Tombstone: A Magnificent Kurt Russell and a mesmerizing Val Kilmer leads the charge in this highly entertaining and iconic Western

Tombstone (1993), (officially) directed by George P. Cosmatos and starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, is a thoroughly enjoyable western that recounts the events leading up to, and following, the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Of all the actors who played Wyatt Earp on screen, a mustachioed Kurt Russell in Tombstone (1993) comes closest in appearance to the real Wyatt Earp; the resemblance is uncanny when one compares Russell in the film and the real life photographs of Earp taken at the time of his activities in the town of Tombstone, even though Age wise, Russell, who was 42 at the time of making this film, was far older than Earp who was 33 at the time of the famous Gunfight near the OK corral. And after watching the movie, i have to say that that’s were most of the similarity ends, because Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, is less the Earp that a lot of history and revisionist history books teach us, and more of the grand ‘Western’ genre archetype : The noble, reluctant gunslinger, who hang up his spurs to live in peace, but is pulled back into the world of violence; Think of Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952). Kurt Russell may lack the stature and towering presence of such legendary Western stars as John Wayne or Cooper, but he makes up for it with his sincerity, his commanding voice and dialogue delivery, his spontaneous acing style and an innate starry aura that he possesses – maybe due to the fact that there aren’t many stars like him, with the major exception of Elizabeth Taylor, who has had such a long run of stardom since their childhood – that allows him to project cool machismo effortlessly. In direct contrast to Russell’s Wyatt Earp stands Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. Kilmer, who was 33 when he did the film, and is much closer in age to the real Holliday (who was 30) immerses himself into the role with such intensity, that all traces of Kilmer disappears; Kilmer’s Holliday is forever drunk and forever feverish, with red eyes and a ghostly white face – perfectly representing a man who is dying of tuberculosis. He acquired the mannerisms and dressing style of an effete dandy, and has given himself an aristocratic southern accent that adds authenticity to his portrayal (Holliday was from Georgia). Kilmer walks a tight rope between brilliant character acting and a burlesque caricature, bringing to mind some truly bizarre, yet undeniably potent performances of Kilmer’s idol Marlon Brando. So intense was Kilmer’s method acting preparation for this film, that for his death scene he slept on a bed of ice to generate the shivering effect- something that Brando also did for his death scene in Mutiny on the Bounty. By the way, it was Brando who told Kilmer ” that at some point every film actor must make a Western“. When Kilmer asked him why, he answered with his famous half smile and the words, “You know damn well why.”

Kilmer later deduced that Brando’s “why” has to do with basic Americanism. One way or the other, Americans have to deal with the West and its glorious, sordid, and sadistic past. So when Kilmer was presented with the chance to play Holliday, he grabbed it with both hands. Kilmer plays Holliday as a 19th century frontier rockstar; He dances, rather than walks, and sings his dialogues rather than speaking them; it’s like he is channeling Jim Morrison – whom he played in Oliver Stone’s biopic on the iconic singer; his dialogues in the film like “I’m your Huckleberry” has become legendary; the line has an (unintentional) echo of Huckleberry Finn, Kilmer’s favorite novel and character, though Kilmer had only intended it to mean “I’m your man. You’ve met your match.” Kilmer intended the character’s wit to surpass even his skills with the pistol; his wit and his drunkenness is his open act of defiance in the face of death. It goes without saying, that with this courageous performance Kilmer not only elevates this film by several notches, but also leaves every past portrayal of Doc Holliday in the dust. Both Russell and Kilmer were very good friends in real life and their chemistry spills over into the film. They work beautifully together, and are very successful in making us believe why Earp and Holliday were such great pals who would lay down their lives for each other. Beyond these two stars, the film is populated with who’s who of the macho star brigade : the born to be movie cowboy Sam Elliot plays Virgil Earp, Bill Paxton plays the naïve, misguided Morgan Earp, and there are Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Thomas Haden Church, Stephen Lang, Jason Priestley, Billy Zane, etc. … topped out by legendary Charlton Heston, with Robert Mitchum providing the narration. As it is obvious from the cast, the film is an ultimate ‘guy’ film. The film does has its fair share of female characters, but the emphasis is on the relationship between male characters; their camaraderie and their rivalry; the film is full of truly masculine moments where guys bond with each other, stare down each other, talk down each other and gun down each other.

