Tombstone: A gravely underrated film
In 1993 Kevin Costner was just about the biggest movie star in the world. So, when he brought out the film Wyatt Earp, all eyes were on Kevin. And by shear misfortune, a rival film came out telling exactly the same story, at almost the same time and was cruelly overlooked, despite it being vastly superior in every way. Tombstone was shunned by critics and audiences alike in the wake of Kevin’s looming shadow, and at the time fell off the cinematic radar, until in much the same way as the now hugely popular The Shawshank Redemption, it has come to be regarded as a largely forgotten classic.
Kurt Russell stepped up to give one his finest ever performances as the eponymous Wyatt Earp, Val Kilmer produced a career best as Doc Holiday, Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton played the other two Earp brothers, while Michael Biehn (Terminator), Thomas Hayden Church (Sideways), Powers Boothe (Agents of SHIELD) took on the villains in what is possibly one of the best westerns ever made.
“You tell them Wyatt Earp is coming… and hell with him!” – Kurt Russell
Made on $25m, a fairly hefty budget at the time, Tombstone is also quite possibly the most accurate portrayal of the ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ that took place in 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona. The attention to detail here is unparalleled, with pin point accuracy with clothing, moustaches, hats, language, long coats and guns, both long-barrelled and nickel plated, and it was all actually shot on location in Tombstone.
Kevin Jarre, who had written the Oscar winning, Glory with Denzel Washington, wrote the script and he took the Director’s chair before promptly being fired shortly after filming started. Rambo: First Blood helmer, George P. Cosmatos was parachuted in to steer the film back on course, but it is now widely accepted that Kurt Russell stepped in and pretty much Directed the entire film, although it was Cosmatos who is still credited. The controversy has always rumbled on until just a few weeks ago, Val Kilmer broke his silence after 24 years and confirmed that Kurt Russell, in his eyes, did actually direct this hidden gem.
Russell brings huge gravitas and masculinity to the lead role of Earp as the brooding, cynical, reluctant hero, forced against his will to take on the renegade ‘Cowboys’, led by the Ringo Kid and Curly Bill Brocius, a pair wreaking havoc and murder in the small pioneer town of Tombstone. Earp, hell bent on not returning to his violent past, refuses to step into the job of lawman as anarchy descends on the town. He reunites with his long lost friend, Doc Holiday who is now whiling away his time gambling, drinking and fighting off TB. Wyatt Earp secretly knows he has one of the best gunslingers in the West by his side if anything kicks off with the notorious Ringo Kid. The sweat-soaked, blood-coughing Holiday is quite possibly Val Kilmer’s career best performance of all time, stealing every scene he’s in with aplomb, in what would now probably earn him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, which he would certainly pick-up if the film were released now.
The centrepiece of the story, the legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral takes on epic proportions with Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and the other two Earp brothers parading down the street in their long black coats and black hats, with a burning building behind them. They then play out the scene as it actually happened over 130 years ago and try and stop the gunfight before anyone fires a single bullet. Of course, this being Hollywood, the gunfight in the film is a lot longer and dramatic than the actual event, but it is still blistering scene to rival any other western shootout and is not the climax to the film.
What really makes Tombstone such a great film is the depth and pathos of the characters. Wyatt Earp is married to a drug addicted wife that he tries to stay faithful to, but lets his heart wander to fall in love with another woman who he begs to bring him some peace. The friendship between Russell’s Earp and Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday is so real that you actually believe it’s written in blood, and Earp’s love and protection of his brother’s Virgil and Morgan might as well be his next of kin in real life. When the Ringo Kid finally challenges Wyatt Earp to a duel after (spoiler alert) virtually all of his men have been killed, you know full well that Russell’s Earp is going to lose by the visceral sense of realisation that creeps into Earp’s face as he’s challenged. (Huge spoiler alert) And if the friendship couldn’t go any deeper, Doc Holiday, who is sweating alcohol and TB through every pore of his skin, steps up to save his friend by secretly turning up to meet Ringo and surprising him from behind a tree with the haunting words, ‘I’m your Huckleberry.’ When the Kid sees that it’s Holiday who has turned up to the duel and not Wyatt Earp, the same realisation that descended on Earp’s face falls across the Kid’s, and in one of the swiftest gun draws on screen, Doc Holiday saves his friend and executes the Ringo Kid with a single bullet to the head, becoming the unexpected hero of the film. Rumour has it that even Bill Clinton used to arrange special screenings of the film at the White House when he was President; such was his love for this now cult film.
The final scene where Wyatt Earp visits Holiday in hospital on his death bed is enough to tug at the toughest of heart strings, and by the time he walks out of the hospital and says goodbye to Holiday, you realise you’ve just watched a genuine classic.
Buy a copy of the fantastic Tombstone HERE.