hart, were). In fact, Earp never even appeared in a movie (though other living remnants of the West—lawman William Tilghman and outlaw Al Jennings—did). Rather, Earp took a side seat on movie sets, recounting old-time incidents for Ford during the shooting of Mother Machree (1928), a non-Western. Wayne, who here made his screen debut in a bit part, wasn’t even present when Earp explained to Ford that the O.K. Corral gunfight hadn’t been the slam-bang bullet-fest popularized by myth and media, but rather an orchestrated battle, executed with military-like strategy.

(Nearly two decades later, Ford employed that approach to his staging of the incident in My Darling Clementine (1946). Intriguingly, Ford chose Henry Fonda, not Wayne, to play Earp in the film. Why? We’ll never know, as Ford took that secret with him to the grave, much to Wayne’s consternation.)

Bottom line: Earp and Wayne never met. Anything Wayne knew about the real Earp came to him secondhand from Ford during their 25-year working relationship. Their encounter is only a charming Hollywood fable.

Nonetheless, Earp and Wayne did share several qualities. Both were, in fact, natives of the North: Earp was born in Illinois, Wayne in Iowa. Each, in his own time, made his way west to California. As well, Wayne—on-screen as John Chance—and Wyatt Earp, Easterners so far as Arizona locals were concerned, found themselves drawn into a deadly conflict with the reigning cattlemen and the cowboys working as their hired hands. Chance, like the man he may have been based on, was dedicated to taming, not enabling, the wildness of the West.

In our collective unconscious, fans tend to recall Wayne playing John Law in film after film—testament to how powerfully he resonates in that role. However, before Rio Bravo, Wayne never enacted a lawman in an A-Western (though he did pin on a star in several 1930s grade-Z junk movies). And, however serendipitous, the Earp connection at once emerged.

The reasons: In Blue Steel (1934), Duke’s youthful marshal was mentored by an old-timer (George “Gabby” Hayes) while cleaning up a nasty town, just as a young Earp was by Sheriff Whitney in Ellsworth, Kan., circa 1872. The Big Stampede (1932) depicts Wayne’s lawman as recruiting and reforming a bad man who then joins the cause against other outlaws; Earp managed such a trope when he enlisted former enemy Ben Thompson as an uneasy ally. In The Star Packer (1934), Wayne’s lawman insists on hiring a Native American as his full-fledged deputy owing to the man’s tracking abilities; Earp is believed to have been the first marshal to over-ride Anglo prejudices in Wichita and Dodge by doing precisely that.

Wayne playing a lawman, however, is the exception in his cinematic career. More often, Wayne was cast as an outlaw or outsider, such as in Somewhere in Sonora (1933), Sagebrush Trail (1933), Paradise Canyon (1935), and almost a dozen others. Even in the triumphant Stagecoach, he’s the righteous outlaw Ringo, on the run from the law. The same holds true for Wayne in Ford’s The Searchers and Hawks’ El Dorado, if in time Duke would return to lawman roles, most notably in True Grit (1969).

Initially, Duke’s plethora of bandit roles seemingly severs the Wayne-Earp connection. In truth, it reinforces a parallel between Wayne’s evolving screen persona and the flesh-and-blood man who served as role model. For if their face-to-face meeting is mythic, the truth is that Wayne did have Earp in mind not only when he played roles where he donned the badge, but also in those where he was on the run.

In most of the 25-plus movies that depict Earp, the story begins on that day when our hero accepted his first job as a trail town deputy. Only Wyatt Earp (1994), starring Kevin Costner and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, reveals the truth, the whole truth. Earp did not leave his family in Illinois to seek excitement on the fabled frontier. He ran away from home after the sudden passing of his first wife. The self-pitying widower then degenerated into a life of crime. His arrest record includes citations for petty theft and whoremongering.

Earp, like so many others, went West in hopes of being born again—discovering the righteous life he had abandoned while temporarily embracing (as George Lucas might put it) The Dark Side.

How perfect, then, that John Wayne, as the cinematic stand-in for Earp, likewise portrayed many wandering gunmen, Hondo (1953) prime among them. Almost always, his character would be a seemingly bad man harboring an inner decency just waiting to be rekindled (particularly by some good woman). One film, Angel and the Badman (1947), addresses that process in its narrative. In that film, Wayne as gunfighter Quirt Evans learns from a benign religious leader: “Each human being has an integrity that can be hurt only by the act of that same human being.”

The message: Don’t blame others, or circumstances, for your lowly lot in life. Take individual responsibility for your previous actions and your subsequent self-recreation. That’s what Earp believed. Wayne, too.

Wayne’s great films, from Stagecoach to Angel and the Badman to The Searchers to Rio Bravo, depict (however unawares filmmakers behind each project may have been) a transition for Wayne’s on-screen icon from wanted man to lawman.

And, fittingly, the journey directly parallels Wyatt Earp’s. Respectability didn’t come easily to the saddle tramp. As Wayne’s Tom Dunson in Red River (1948) would say: He earned it. Just as Wayne’s anti-heroes do in their films.

However much the old movies may have insisted there were the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, most Westerners, like Earp in history and Wayne in his Hollywood canon, were a bit of both. Johnny Ringo, who had a reputation for violence, briefly served as a lawman. Wild Bill Hickok, town marshal of Abilene, had been pursued by the law after shooting down two members of the Seventh Cavalry in a saloon. One of the strongest recommendations for the job of lawman was a previous reputation as a gun-slick. Would-be troublemakers, hearing such a fellow’s handle, stayed away from any place where that onetime bandit wore a badge.

Nowhere is this situation so strikingly depicted than in The Shootist, partly explaining why the film (Wayne’s last) serves as a perfect bookend to his career. In the prologue, a youngster (Ron Howard) sums up the title character’s life. When the boy speaks of the old days, John Book’s early years as an outlaw are depicted via a choice clip from Hondo. As the narrator then recalls Book’s later term as town marshal, we see (not surprisingly) a key moment from Rio Bravo.

A landmark film, and not just because it was Wayne’s final Western, The Shootist is the genre-piece that most perfectly captures a paradigm that holds true for both John Wayne’s movie career and Wyatt Earp’s reality: While there were no clear-cut Good Guys and Bad Guys, any one person (or character) may have played either part at certain moments in his journey.

In a transitional film—a medium-budget Republic release called The Dark Command (1940)—Wayne portrayed a Kansas lawman who must arrest the young brother of the woman that he loves. In anguish, the young love interest asks how he could do this. Duke drawls: “I took an oath.” That’s that: the Code of the West, pure and simple.

Perhaps it was historically true for Wyatt Earp. Clearly, it’s the moral principle on which John Wayne’s mythical lawman hero operates. 

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Douglas Brode is the author of more than 40 books on film including John Wayne’s Way: Life Lessons from the Duke. 

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