Friday, December 14, 2007

Movie Review: Tombstone

(This is the third installment in our series of reviews on classic Westerns inspired by the Gunfight at the OK Corral. We encourage you to read the first and second installments)

The third of our movies taking the gunfight at the OK Corral as their inspiration is also the latest one, Tombstone from 1993, considered by many fans to be among the best western movies ever made. I’m skipping over John Sturges’ 1967 Hour of the Gun. This sequel to Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a fine film and James Garner and Jason Robards are a good team as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. I recommend the picture, but Sturges had already dealt with these characters and the story is actually about Earp’s vengeance killings after the fact.

In Tombstone, Kurt Russell stars as Wyatt and Val Kilmer is Doc. Both men turn in the performances of their lives and the fact that they didn’t win Oscars is explained somewhat by all the Gumping that was going on that year. The fact that neither of them was even nominated is less understandable. Taking this praise one step further, Russell has been unofficially credited with ghost directing over half the picture when original director Kevin Jarre (who wrote the script) was fired and before credited director George P. Cosmatos came onboard.

“Tombstone” covers the same ground as the two earlier movies, and then some. The big shootout scene comes with over an hour of running time left. The bushwhack shooting of Virgil Earp (Sam Elliott) and Morgan Earp (Bill Paxton) are still to come, followed by Wyatt’s vengeance ride as he and four friends—Holliday, Sherman McMasters (Michael Rooker), Texas Jack Vermillion (Peter Sherayko) and Turkey Creek Jack Johnson (Buck Taylor)—go after the cowboy gang.

The movie comes closer to historical accuracy than did either of the others we’ve looked at. When the three Earps arrive with their wagons, wives, and dreams of fortune, none of the men want anything to do with maintaining law and order. Wyatt immediately runs a bullying gambler (a chunky Billy Bob Thornton) out of the Oriental Saloon and talks himself into a job as Faro dealer.

The brothers—at least this time James isn’t portrayed as a teenager and the weak branch on the family tree; in fact, he isn’t even in town this time, joining Warren Earp, the perennially missing man, among Hollywood’s unnecessary characters—meet old acquaintance Doc Holliday on the street. Wyatt and Morgan are glad to see him. Virgil doesn’t like him, but does tolerate his presence.

This time out the cowboys are not just thieves, rustlers and killers; they are Satan’s emmisarries on Earth. The first time we see them, they kill everyone in a wedding party, including the bride and priest. They are led by Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Booth) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and abetted by Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan (Jon Tenney). Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) is portrayed as a hanger-on and coward.

The Earps and cowboys hate each other but manage to co-exist for over a year; and then with great power comes a great lack of responsibility. When Curly Bill drunkenly murders the town marshal, beating the rap in court, and other cowboys shoot up the town and endanger the lives of women and children, Virgil has had enough and goes to the mayor (Terry O’Quinn) and accepts the marshal’s job. Morgan follows, but Wyatt, still wanting to do nothing but make money and carry on an extramarital affair with the actress Josie Marcus (Dana Delaney) refuses to be deputized.

He will soon change his mind.

Tombstone blends thematic elements from the first two OK Corral movies, but they are traditional themes from the history of western fiction: the fact that sooner or later freedom will have to be exchanged for progress, and the strong bond between men, whether they be brothers or friends.

And the friendship between Wyatt and Doc is much stronger here than we’ve seen it before. During Wyatt’s vengeance ride one of the men on the posse asks the obviously ailing Doc Holliday why he’s endangering his health by going along. “Because Wyatt Earp is my friend.” “Friend?” the man says, “Hell, I got lots of friends.” “I don’t,” Doc replies.

You breathe a sigh at the end of Tombstone and feel like what you’ve just seen should have been history, and that maybe it was. It isn’t, of course, but it comes close enough for the casual viewer. So close, in fact, that if you follow up a screening of the movie with a book about the events surrounding the gunfight, you’ll feel like you’re in familiar territory.

And if you ever visit Tombstone, AZ, you’ll feel something like a lover of the King Arthur legends feels when visiting Tintagel Castle. You can walk through the Bird Cage Theater and the OK Corral and know just why it’s so important to print the legend.

- Doug Bentin

(Doug writes film reviews for eFilmCritic! and book reviews (mostly Westerns) for Bookgasm. His personal blog is The Long Saturday of the Soul).


Christopher55 said...

“I’m your huckleberry.” Tombstone has become one of my favorite westerns right up there with The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Red River and Shane. As much as I like Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, James Garner, and Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell is Wyatt Earp. And Val Kilmer as Doc makes you forget every other actor who has ever played Doc Holliday including Kirk Douglas and Dennis Quaid. I swear that Kilmer is going to actually cough up a lung at any moment. Add Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton as Wyatt’s brothers and Powers Boothe as Curly Bill and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo among many other solid actors and you have a wonderful cast. One of my favorite scenes is when Doc and Ringo start insulting each other in Latin. When have you ever seen that in a western before? This is a smooth, tight movie with many quotable lines, solid characterizations, and good action. What more could you want from any movie? Okay, there is one major goof toward the end but I didn’t catch it until I’d seen the movie a couple of times. Terrific western, terrific movie period. “You tell 'em I'm coming! And Hell's coming with me!”

Gonzalo B said...

I agree and Doug's review of the movie actually made me want to watch it again. Russell and Kilmer's performances are very good indeed. I am looking forward to seeing Kilmer in the latest Lonesome Dove installment.

Anonymous said...

Is there another Lonesome Dove installment? I am one of Lonesome Dove's greatest fans, but I only find out what is new on the western front through this blog, usually, and through the Black Horse western discussion group. Can you fill me in please


Gonzalo B said...


All I know so far is that it will be a 6-hour miniseries based on Larry McMurtry's Comanche Moon, the prequel to Lonesome Dove. It's supposed to air on Jan. 13 on CBS. Given how all the other installments have been pretty solid (even "Return to Lonesome Dove" wasn't bad, at least in my view) I am really looking forward to it.

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