No. Make no mistake; it’s not revenge he’s after…it’s a reckoning.

Is Tombstone the best western of recent years? Perhaps not, but it must surely rank as one of the most entertaining. Eastwood’s Unforgiven may have more things to say, it’s themes may run deeper, but despite its undeniable quality it is nowhere near as much fun as Tombstone. When one sets about telling a story that has already been committed to celluloid as many times as this one has, it’s no mean feat to produce something which avoids staleness. The trick was to make a film that stayed closer to the historical facts than any previous effort, yet compress it and ensure that the pacing didn’t suffer. Tombstone manages to maintain this fine balance: the facts are mostly adhered to, but some are altered for dramatic effect and, crucially, the script never allows itself to getbogged down in tedious minutiae.

The title of the film makes it plain that it’s going to deal with the portion of Wyatt Earp’s life spent in the town of Tombstone, and the events surrounding it. Of course references are made to the lives and exploits of the Earps in the years preceding the story but they’re never labored, serving only to clarify the reputation of Wyatt. The opening of the film is a short montage of black and white shots with a voiceover by Robert Mitchum to establish time and place. This little sequence ends with the famous shot from The Great Train Robbery (1903), where a gun is fired straight at the audience. In truth, this is only one of many homages paid to the classic westerns of years gone by, the film is littered with them. From there on, it’s pure blood and thunder stuff as we get our first glimpse of the villains of the piece, the Cowboys, riding into a Mexican pueblo to massacre a wedding party as an act of vengence. The real Cowboys were a band of outlaws who came together from time to time to engage in various criminal acts. The movie, in order to heighten the drama, gives the impression that they were a closely knit group – a sort of western prototype for the mafia. The Earps, on the other hand, are shown to be former lawmen (except the younger Morgan) who have no interest in a confrontation, preferring to spend their time building up their finances via gambling. Some of their less savoury activities, such as their alleged involvement in prostitution, are glossed over, although Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) frequently refers to them as pimps. They only find themselves drawn into conflict with the Cowboys after the killing of town marshal Fred White (Harry Carey Jnr) forces their hand. As a result, the situation soon deteriorates rapidly, culminating in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Cowboys’ retribution, and Wyatt’s subsequent vendetta.

The centrepiece is undoubtedly the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and this is filmed with much more attention to the real details than ever before. The movie takes pains to show who shot who, when, where and how. Even the dialogue sticks close to what has been recorded, with Wyatt (Kurt Russell) telling Ike to either get to fighting or go (he went) and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) delivering the memorable “You’re a daisy if you do” before dispatching Frank McLaury. It’s a well filmed scene which captures not only the spontaneous excitement but also the nervy disorganisation of the event. The aftermath of this was a lot of legal shenanigans before the Cowboys took bloody revenge on the Earps. The movie skips over the legal wrangling completely and condenses the Cowboys’ attack into one night of violence. While this may be taking liberties with the facts, it helps the film immeasurably by ensuring the narrative keeps moving. The greatest divergence from the truth takes place during the depiction of the vendetta. There were nowhere near as many people killed as the movie suggests, although the entertainment value would have been greatly reduced if this had been insisted on. Even so, the film still manages to include some genuine happenings here, such as Wyatt’s shotgun duel with Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) and the stopover at the ranch of Arizona cattleman Henry Hooker (Charlton Heston).

The acting is dominated by Kurt Russell as Wyatt, Val Kilmer as Doc, and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo. These three performances are central to the success of the movie and they’re so good it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling the roles. Russell plays Earp as a cold pragmatist driven to action only by family loyalty, and an emotional icicle who’s gradually thawed out by Dana Delany’s slightly goofy but attractive actress. Michael Biehn’s Ringo is a study in madness and evil, alternately killing priests, quoting in latin, and screaming at the Earps that he wants their blood and souls. The real standout, though, is Val Kilmer as the screen’s definitive Doc Holliday. It is unlikely that Kilmer will ever play a better part (he’s certainly done nothing approaching it since) than the doomed lunger. He gets all the best lines and delivers them with such fatalistic charm that you can’t help liking him. The script also offers him a great exit; if that deathbed scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eye then you’ve obviously mislaid your heart somewhere. It’s nice to see a nod to the classic westerns with the casting of Harry Carey Jnr and Charlton Heston, and Robert Mitchum’s narration – Mitchum was to have played Old Man Clanton but a back injury on the first day of filming put paid to that. A few other references to the movies of the past come with Dana Delany singing Red River Valley (one of John Ford’s favorites) and Russell channelling the spirit of Henry Fonda as he reclines on the boardwalk with his heels on the hitching post before marching off to the O.K. Corral and immortality.

The only DVD of this film worth owning is the R1 Director’s Cut. The anamorphic scope transfer is generally good, though there is visible edge enhancement. The 2-disc set has a number of extras including a commentary from director George P. Cosmatos and, most importantly, it is the only complete version of the film. The added scenes, while not of huge significance, do help fill in a few gaps in the narrative. Although Tombstone will probably never attain the status of one of the great westerns I still get an enormous kick out of it every time I see it.