The film begins in the year 1879. After cleaning up Dodge City, legendary frontier lawman, Wyatt Earp decides that he’s through with the law. he hangs up his guns and badge to settle down peacefully with his family and pursue a life of a businessman. Of all the places in United States, he chooses Tombstone in Arizona territory for this enterprise. Maybe he didn’t have good business advisors or tour guides, but Tombstone, at the time, is the last place one would plan to settle down in peace with your family after hanging up your badge. Tombstone is a silver mining boomtown alright, but as the opening of the film so explicitly states – first through Robert Mitchum’s narration and the following visuals – Tombstone was the center of the first organized crime racket, called the “cowboys“, that preceded even the arrival of the Mafia. Cowboys – who wear red sashes – consists of some hundred hard riding men, specializing in cattle rustling, murder, arson etc.. The opening scenes of the film show how vicious and pure evil these Cowboys are; led by the ruthless ‘Curly’ Bill Brocious and associates, the psychotic Johnny Ringo and the crude, big-talking Ike Clanton, We see the cowboys disrupting a Mexican wedding; they gun down the bridegroom (a police officer, who killed two of their gang members) and everybody else at the wedding including the priest. This is truly a lawless land run by the children of Lucifer. Before his death, the priest had warned the Cowboys about the man who will be soon arriving on a pale horse, the fourth Horseman of the apocalypse who is going to wipe them out. So we are just waiting for the biblical hero to arrive, not as much as to to restore law & order in this land, but to establish it; et voila, the very next scene shows us his arrival; he arrives by train at Tucson railway station in the dashing figure of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp. His introduction scene positioning him as the noblest of souls, both compassionate and righteous. At the station, Wyatt notices a rider harshly whipping his horse . An outraged Wyatt grabs the whip and hits the rider back with the question “Hurts, doesn’t it?“. This is a truly noble man who loves even the animals so much, so his compassion for fellow humans can be easily guessed. But his reputation precedes him, and no sooner has he landed at the station, that some of the good, influential citizens of the territory begin to circle him, but even before they could pose the question, Wyatt answers “No“, he’s not going to be a lawman anymore. Wyatt has arrived with his wife, Matty Blaylock, to join up with his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, who are already there with their wives. Allie and Louisa. In a blissful moment of a family reunion, Wyatt engineers a snapshot of the whole family on the station glass window, but we already see cracks in that picture perfect family image; Matty , who is both a physical and mental wreck and hopelessly addicted to Laudanum, is already jittery and showing signs of a breakdown. The other sister-in-laws try to form a protective shield around her, by claiming that they resemble each other so much that they appear to be truly sisters – which one way is true, they are all whores from different parts of the country. After this moment of family reunion, the Earps set forth for Tombstone; we see the golden light of the sun enveloping them as they make their way through the desert wilderness. There is hope and beauty all round.

As witnessed till now, we have the perfect set up for a great traditional western: a clearly delineated moral world where the Cowboys are the evil villains and Wyatt Earp is the mythical hero who has come to liberate the land. and even if he is refusing to pick up guns for now, we know that it’s just a matter of time before he does. From these opening scenes, we get an inkling to the film’s ambitions. They are narrow in artistic terms, but it is very clear and precise: to be a colorful, entertaining ‘Western’ genre film for a modern audience; fully providing them with all its pleasures and (yes) also indulging in the clichés and familiar tropes associated with it. There is not going to be any sort of revisionism, density or moral ambiguity that one associates with the post-modern westerns, and the film is going to work towards achieving those goals in a clean, economical manner. Keeping in with the tastes of the modern audiences, the storytelling is crisp and pacey; the moment they land up in Tombstone, both the film and the Earps hit the ground running. Within minutes, three major plot points are covered in quick succession, that also builds character and character relationships.

First, Wyatt Earp sets up his own business; by forcefully taking over the Oriental Gambling emporium and Saloon after brusquely kicking out its uncouth handler, Johnny Tyler . Now Wyatt and his brothers are businessmen.

Second, he reunites with his old friend John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday, a dentist turned gambler and outlaw- who is equally passionate about gambling and killing. Though Holliday is suffering from tuberculosis, and he is drunk all the time, he is super fast with either a gun or a knife; we have already seen Holliday in action: seen him kill a man with a knife over a dispute over a card game. He is also passionately devoted to his paramour, ‘Big Nose’ Kate, who follows him everywhere. The scene also brings Wyatt in contact with the corrupt Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, who is aligned with the Cowboys . Behan claims that Tombstone will soon be as developed and sophisticated as San Francisco, but the violent activities going on in the streets and the saloons contradicts his claims.

