The best Wyatt Earp telling yet
After all the years of Wyatt Earp movies that bore remarkably little resemblance to the historical truth, ones in which Wyatt was the bravest and most capable town marshal the West had ever seen or, alternatively, a killer and a crook, we finally, in the 1990s, got what was certainly the best Earp picture to date and some would say the best ever. Furthermore, it’s a cracking good Western.
You may have noticed how highly Tombstone is regarded. For example, Raylan Givens’s boss Art Mullen in Justified has a framed poster of the movie on his office wall. President Clinton asked to have the picture screened at the White House and took a copy to Russia as an example of American civilization… Karl Malone sent Val Kilmer season tickets to Utah Jazz games. It was named “one of the five greatest Westerns ever made” by True West magazine. Westernistas love this film.
Tombstone had a difficult birth, and its origins and those of the rival production Wyatt Earp (our next review) are intertwined. As I understand it from Hollywood Gunfighter, the chapter on Earp movies in Allen Barra’s 2005 book Inventing Wyatt Earp, there was also a kind of link to I Married Wyatt Earp, Glenn Boyer’s later discredited book of 1976, purporting to be the memoirs of Josephine Earp, which was made into a pretty bad TV movie in 1983, which we reviewed the other day (click here for that). Screenwriter Dan Gordon wrote a lengthy script based on it and approached Kevin Costner. The initial idea was to do it as a six-hour miniseries, which seemed sensible given that the story took Wyatt from his youth to old age in Alaska.
Meanwhile, fellow screenwriter Kevin Jarre, adopted son of composer Maurice, who wrote the 1989 Civil War epic Glory, also approached Costner with a script, called Tombstone, but, being turned down because Costner was looking at the Gordon version, Jarre sold Tombstone to Universal. It was reported, how accurately I’m not sure, that Costner put pressure on Universal to hold off on the Jarre project till he had finished Waterworld. Since no one was likely to do a Wyatt Earp movie right after a Costner one, this all but killed the project. Jarre was frustrated and determined to go ahead anyway, with another studio.
Cinergi Productions, which distributed films through Disney’s adult division, picked the project up. Jarre wanted real accuracy and did a lot of research, also hiring Jeff Morey, known for his work on American Experience, The Wild West and The American West, as historical advisor. Huge attention was paid to detail. It is said that they had to send to Europe for costumes because they had been shut out by the Costner project. The costumes are in fact meticulously accurate. Jarre insisted that they be of wool, as was authentic. Actor Val Kilmer said that in the Bird Cage Theater a thermometer on the set read 134°F (56°C). Kilmer suggested jokingly that was the reason Doc Holliday killed so many people.
Jarre did put together a seriously good cast. Kurt Russell (amusing trivia: his dad had been a bartender in Gunfight at the OK Corral) was hired as Wyatt, and Val Kilmer was to be Doc Holliday. Russell had, as a boy, been Jaimie McPheeters in the early-60s TV show, and done a couple of minor feature Westerns later but wasn’t really a big Western star at the time. Yet he was excellent as the Wyatt that Jarre wanted, steely and tough. Perhaps for the first time, Wyatt Earp was a complex person of many sides – with occasional weakness. The New York Times review said “Mr. Russell’s clear, steady portrayal of Wyatt Earp gives the film a core of emotional integrity. While he doesn’t project the mythic heroic stature of a Wayne or an Eastwood, he conveys the dignified rectitude of someone who has seen more than he wishes of the world’s evil and still believes that civility can prevail over chaos. As he faces two moral crises – one involving violence and the other love – you can almost feel the wheels in his mind turning as he decides what to do.” At 42 Russell was a shade older than the 33-year-old Wyatt but it didn’t impinge. He must have been an Earp admirer: in 1988 he named his son Wyatt Russell.
Kilmer, who had been Billy the Kid in 1989 but was probably better known at the time for being Jim Morrison in The Doors, was already an accomplished actor who was able brilliantly to play the tubercular gunman, seeming to sweat alcohol out of his pores. They turned out to be one of the best Wyatt/Doc partnerships ever, if not the best. In the screenplay Doc gets to say, “You’re a daisy if you do” and “I’m your huckleberry”, so that’s good. IMDb says that Willem Dafoe was the original choice to play Doc Holliday, but Buena Vista refused to distribute the film if he was cast, due to Dafoe’s role in the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. I’m glad it was Val.
