The 1990S’ Tombstone Vs. Wyatt Earp Western Movie Battle Had One Clear Winner


Tombstone and Wyatt Earp both battled it out to be the best and most popular western of the 1990s, and looking back years later, there’s one clear victor in this fight (and it’s not even close). Both Tombstone and Wyatt Earp are biopics of the iconic lawman Wyatt Earp, released just a few months apart, and they tell the same story in very different ways (with different runtimes). Tombstone, directed by George P. Cosmatos and starring Kurt Russell, was released on December 25, 1993. Wyatt Earp, directed by Lawrence Kasdan and starring Kevin Costner, was released on June 24, 1994.

It’s surprisingly common for two movies with similar subject matter to release at the same time. There are plenty of examples of the “twin movies” phenomenon: Armageddon and Deep Impact both sent asteroids to Earth; Antz and A Bug’s Life both explored the secret lives of insects; Volcano and Dante’s Peak both had a deadly volcanic eruption; Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached both explored casual sex; Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down both put the President in danger. There isn’t always a clear winner, but in the case of Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, there’s one obvious champion.

Tombstone & Wyatt Earp Were In Clear Competition In The 1990s

Released just six months apart with the exact same biographical subject, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp were in clear competition, making for one of the biggest movie rivalries of the ‘90s. The feud between these two films was only intensified by the fact that Kevin Costner, the star of Wyatt Earp, was originally signed on to star in Tombstone (via Hollywood Elsewhere). During the development of Tombstone, Costner disagreed with screenwriter Kevin Jarre over what the movie should focus on. Costner wanted to focus the story solely on Earp, whereas Jarre wanted to explore a large cast of colorful supporting characters.

So, Costner left the project and teamed up with Kasdan to produce a rival Wyatt Earp biopic. Kasdan was initially planning to tell Earp’s life story as a six-hour miniseries, but Costner’s casting (at the height of his stardom) led to the project being retooled as a three-hour movie. Costner had considerable clout in Hollywood at the time, so he convinced most of the major studios to refuse to distribute Cosmatos’ competing Earp biopic. Costner’s sabotage made it a lot tougher for Cosmatos to cast the roles in Tombstone with A-listers. Tombstone was very much the underdog in this fight.

Tombstone Had Better Reviews Than Wyatt Earp

In spite of Costner doing everything in his power to suppress Tombstone, the rival project was much better-received by critics than Costner’s own Wyatt Earp. Tombstone has an impressive “fresh” Rotten Tomatoes score of 73%, while Wyatt Earp holds the dismal “rotten” rating of 32%. Wyatt Earp’s rating is based on nearly twice as many reviews as Tombstone’s, but that just means even more critics hated it than it seems. Tombstone was praised for its solid storytelling and ensemble cast, while Wyatt Earp was panned for its overlong runtime (clocking in at a whopping 190 minutes) and its unfocused screenplay.

It didn’t help that Wyatt Earp’s arrival six months after Tombstone forced critics to draw comparisons between the two. In his review of Wyatt Earp, Roger Ebert noted that, while Wyatt Earp is a more ambitious project than Tombstone, Tombstone is a lot clearer about its creative goals and is ultimately a better movie. Tombstone managed to place on a few critics’ year-end best-of lists, while Wyatt Earp did the opposite and became a staple of critics’ worst-of lists the following year. In terms of critical reception, there’s no competition whatsoever between these two movies: Tombstone came out on top.


Tombstone Was A Success At The Box Office, But Wyatt Earp Bombed

Tombstone didn’t just win the war with Wyatt Earp in terms of its critical reception; it was also much more successful at the box office. Tombstone grossed $56.5 million at the domestic box office (via The Numbers) and $73.2 million worldwide on a budget of just $25 million, meaning the movie made a nice profit beyond its break-even point of about $62.5 million (2.5 times its budget). Wyatt Earp, on the other hand, didn’t fare nearly as well. It grossed a meager global total of just $25 million (via Box Office Mojo) against a bloated production budget of $63 million.

This meant that Wyatt Earp fell far short of breaking even, let alone turning a profit. The film’s $63 million production budget would place its break-even point somewhere around $157.5 million. With a worldwide gross of $25 million, Wyatt Earp made it about 15% of the way toward breaking even, while Tombstone breezed past its break-even point and into the black. Tombstone’s $73.2 million worldwide haul might not sound particularly impressive next to the figures earned by bona fide blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars, but it still ranks among the highest-grossing westerns since the genre’s heyday ended in 1979.

Tombstone’s Legacy As A Great Western Endures (& Wyatt Earp Cannot Compete)

Even after taking all these losses in the battle against Tombstone, Wyatt Earp still could’ve come out on top if it stood the test of time. If Tombstone had been forgotten about after its initial success and Wyatt Earp had eventually been reappraised as a cult classic, then the latter still could’ve emerged as the victor in this fight. But, alas, that didn’t happen. Wyatt Earp’s reputation has not improved over time, but Tombstone still endures as a classic of the western genre today. A book chronicling the making of the movie, The Making of Tombstone, was published in 2018.

While Wyatt Earp was nominated for five Razzies – and “won” two (Worst Actor for Costner and Worst Remake or Sequel) – Tombstone remains a widely beloved movie today. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral sequence midway through the movie is still considered to be one of the greatest set-pieces in the western genre. Val Kilmer’s iconic, scene-stealing turn as Doc Holliday opposite Kurt Russell’s Earp is still talked about (and heavily quoted) to this day. In the battle between Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp seemed to have everything going for it, but Tombstone won the fight in every conceivable way.