And third, the arrival of Josephine Marcus – who would go onto become Wyatt Earp’s soulmate for the rest of his life – arrives in town with her traveling theater troupe led by Mr. Fabian. The moment she and Wyatt sets eyes on each other, sparks fly. He appears to her as a tall glass of water in the arid desert, while the androgynous Shakespearean actor Mr. Fabian, who looks as smitten with Wyatt as her, describes him in his flowery language as: ” the quintessential frontier type. Note the lean silhouette . . . eyes closed by the sun, though sharp as a hawk. He’s got the look of both predator and prey.”. Josephine is determined to get Wyatt, as she later describes herself: “I’m a woman. I like men. If that means I’m not ‘ladylike,’ then I guess I’m just not a lady! At least I’m honest.”

From these scenes, a few things are very clear; now that Earps will be operating their own gambling enterprise and the volatile Doc Holliday is going to be close by , there is every chance that they will be running into trouble soon. Also, seeing how determined Josephine is and how smitten Wyatt looks, Wyatt is not going to be a faithful husband for long , though he does his best not to be swept off by Josie. He averts his eyes every time Josephine comes within his eyesight – and it seems that she is everywhere he goes – leading Holliday to call him “an Oak”. But Wyatt cant deny his attraction for Josephine much longer, and soon enough they become lovers, much to the chagrin of Matty and it drivers her even deeper into her opium addiction. When Wyatt first lays eyes on the Cowboys, it’s during the theatrical performance of Mr. Fabian’s troop. Turns out that ‘Curly’ Bill is quite a connoisseur of arts, he wildly applauds Mr. Fabian’s St. Crispin speech. Soon enough, the first confrontation between the Cowboys and Earps ensues, when Clanton, Ringo and Brocious barges into the gambling den. Clanton tries his best to provoke Wyatt, but he remains cool. There are some tense moments when Ringo and Holiday start sizing up each other – first with words, in English and Latin, and then with guns, but it passes without any unpleasant incidents. This uneasy peace doesn’t last much long; one night, Brocious gets high on opium and starts shooting up the place, his violent spree ends with him shooting and killing the Marshall, Fred White. Wyatt has to intervene to subdue Brocious and Clanton. Brocious is arrested and tried, but is exonerated due to lack of evidence. After this altercation, things start going south pretty quickly; Outraged by the wanton lawlessness in town, Virgil Earp decides to take the job of city Marshall, and deputizes Virgil. Wyatt is aghast at this action of his brothers. he was doing his best to stay away from trouble and settle down peacefully. He tries to reason with them but to no avail. Virgil also imposes a weapons ban within the city limits, so next time, when Ike Clanton creates a disturbance, Virgil intervenes, knocks him unconscious and put him in jail. He is bailed out by the rest of the cowboys, who threaten retaliation. On the afternoon of October 26 1881, some of the cowboys, including the Clanton brothers and the McLaury brothers assemble near the OK corral; Cowboys are fully armed in direct violation of the city rules. Virgil is not going to let the rules be broken and decide to march out and confront the cowboys. Seeing that his brothers are determined, Wyatt asks to be deputized; they are soon joined by Doc Holliday, and all 4 march out through the streets to disarm the cowboys. But the cowboys refuse to be disarmed and a gunfight breaks out, in which Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers are killed. and Virgil and Morgan are wounded.

This famous Gunfight at the OK corral recreated for the film is pretty authentic, it take place at close quarters and goes on for about 30 seconds, but in the real gunfight just about 30 shots were fired, in the film a lot more bullets are fired. Also some of the words spoken by the characters, like Holliday’s “You’re a daisy if you do!”, were also authentic. The Cowboys soon retaliate by ambushing Virgil and Morgan; Morgan is killed while Virgil is handicapped for life. Wyatt’s had enough, and he decides to pack up and sent the handicapped Morgan and rest of the family to California. He tells the Cowboys that “it is over”, and he does not intend to carry on with feud, but he knows better, and as he expected, at the Tucson station, the Earps are ambushed by Frank Stilwell and Ike Clanton. This time Wyatt is ready for them; he shoots and kills Stilwell, but lets Clanton live to send a message: Wyatt shows Clanton his badge and announces that he is a U.S. marshal now; he has assembled a posse, which includes Holliday,  Sherman McMasters (a reformed Cowboy), Texas Jack Vermillion, and Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, and that he intends to kill any man he sees wearing a red sash. The moment is again potent with biblical undertones, with Wyatt using words like “you called down the thunder, well now you’ve got it!,…You tell ’em I’M coming… and hell’s coming with me, you hear?…Hell’s coming with me!“. He has truly acquired the avatar of angel of death riding the pale horse (Later we see Wyatt ‘walking on water’ as an immortal god who is impervious to bullets). Now begins Wyatt Earp’s “Vendetta Ride”. It’s a fast-paced, heavily edited, montage sequence, where we see Wyatt’s posse hunting down the cowboys one by one. Rest of the film is very predictable: Wyatt and his posse vanquish all their enemies and Wyatt has a happy ending with Josephine. In spite of this predictability, the film still packs some surprises towards the climax.

