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Tombstone

by Alex Kirschenbaum Dec 31, 2021

Well, loyal readers, it’s that time again. December 31st, and you know what that means… it’s Val Kilmer’s birthday!

We here at Trailers From Hell would like to commemorate the moment with a look back at perhaps Kilmer’s signature role, the hard-partying sharpshooter Doc Holliday in the classic modern Western Tombstone (1993).

The story of Doc, the Earp brothers and their battle with a vicious gang of outlaws known as the “Cowboys” for the soul of Tombstone, Arizona, including the historic gunfight at the O.K. Corral, has been depicted on screen many times, many ways. But never with the verve and vigor of this picture, a riveting actioner boasting a cast of All-Stars. They even got Robert Mitchum to narrate!

After a spooky opening that introduces us to the ruthless Cowboys in all their evil ways as they disrupt a wedding in Mexico, we kick off the story proper with already legendary retired bad-ass Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell, in a bravura performance) and longtime girlfriend, the laudanum-addicted Mattie Blaylock (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) arriving to Tucson, Arizona, where they meet up with Wyatt’s world-weary older brother Virgil (Sam Elliott), his wife Allie (Paula Malcomson), plus the youngest Earp brother, Morgan (Bill Paxton), and Morgan’s wife Louisa (Lisa Collins). The group intends to make their fortunes in nearby Tombstone and put their righteous past behind them.

 

Upon arriving to town, they discover that several Cowboys have set up shop. The Earps also find their old friend Doc, who despite his tuberculosis still seems as sharp with a pistol as he does with a retort. Doc is accompanied in all things by his loyal lover, Big Nose Kate (Joanna Pacuła).

The Earps, and especially Wyatt, are determined not to engage the Cowboys with violence for as long as their consciences will allow. They want their business, and soon enter into a partnership for ownership of a local saloon. Marshal Fred White (Harry Carey Jr., who of course had to be in this) and crooked county sheriff Johnny Behan (Jon Tenney) make some overtures towards the Earp clan to get involved with the law again, but they fall on deaf ears for a while.

The Cowboys are led by the vicious-but-charismatic “Curly Bill” Brocius (Powers Boothe), a rambunctious, jovial outlaw who is nevertheless significantly more even-keeled than his top lieutenant, hotheaded psychopath Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), one of the fastest draws in the West. Cowardly Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) and his music-loving brother Billy (Thomas Haden Church) round out the main baddies’ ranks.

When a visiting theater troupe wanders into town, Wyatt finds himself drawn to gorgeous starlet Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany), but strives to resist his own feelings and maintain his relationship with Mattie, even as Mattie withdraws into her intensifying chemical dependency. The Cowboys are raucous but respectful during the troupe’s first performance. Though Josephine clearly has eyes for Wyatt from the jump, she registers his chilly reception and starts seeing Behan. As the two sides, the Earps and the Cowboys, begin feeling each other out, things come to a head during one long night of gambling at the brothers’ saloon. Kilmer and Biehn especially shine here, playing two educated men who have become lethal gunslingers. Ringo is aware of Doc by reputation, and tries to show off with some fancy gun moves, which Doc mocks immediately.

Things begin to escalate after Curly Bill, whacked out on opium, murders Fred White in the middle of the night. Wyatt essentially makes a citizen’s arrest right then and there. The Cowboys bristle at what they deem to be Curly Bill’s unfair treatment (though, again, he killed a marshal). With witnesses too intimidated to testify, Curly Bill goes free, prompting Virgil to assume the now-vacated mantel of town marshal. He deputizes Morgan, who has always been envious of his older brothers’ experiences as lawmen.

Virgil institutes a town-wide ban on firearms. The three Earp brothers, along with temporary cop Doc, find themselves in the unenviable position of having to approach a collective of Cowboys and request that they turn in their guns. This moment is the historic 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Those Cowboys: Billy Claiborne (Wyatt Earp III — yes, that Wyatt Earp III), Ike and Billy Clanton, plus Tom McLaury (John Philbin) and his brother Frank (Robert John Burke). During the fracas, Billy Clanton and both Frank and Tom McLaury are killed. The Cowboys enact their vengeance, trying to kill the Earps and their women (and Josephine, who by this point has worn down Wyatt’s defenses and begun a flirtation with him). Morgan dies and Virgil loses the use of an arm.

That’s when Wyatt, now once again a U.S. marshal, and Doc go on the war path. The duo begin cutting down Cowboys systemically, across a series of bravura action set pieces, joined by a handful of ex-Cowboys. As the team makes progress, they take new losses. Some of the visiting actors are cut down, too. Doc is essentially given a death sentence by an actual medical doctor, but perseveres to keep offing Cowboys, even as his health continues to decline.

Does Wyatt end up with Josephine or Mattie? Is Doc ultimately felled by bullets or his tuberculosis? How do the main Cowboys meet their untimely demises? Which other good guys get it?

For answers to all those questions, we recommend checking out the movie. And, only after sitting through the whole darn thing, cracking open a history book.

Along with Ed Wood (1994), Tombstone reigns as one of the best secret Disney movies ever (“Hollywood Pictures” was a covert branch the House of Mouse used to produce movies for adults). Tombstone overcame a difficult birth to become, in this writer’s opinion, one of the finest movies of its entire genre. The film’s screenwriter, Kevin Jarre, was also its original director. After he burned too much film with too little coverage, he was canned, and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Cobra (1986) alum George P. Cosmatos was brought in to helm the flick the rest of the way. The film was a sleeper hit upon first release, but has grown greatly in stature over the ensuing decades.

