Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell have both made careers in western movies. They each have a special something they bring to their roles which have garnered each a passionate fan following over the years. Of the two, Costner is definitely more serious and brooding. Though he’s known to have a dry-witted one-liner or two, for the most part, his western characters are a pillar of strength. On the flip side, Kurt Russell is a bit scrappy. He’s just as tough and cool but has a bit of an edge to him that really sets him apart from Costner and other actors who frequent westerns. Both men really make you feel like you’ve stepped right into the Old West, which is why their films have become classics over the years.
The famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral (among other things) helped turn the lawman Wyatt Earp into one of the most legendary men of the Old West. Though many actors have brought his story to the screen over the years ranging from Hugh O’Brian to James Garner, two of the best portrayals were by Costner and Russell. Though both actors played Earp, the two films are pretty different off the bat. Costner’s, aptly titled Wyatt Earp, is really just that. An origin story about Earp and his family, eventually ending with the historic shootout. Russell’s is more focused on the events leading up to and following the O.K. Corral, simply titled Tombstone.
It was an interesting time in the early 90s because both films were literally released into theaters within months of each other. At the time, Kevin Costner could do no wrong. He hit it big a couple of years prior, bringing back the western with Dances With Wolves, and was ready to do another…this time a gritty and historical retelling of Wyatt Earp’s life and legacy. At the same time, an ensemble cast was put together, making Earp’s historic shootout more of an action film to appeal to younger and more modern audiences, with Kurt Russell in the leading role.
So who played the best Wyatt Earp between the two? Two Hollywood legends, two seriously impressive portrayals of one of the most famous heroes in the Wild West. Let’s dive into both performances.
Best scene: Wyatt Earp’s harsh truth, brothers come before their wives
Best line: “Mister, I’ve been in a really bad mood for the last few years, so I’d appreciate it if you’d just leave me alone.”
Here’s the deal. This is actually a genuinely great film. It has a really impressive cast — Gene Hackman, Jeff Fahey, Mark Harmon, Michael Madsen, Bill Pullman, Tom Sizemore, and a young Jim Caviezel. You get so much more information about Wyatt Earp’s family and close relationship with his brothers that there just isn’t time for in the other film. You also get some backstory on his relationship with Doc Holliday, who a gaunt Dennis Quaid tries to play authentically as he’s suffering from tuberculosis, as well as Earp’s time in Dodge City. But it really is slow at times, though shot beautifully. There are a few good ‘shoot em up’ moments like any good western, but the problem is, it’s not very rewatchable. It’s worth seeing just to take in Costner’s performance (the movie is clearly his) and all of the interesting moments from Earp’s life thrown in, but there’s a reason Tombstone became the favorite of the two.
Best scene: Wyatt Earp’s reckoning
Best line: “You tell ’em I’m coming, and hell’s coming with me, you hear? Hell’s coming with me!”
For many folks, Tombstone is their favorite western of all time. It has some comedic one-liners from its iconic cast of Russell, Sam Elliott, Val Kilmer, and Bill Paxton, with all of the appeal of popular action films that ruled the 90s. Russell’s depiction of the famous lawman is charming and charismatic, one of the best roles he’s taken in his entire career. The life and legend of Wyatt Earp have become popularized over the years in part because of the events at the O.K. Corral, so it works to set the entire film around this time. Not to mention the fact that Russell was even involved behind the scenes of this film. Sam Elliott told EW that after they had issues with their director, Russell stepped in and helped hold everything together. The final product became the box office darling of the two and one of the best films of the 90s. All this to say, Russell’s influence is all over the film, not only just in his role, which is part of what makes it so special.
So Who Played It Best?
If you ask anyone which movie they preferred, odds are you will hear Tombstone. It’s the type of movie you can turn on anytime it’s playing on TV and feel thoroughly entertained even if it’s halfway through. Costner’s Earp is one of those movies you need to concentrate on to ensure you don’t miss anything, and you’re probably not turning it on for casual viewing. As for which actor did a better job, that just comes down to who you personally prefer. Costner and Russell are each good in their own ways; it’s just a tough call.
If you’re a traditionalist who prefers the most serious John Ford westerns and the original John Wayne True Grit, you might lean more on Costner. While Tombstone appeals to all western fans, it’s especially appealing to a more modern crowd who may not have realized they could enjoy the Wild West before seeing Russell’s fun performance. Current Yellowstone fans might want to go back and give it a watch if they haven’t already. There’s no wrong answer here, just a couple of great performances that everyone should see at least once.