Tombstone (1993)

*. The screenplay for Tombstone was written by Kevin Jarre and he was also supposed to direct, but it was his first (and to my knowledge only) directing gig and it didn’t go well. He ended up being fired a month into filming and was replaced with George P. Cosmatos. But the role of Cosmatos has also been called into question, with star Kurt Russell claiming the he in fact directed the movie and that Cosmatos was just a front or “ghost director” since for some reason Russell did not want directing credit.
*. To this day, the breakdown of duties remains a bit of a mystery. My point in bringing this up is only to note that a movie with this troubled a production — with script rewrites during shooting and conflict between Cosmatos and cinematographer William A. Fraker thrown into the mix — rarely work out. Even Val Kilmer had a reputation by this point as being a difficult star to work with. I’m not sure the studio even believed in Tombstone, as it was kept away from critics before release. That’s usually a bad sign.
*. But somehow things had come together and Tombstone is a delightful Western, with Kilmer giving a career-defining performance. Sometimes, as Roger Ebert remarked about it on Sneak Previews, a strong and effective movie can emerge out of creative chaos.
*. Tombstone may not be a great movie, but it’s great entertainment. It’s an old-school Western, one where the heroes are heroes (manly, meaning they are adored by women and can slap men they don’t like around) and the bad guys are bad (cowards and bullies). It also understands, consciously or not, that the way the best genre material works is by giving the audience exactly what it expects/wants with the slightest of twists.
*. The main twist here is Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, a character who seems to have beamed in from another movie or even comedy sketch. Or look at how the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral plays out, with everyone braced to draw and then frozen until Kilmer gives one of the bad guys a sly wink (an improvised moment). There’s nothing as old as a stand-off and a gunfight in a Western, but there’s never been a gunfight introduced like that before or since, at least to my knowledge. It’s both something old and something new.

*. What a cast. Chock-full of early ’90s sweetness. Kurt Russell (Wyatt Earp, “a tall drink of water” in the desert) is always a good time. One of the more underrated actors of his generation. Kilmer steals the show as Doc Holliday: both a great character, given heroic beats and memorably obscure lines, and a great performance. Sam Elliott (unimaginable without a cowboy hat on) and Bill Paxton play the other Earp brothers. Powers Boothe is “Curly Bill” Brocius, about to be immortalized as a meme (“Well . . . bye”). Michael Biehn is Johnny Ringo. And, in the background, Billy Zane as a doomed thespian, Jason Priestley as a possibly gay and certainly compromised lawman, Michael Rooker, Frank Stallone . . . bonus points if you recognize Billy Bob Thornton because I sure didn’t. Throw in a cameo by Charlton Heston, narration by Robert Mitchum, and a delightfully modern turn by Dana Delany in the only meaningful female role. This is what movies, at least popular movies, were like thirty years ago.
*. As history it’s not perfect, but it’s miles ahead of My Darling Clementine in that regard. Both movies, coincidentally, have traveling actors performing famous speeches from Shakespeare in Tombstone. I wondered how likely this would be. The real history nerds will tell you that the Bird Cage Theatre didn’t open until several months after the gunfight, if that matters.
*. There are missteps along the way. I agree with Ebert that the montages of Wyatt and his gang taking out the Outlaws are just dull filler. And the best that can be said of the ending is that it’s relatively quick. That the last line should be Mitchum’s narration telling us that “Tom Mix wept” at Wyatt Earp’s funeral was a real headscratcher. Who cares? Who, among the audience then or now, would even know who Tom Mix was? I mean, I recognize the name but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of his movies.
*. I’m not a big fan of Westerns in general, but I really liked Tombstone when it came out, and so did everyone I saw it with. Thirty years later, it’s just as much fun as it was then. What’s more, I think it’s fun for all ages. The kind of film then that does make you wonder if they make them like this anymore.

11 thoughts on “Tombstone (1993)

  1. WakizashiGray

    I remember this coming out and people (rightly) raving about Kilmer’s performance. It’s the film that made me think he could actually act if he wanted to. But yes, this line you wrote about Kilmer’s Doc Holliday: “a character who seems to have beamed in from another movie or even comedy sketch.” Perfect. Now I want to rewatch it.


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