'And with Him Came the West': Film Review

Courtesy of Honest Engine Films
A modest but entrancing meditation on American mythology.

Mike Plante's essay film ties the legend of Wyatt Earp to the birth of the movies.

Tying the life of a much-mythologized man up with the birth of the storytelling form that made him a legend, Mike Plante's And with Him Came the West follows an opportunist named Wyatt Earp through both his actual life and the myriad fictionalizations of it that have entertained moviegoers since nearly the start of the sound era. Sharing a seductive blend of research and mood-making with the "live documentary" projects of co-screenwriter Sam Green, the film is serious but not ponderous, connecting dots without pretending to be comprehensive even on the subject of Earp himself.

From its first frames, the film syncs moments in Earp's biography with milestones in cinematic technology: In 1879, for instance, when Wyatt moved to Tombstone, Arizona, Eadweard Muybridge was perfecting his photographic studies of motion; he settled in San Francisco just as urban centers were seeing their first projected movies. The film's mannered narration (presumably by Plante), which sounds a bit like a hard-boiled private eye hosting This American Life, makes these coincidences sound deeply meaningful.

Also from the start, the film acknowledges the fluidity of facts in even first-hand accounts of history. We go to an archive to see a map, drawn by Earp and an assistant, of the O.K. Corral, with dots and dashes showing who did what on the most famous day of his life. But the map was drawn in 1926, 45 years after the shootout, and of the multiple maps he made, none are exactly the same.

Quickly, the film shifts into an engaging account of the many Earps (and Earp stand-ins) Hollywood gave us through the years, seeing how screenwriters and directors took a man, who was reportedly reluctant to be Tombstone's sheriff, and turned him into a hero. Occasionally, Plante makes a wry observation: Watch as the NRA-beloved Ronald Reagan, playing an Earp-inspired lawman, enforces Tombstone's policy that guns must be surrendered within city limits.

Film buffs would likely not have complained if this section represented the bulk of the doc. But soon, Plante has moved on to the actual Tombstone, a simulacrum of its former self where amateur actors stage showdowns several times a day for tourists. It's a long visit — enjoyable, but perhaps disproportionate in a film that runs only 76 minutes.

"We learn from the movies — we can't help it," Plante says early on, and as the film returns to describe how revisionist westerns treated Earp, we see him both muddied (as in the 1971 Stacy Keach film Doc) and re-lionized in the '90s. Plante himself doesn't seem too concerned about where Earp truly belongs on the hero/crook spectrum: He takes us to some of the places Earp lived in San Francisco and L.A., tells stories of boxing controversies and mining opportunities, and envisions a man who understood there might be money to be made in big-screen interpretations of his story.

Earp died in 1929, well before what Plante sees as the first of many movies he inspired, 1932's Law and Order. (Played by Bert Lindley, Earp was a supporting character in 1923's Wild Bill Hickok.) As far as the Western genre was concerned, that's probably a good thing. When "print the legend" becomes the rule, it's handy for nobody to be able to press the source on how things really went down.

Venue: Documentary Fortnight, Museum of Modern Art
Production company: Honest Engine Films
Director: Mike Plante
Screenwriters: Sam Green, Tim Kirk, Mike Plante
Producers: Tim Kirk, Mike Plante
Executive producers: Robert Goldthwait, Robin Greenspun, Toby Huss, Joanne Storkan
Director of photography:
Editors: Chris Peters, Mike Plante
Composers: Brendan Canty, Brent Green, Michael McGinley, Kate Ryan

76 minutes