In his 2020 memoir I’m You’re Huckleberry (its title itself a riff on an unforgettable Doc quote in the movie), Kilmer discusses the movie’s troubled production, beginning with one of Kevin Jarre’s first framing choices during the movie’s first day of production. “Moments of mystical wonderment morphed into a filmmaking fiasco,” Kilmer writes. “Kevin had positioned the camera at an untenable angle. It seemed to me that Kevin, great writer though he was, didn’t know much about directing. Kurt looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Val, we’re in trouble.'”

After Jarre was handed his walking papers and replaced by Cosmatos, Kilmer noted that there were further disruptive changes behind and in front of the camera. “Dozens of cast and crew members were canned. It was an unholy mess.” The star suggests that he and Russell pared down Jarre’s existing screenplay because, by the time the new team members were in place, they had burned through a month’s worth of allocated production time (and money) that Disney was unwilling to extend.

In an infamous 2006 interview with True West, Russell claimed that he went so far as to map out coverage choices ahead of each shoot day, and secretly instructed Cosmatos as essentially the movie’s secret director.

“I backed the director [Jarre]; the director got fired, so we brought in a guy to be a ghost director,” Russell said. “They wanted me to take over the movie. I said, ‘I’ll do it, but I don’t want to put my name on it. I don’t want to be the guy.’ I said to George [Cosmatos], ‘I’m going to give you a shot list every night, and that’s what’s going to be.’ I’d go to George’s room, give him the shot list for the next day, that was the deal. ‘George I don’t want any arguments. This is what it is. This is what the job is.’” Kilmer confirmed the shot listing anecdote in a 2017 blog, recounted in The Wrap. “I watched Kurt sacrifice his own role and energy to devote himself as a storyteller, even going so far as to draw up shot lists to help our replacement director,” Kilmer wrote.

Russell elaborated on his own feelings about Jarre’s comportment on set in a 2017 podcast chat with Bill Simmons of The Ringer. “It was unfortunate that our director — he was a spectacular writer and he was as weak a director as he was a good writer,” Russell reflected. “He was a great writer and he was getting his opportunity to direct and it was just not working.”

The sleeper success and still-growing legend of Tombstone is all the more remarkable when one considers that the movie wasn’t even the most-hyped Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday adventure to be released in the mid-1990s! That distinction goes to Wyatt Earp (1994), director Lawrence Kasdan and star Kevin Costner’s first Western together since Silverado (1985). Costner of course had gone on to become one of the biggest movie stars on the planet in the near-decade between those projects, helming and starring in a hit Western of his own, the sweeping mega-blockbuster Dances With Wolves (1990). With Costner playing the titular Earp and Dennis Quaid in the saddle as Doc Holliday, industry expectations for the lavish biopic were sky high. Instead, the bloated, 190-minute epic (which cost nearly triple the budget of Tombstone) tanked with audiences and critics upon its release in June 1994, beginning a descent from the box office mountaintop for Costner, and exists now only as a footnote in the history Tombstone.

A big part of the enduring resonance of Tombstone, which clocks in at a comparatively brief 130 minutes, is its embrace of classic Western movie tropes within a ’90s action framework. My Darling Clementine (1964), this ain’t. The movie crackles with pace and purpose. It’s not interested in subtlety. Jarre’s brilliant script deftly defines a litany of character dynamics, to such a deep level that we care about people who occupy mere minutes of screen time. Tombstone is such a rich tapestry that it rewards rewatches. The film clearly was designed to harken to the past in some distinct ways, not the least of which was the decision for cinematographer William A. Fraker to capture the film’s gorgeous vistas and cast in a 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, giving the action an epic grandeur. Future director (and The Movies That Made Me podcast guest) Catherine Hardwicke’s note-perfect production design stands out, too, as does the sartorial work of costume designer Joseph A. Porro. We here at TFH also approve of all the period-appropriate facial hair choices.

And then there are the performances. My goodness, the performances. So many of these actors would go on to helm their own immensely successful projects after this, and for good reason. The cast is absolutely loaded. A cadre of terrific players bring the words of Jarre to convincing life. Elliott and Paxton are overqualified to play second fiddle to Russell as the lead Earp brother, and they bring a poignance and gravity to their characters that makes the trio’s fraternal bond feel honest. Boothe and Biehn are terrifically terrifying as the head Cowboys, and Lang manages to strike just the right balance between menacing and pathetic as the sniveling Ike Clanton. Delany is utterly captivating as the free-spirited artist who captures the heart of the West’s biggest bad-ass.

If this is any one person’s movie, though, it belongs to the birthday boy. Kilmer is moody and magnificent in his scene-stealing turn as Doc Holliday. Why he didn’t win every damn award in the universe will remain one of life’s unsolvable mysteries. Kilmer is clearly aware of the special standing the role occupies in his own filmography. Again, he named his autobiography after a Doc line! In that memoir, Kilmer gives us an illuminating peek behind the curtain of his process in finding Doc’s unforgettable accent and unique pizzazz, discussing how much of his delivery was informed by conversations with Jarre ahead of filming. The depth of the research and prep pays off with Doc Holliday, one of the all-time great movie characters. Whether Doc is fending off hordes of crooks, talking smack at the poker table, or coughing up a lung, we believe every sweaty second of it.