The film, Tombstone, was the brainchild of writer Kevin Jarre, who had previously written (or co-written) movies like Rambo and Glory. He was the son of the legendary music composer Maurice Jarre, who composed some great scores for some of the greatest films of David Lean. Jarre was a protégée of Lean , and he had intended Tombstone to be on the lines of David Lean epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962); a sort of Wyatt Earp of Tombstone. The original script for the film was huge, with multiple characters and definite character arcs for each one of them. Jarre managed to interest Kevin Costner in his script, but Costner wanted the film to be completely about Wyatt Earp; a definitive biopic on Earp’s life starting from his childhood to old age, rather than the ensemble piece that focused on Earp brothers’ time in Tombstone that Jarre intended. When Costner found a Wyatt Earp script written by Dan Gordon that met his requirements, he ditched the Jarre project and hitched on to that one, which was to be co-written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Costner, who was one of the most powerful stars at the time in Hollywood, also ensured that Jarre does not mount a competing Wyatt Earp project by intimidating every other studio – except Disney – from doing business with Jarre. But when Jarre’s script found its way to star Kurt Russell, and he liked it enough to do it, the film was resurrected. Russell was not as big as Costner, but was star enough to get the project made. He got Andy Vajna – who was a former partner of Carolco (that company that produced movies like Rambo and Terminator II) and now running his own independent production unit Cinergy – to put up $25 million Dollars (a rather modest budget) for making the film and Disney studio to distribute it. Jarre’s script was good enough to get a terrific cast of actors on board, but everybody agreed that the script was too long, at least 30 pages too long to be convincingly confined within the running time of a mainstream commercial film. To make matters more complicated, Jarre won the right to direct the film himself; a project of this scope and scale was a real challenge for any director and almost ten times that for a debutant. Still, Jarre pressed on with the pre production; he was obsessive about the details – the sets, the costumes and locations. The film was going to be shot in Arizona, the first Wyatt Earp film to be shot there. But once the production started, it became painfully clear to everyone concerned that Jarre couldn’t direct. Worse: he obsessively stuck to the script, refusing to cut even one line and disallowing any inputs from, or collaboration with the actors. Jarre quickly fell behind schedule and the budget started skyrocketing; the studio saw the makings of another Heaven’s Gate – the 1980 Western which had another monomaniacal auteur, Michael Cimino, at the helm. So after 4 weeks of filming, Kevin Jarre was sacked. It fell on Kurt Russell to rally the troops and keep the movie going. Russell became the de facto director; by first hiring another writer to cut the script to an acceptable length and then hiring director George P. Cosmatos to serve as his official doppelganger. Russell would prepare the script and shot list for the next day, which he would hand over to Cosmatos every night. Cosmatos would execute Russell’s shot list to the letter without any complaints. Reportedly, Cosmatos had directed Rambo and Cobra under a similar arrangement with star, Sylvester Stallone (who recommended Cosmatos to his Tango & Cash costar Russell). Thus the film was completed without any major problems in the stipulated time and budget, but still the final cut came close to 3 hours. The film was hacked down to just over 2 hours by the studio without Russell’s participation , something Russell always regretted. The heavy editing is very obvious from the tonal shifts from the first half to the second; A well constructed, acted and paced dramatic film suddenly becomes a slick action thriller.

