Tombstone experienced a lot of problems in production and, though a flawed film, it’s probably a lot better than it should be. A sprawling film with a preponderance of characters, the film is chiefly memorable for an outstanding performance by Val Kilmer as Doc Holloway. The film is full of talented actors, and the fact Kilmer’s turn as the tubercular gunman stands out so much is all the more impressive.
Kurt Russell was a big deal in the early ’90s and in Tombstone he plays Wyatt Earp, the central character of the story. Russell had in fact been planning the movie with Kevin Costner, who was an even bigger deal at the time, but a disagreement meant that Costner left the project… to produce a rival Wyatt Earp film. It sounds nuts, I know. A lot of big names were on board, including George P. Cosmatos as director and Kevin Jarre as writer, and the cast is like a who’s-who of late 80s cinema. Aside from Russell and Kilmer we have Michael Biehn, Powers Boothe, Bill Paxton, Sam Elliott, and Billy Zane, as well as contributions from Charlton Heston and Robert Mitchum (as narrator). There’s an early appearance from Paula Malcomson, and even the more minor characters are played by familiar actors like Stephen Lang and Michael Rooker. It’s a hell of a cast.
The film was probably a bit too ambitious, and condensing so much action and so many characters into two and a bit hours would be a challenge for anyone. It would have helped if the film did away with the romance subplot between Earp and Josie (Dana Delany). T. pointed out to me that the Josie character is the embodiment of a Satellite Love Interest, meaning she plays no effective role in the film’s story. I was irritated every time she came on screen and the reason is that her appearance is a signal the film’s plot won’t be advancing for the next five minutes. The ‘free spirit’ nature of her role and influence on Wyatt Earp comes across as quite facile, too. The film as it stands would have been stronger without this whole angle.
The story of Tombstone is the conflict between the Earp brothers and their allies on one side, and the Cowboy gang on the other, the latter terrorizing the local community. The historical reality of the rivalry is quite interesting and complicated, with connections to the Civil War, economic change in the South, and the development of state institutions in the American West. Aspects of this are shown in the film, but don’t expect anything like Deadwood here. The story is mainly good guys vs bad guys, and it’s enjoyable enough, but it’s best not to accept this too literally as a work of history. The film’s central event, the Gunfight at the OK Corral, is a particularly controversial episode and the version of it in the film is just that–a version of the events that took place that day. But if you suspend your disbelief it’s still very entertaining.
The film builds up the Cowboys as America’s first organised crime gang, and portrays the Earps as only reluctantly being drawn in to the conflict against their will, when in reality their overlapping involvement in gambling, liquor and law enforcement meant that bloody conflict was an inevitability. The film ends with a statement about the significance of Wyatt Earp’s legacy in the formation of the Western genre in 1920s Hollywood. Although it was probably meant as an ode to the famous lawman, to me it seemed almost like an acknowledgement of the role that mystification and hagiography played in the creation of the myth of the American West, and the accompanying glorification of law enforcement that is so much of its modern legacy.
Michael Biehn is a big favourite in our household and we enjoyed seeing him here as crazy killer Johnny Ringo. But even he is put in the shade by Kilmer. Doc Holloway is dying of tuberculosis and spends his days drinking, whoring, playing cards and delivering a succession of withering one-liners to all-comers. He’s the ultimate badass in a town full of them. Kilmer had some great roles in his career (Heat, Top Gun and Willow spring to mind), but this is probably the one he’ll be most remembered for. His contribution is what makes this film a must-see.
We watched the film on the Blu-ray edition that was released a few years ago. It looks good, and Tombstone’s colours and cinematography come across well in HD, as does the incredible selection of facial hair. (Tombstone in 1870 was a bit like East London in 2016 in that respect). If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out for Kilmer’s Doc Holloway and the mustaches.