18 thoughts on “Tombstone

  1. I’m not sure I’d call Val Kilmer the “definitive” Doc Holliday – sure, he’s very camp and entertaining (actually, the only real reason I enjoy the film, as I find it pretty trashy) but in terms of characterisation, I’d take Dennis Quaid’s utterly ornery and addled turn in Wyatt Earp, and Victor Mature’s pathetic, earnest performance in My Darling Clementine. Both of those films portray Holliday far more “realistically” than Tombstone, I might contend, seeing as the “real” Holliday wasn’t supposed to be anything like the ultra-deadly pistoleer that Tombstone makes him out to be.


  2. You know you managed to hit on the two interpretations of the role that I dislike the most. 🙂

    I’ve written in an earlier review that I have serious issues with accepting Victor Mature in pretty much any western role. I quite like his performances in a number of other pictures but he just sticks out like a sore thumb in oaters – I just feel he doesn’t belong. I generally don’t worry too much about the degree of realism, but Kilmer was a lot closer to the actual Holliday than Mature, who looked the picture of hearty good health for a dying man – not to mention his not being a doctor of medicine, dying a the O.K. Corral etc.

    As for ‘Wyatt Earp’, I’m going to look at that next. However, I will say in advance that I’ve never liked it one bit. It may be more accurate than ‘Tombstone’ in some respects, but that doesn’t make it a better film. I see it as having too much of Costner written all over it, which for me means: dull, ponderous, long and more than a little pretentious.


  3. Without trying to seem combative, I don’t give a damn about what’s ‘realistic’ – these are ‘the movies’ after all – I care about what makes a good picture and I see much to enjoy in all three films mentioned here.

    I’ve got a lot of time for Kilmer’s fey interpretation (and indeed Russell’s fire breathing, bantam cock Earp), I agree that Quaid makes a brilliant Holliday, and I personally don’t think Mature was ever better; think of that wonderful Shakespeare scene, and picture him slumping into the dirt leaving his ever present handkerchief fluttering in the breeze – brings chills to my spine.

    Whatever one thinks of their overall merit, every ‘O.K. Corral’ film brings something new to the table; the truth (whatever that is) is not only not very pretty and bereft of anyone to sympathise for, it’s actually quite dull.

    Agree, disagree; I’m enjoying this ‘Earp’ series Colin.


  4. I absolutely agree that realism or the lack of it doesn’t have the least effect on what makes a good movie. I’ve always held the view that if you want a history lesson you should read a history book.

    As for Victor Mature, I know my opinion of him is really just a personal prejudice, but I like to indulge it. 🙂

    Glad you’ve enjoyed this soon to end series John, I’ve enjoyed doing it.


  5. There’s “realism” and then there’s having Liberace Lite in pancake makeup ponce about like The Terminator in a stetson :p

    One of the “failings” of Kasdan’s Earp is that it does exactly what John indicates (and is what I love about it): the characters are pretty unlikeable (Costner’s Earp is quite hard to muster any sense of sympathy for, and doesn’t come across as anyone’s definition of hero) and, in attending to an anti-sensationalist telling of the myth, can seem to be quite dusty and dull (and, yes, pompous). It’s the antithesis of Dances With Wolves.


  6. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Both ‘Wyatt Earp’ & ‘Tombstone’ have long divided opinion and clearly will continue to do so. They are very different films in terms of acting, pacing and style, and – for most people – admiration for one seems to go hand in hand with dislike for the other.


  7. A word for Sam Elliott in “Tombstone” – one of the all-time great Western actors in one of his definitive roles.

    I vastly prefer “Tombstone” to “Wyatt Earp” on every level, finding it much more vigorous and entertaining – not to mention less sentimental.


  8. Sam Elliot’s great in Tombstone (but then, he’s pretty much great in everything), and far outshines Michael Madsen in the equivalent role in Wyatt Earp (but then, that film rather mistreats a lot of its subsiduary characters, even given its gargantuan running time, especially in the expanded cut).

    Also, Tombstone far outdoes Wyatt Earp in the moustache department,

    I’ll shut up now and save my (semi) pro-Kasdanisms for when you actually move on to Wyatt Earp!


  9. The Kasdan film is probably too earnest but I like it a lot actually (and Quaid too) but TOMBSTONE, while more conventional, is tremendously entertaining in the classical mould and works very well indeed. Russell now says that Cosmatos in effect as a front for him as the true director after the firing of Kevin Jarre. Don’t know what to make of that as I think Cosmatos had a good eye when it came to staging action – it was certainly a Kurt Ruseell ‘production, that’s for sure … and he is excellent in the role.


    • Yes, Russell’s involvement had been rumored for a while before he “came clean” but I’d be surprised if Cosmatos didn’t have a reasonable input.
      Kasdan’s movie is by no means bad, but Tombstone just does a better all round job in my opinion.


  10. Pingback: Tombstone (1993) | 100 Films in a Year

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  12. Been hopping around comparing your views on Russell, Costner, and Garner’s roles as Wyatt Earp. I agree with your assessments. All three movies were solid, worthy depictions of a character steeped in myth, legend, and a certain amount of truth. I tend to favor Tombstone. Speaking of Kilmer, someone I hear is hard to work with, what’s your response to his underrated political thriller Spartan? Could you e-mail me? I have something I wish to send you personally.


  13. ‘Tombstone’ has always been a favorite and I agree with your opinion of it. I like the colorful nature of it and how it is stuffed to the gills with great actors and dialogue. Jarre’s original script was amazing and I hate so much had to be cut for it is by far the best exploration of the Tombstone legend. Also too bad Robert Mitchum’s health prevented him from playing Old Man Clanton that would have been fun. Still a memorable movie.


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