Panned by critics and ignored by the public, the movie ''Wyatt Earp'' quickly vanished into oblivion this past summer. Americans seemed to prefer the ''feel good'' movie of the summer -- ''Forrest Gump'' -- to the biography of the legendary frontier lawman. But there is much the 3 1/2 - hour Lawrence Kasdan epic tells us about the crime and violence that plagues Americans today.
Director Kasdan depicts the young Wyatt Earp as a peaceful soul adverse to violence. He vomits when he sees two men gun each other down in the street. He subdues a man who challenges him to a gunfight by firing a billiard ball into his chest.
''That man wanted to kill me -- for nothing,'' the young Earp says to the crowd that watched the confrontation. The same mentality afflicts America today, where too many of its young men are still killing each other -- for nothing.
As a stagecoach driver Earp tells a companion that he has never killed a man and hopes he never will. It was a different Earp from the manwho cooly gunned down his adversaries on Oct. 26, 1881, in the famous O.K. Corral shootout.
It was an even more coldblooded Earp who pumped bullet after bullet into Frank Stillwell to avenge the death of his younger brother Morgan -- murdered in the cycle of violence that followed the ''Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.'' (Earp shot Stillwell so many times that historian Leon Metz said that Stillwell's body "could have been sold for scrap metal.")
Although historians differ on the reasons three Earp brothers -- joined by notorious gambler and gunman Doc Holliday -- squared off with Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Billy Claiborne, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury on the streets of Tombstone, Ariz., enough evidence exists to suggest that both sides were motivated by nothing more than macho pride. The night before the shootout, Ike Clanton, with bravado buoyed by an excess of booze, brazenly boasted that he and his gang would kill the Earps and Holliday.
Today American youth kill each other in reprisal for homeys killed or injured. They shoot it out for the most harmless of insults. They -- like their Wild West counterparts of old -- will have no truck with being dissed.
When one threatens another he virtually signs his own death warrant. Rap musician Snoop Doggy Dogg, indicted for murder, says the victim of the crime wanted to kill him. I discussed his case with three young black men who attend Pikesville Senior High School.
''Do you really think Snoop is going to jail?'' they asked. ''Snoop claims self-defense. The guy threatened to kill Snoop. He even had the gun he was going to do it with on him when he was shot.''
''I understand that,'' I answered. ''Unfortunately for Snoop, the law doesn't allow pre-emptive strikes.''
The homicide rate among American black men is the highest in theindustrialized world. Some have cited racism, poverty and drugs as the cause. There's no doubt a grain of truth to the belief, and there are no doubt other factors. But I still insist that the main reason is that too many young black men have an O.K. Corral mentality going on.
As the movie ''Wyatt Earp'' graphically showed, that mentality is not new. White males of the Old West dispatched each other with as much murderous zeal as today's young black men are doing -- and for pretty much the same reasons. Today's Americans, so skittish about the plethora of handgun violence in our midst, should remember that in many ways we are not as violent as our ancestors were.
Perhaps the current spate of violence is our karmic debt for all that violence in the past -- as if our sordid history were finally catching up to us. Violent we were and violent we still are -- so much so that the term ''American pacifist'' could rightly be considered an oxymoron.
Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Sun.