As such is the case with the behind the scenes happenings of this film, it is difficult to assign credit (or blame) for the films virtues (and vices). Obviously, Jarre wrote a script with some great characters and truly quotable dialogue, but it had too many characters and scenes which had to be cut down, and its effect is felt in the truncated screen time for a lot of actors\characters. A lot of the members of the esteemed cast makes blink & miss appearances, and some don’t even get any dialogue, with some characters just disappearing after a point without any reason.. Charlton Heston as legendary rancher, Henry Hooker, gets just 2 scenes; i don’t think that’s what Heston signed up for. The big contribution of Kurt Russell as filmmaker seems to be in keeping the screenplay focused on Wyatt, Doc, ‘Curly’ Bill, Johnny Ringo and Ike Clanton. The characters of Wyatt and Doc and their interpersonal relationships are developed to the fullest, much to the benefit of the film and they form the heart of the story. It goes without saying Russell and Kilmer are the best Wyatt and Doc ever in films. I earlier talked about the regular tropes and clichés of ‘Westerns’, one of them is the straight, humorless, stoic hero and his weak, colorful, eccentric sidekick, whom the hero has to protect – think of John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo.. Wyatt and Doc falls within that cliché, but it is very well updated. Here Doc is the eccentric one, but he is also the more powerful with the gun; as we see in the climax, when Wyatt is challenged to a duel by Ringo, Wyatt accepts , but he is really scared, because he knows that the younger Ringo is a faster draw than he is. The only one who can outdraw Ringo is Doc, and he is truly weakened by his Tuberculosis. Still hero that he is Wyatt starts out to face Ringo, but Doc beats him to it; even in his weakened state he doesn’t hesitate to confront Ringo and manages to kill him with a faster draw, even before Wyatt could reach the place. The vulnerability of the lead hero and the superhuman strength of the sidekick is something new that the film does with the old Western cliché. All throughout the film, we see Doc at death’s doorstep, but when an opportunity for some action present itself, he becomes a super hero. He has lived so long with death staring at him that only time he feels energetic is in front of death; he doesn’t want to die of any disease, he wants go out as a hero, in a hail of gunfire. Of course it’s Kilmer’s terrific performance that make these moments believable, but it’s moments and themes like these that make Tombstone a terrific Western for a modern audience.

Another great aspect of this film is its visual opulence; the sets, the costumes, the locations and the props are both authentic and cinematic, they look really good on screen. The great cinematographer William A. Fraker (who has shot everything from Bullitt to Paint your Wagon and directed the great Lee Marvin western Monte Walsh), production designer Catherine Hardwicke and costume designer Joseph A. Porro does extraordinary work. Some credit for the stylish visuals could be attributed to director, Cosmatos, who like Sergio Leone, brought a European sensibility to the look of the film. As witnessed in Rambo, he is really good at shooting action scenes , and this comes in handy in the picturisation of the several action scenes, especially the famous OK Corral Gunfight (superbly staged) as well as the Earp’s Vendetta ride. The costume design emphasis the difference between the cowboy , who are the traditional bad guys in this film, with their colorful costumes and Earp’s gang, who are always dressed in black and white, symbolizing dignity and civility. Though this may not be the original vision of director Jarre, who wanted a fully rounded characterization for the heroes and the villains – we can spot the subtle layers given to the characters of Brocious and Ringo – Brocious appreciates theatre, Ringo is an educated man who can speak fluently in Latin, But in the form the film exists in front of us today, this rather one dimensional characterization works to its advantage. Tombstone was a modest success on its release (making $56 million approximately at the box office) and had a mixed critical reception. The film has grown in stature over the years and today is considered one of the greatest westerns ever made, with a very sizeable cult following. Though it is a terrific Western and very enjoyable, i don’t know whether it could be called one of the greatest of all time. But i can definitely say this: Tombstone is a great example of how to make a great traditional western for a modern audience.


5 thoughts on “Tombstone: A Magnificent Kurt Russell and a mesmerizing Val Kilmer leads the charge in this highly entertaining and iconic Western

  1. Just desire to say your article is as amazing. The clearness in your publish is simply cool and that i can assume you are knowledgeable on this subject. Fine together with your permission let me to clutch your RSS feed to keep updated with imminent post. Thanks a million and please carry on the rewarding work.


  2. You said in the article that all of the Earps wives were whores from different areas. I don’t remember the movie mentioning that. I could of missed it.


    1. It’s mentioned in that scene at the railway station at the beginning, when Wyatt is asked by his brothers where did he find his woman, he replies that in a similar place where they found their women

      Liked by 1 person

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