Wyatt does not justify his friendship with Doc with “he saved my life”, as in other movies, but with “He makes me laugh”, and Doc explains his loyalty when asked by Turkey Creek why he’s on the Vendetta Ride by saying, “Wyatt Earp is my friend.” Turkey responds, “I have a lot of friends.” Doc: “I don’t.”
The excellent decision was taken not to make Wyatt Marshal of Tombstone, which even the debunking movies like Doc had done, but to have the great Sam Elliott, third-billed, play Virgil. And for once it was Virgil who led the party of four in the (essential) walk-down to the OK Corral. Elliott went back to The Way West and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the late 60s, and had done a great many Western TV movies, such as The Sacketts in 1979, The Quick and the Dead in 1987 and Conagher in 1991. A year off 50 (to the real Virgil’s 38) he too was maybe a tad old but he projected the gravitas and ‘older brother’ image required. Bill Paxton, in his first Western, was Morgan. James and Warren Earp did not figure.
Personally, I like most Powers Boothe, as a splendidly malevolent Curly Bill. Of course these days whenever you see Powers you can only think of Cy Tolliver in his Deadwood saloon, as amiable as a trod-on rattler. That Powers was smooth and deadly; this one is coarse, but just as deadly. In the opening scene he assassinates a bridegroom coming out of church and allows the bride to be dragged back into the church by his Cowboy henchmen, there to suffer a fate that we are mercifully not shown but which will certainly not be the wedding night she had envisaged. Curly is the boss Cowboy. At one point he tells lowlife Ike to shut up while he sizes up Wyatt.
Michael Biehn (it is said that Mickey Rourke turned it down) is next in the cast list as Ringo. Though born in Alabama, Biehn and his family moved to Arizona, where he attended university, so we can count him as a local. This was his first Western. Later he would be Chris in The Magnificent Seven TV series. The ‘Johnny Ringo’ myth had Ringo as an educated man (there is no particular evidence for that) and Tombstone goes along with this trope (for let us be clear, while Tombstone was the most accurate and real Tombstone story so far, it is still myth), and the movie delights in building up the Ringo/Doc duel as they quote Latin at each other and Doc mocks Ringo by twirling his tin cup as fancily as Ringo twirled his pistol. It’s a good bit, that.
Next in the billing was Charlton Heston, in his last big-screen Western, doing a cameo as tough rancher Henry Hooker, friend of the Earps.
It’s nice to see Billy Breakenridge, Sheriff John Behan’s deputy, feature in a Tombstone tale, and this one is the bespectacled Jason Priestly. Breakenridge, who had served under the repellent Chivington at the Sand Creek Massacre and who later himself became an Arizona county sheriff, as an older man wrote (or actually it was ghost-written, but published anyway) Helldorado: Bringing the Law to the Mesquite, a pro-Behan/Cowboy and anti-Earp version of the famous events of 1881.
Behan himself doesn’t have a huge role in Tombstone. He is played by Jon Tenney.
Good old Harry Carey Jr, 62 years old (replacing Glenn Ford who pulled out for bad health) is the white-bearded Marshal Fred White (the real one was 31), who falls to the border roll of a hopped-up Curly Bill. And thus Dobe brought to a close his truly great career in feature Westerns. Billy Claiborne is played by Wyatt Earp, a distant cousin.
Robert Mitchum narrates the intro and outro. It’s done as many Westerns were, with a voiceover putting the events in a supposed historical context. It’s well done, too, using crackly old footage from silent-movie Westerns, notably The Great Train Robbery of 1903, often thought to be the first Western movie, intercut with shots of the present cast like Wyatt and Doc, film stock made to look old and crackly to fit in. Mitchum, then 76, had been slated to play Old Man Clanton in a preliminary scene of the Skeleton Canyon massacre but apparently he suffered a fall and had to pull out. His son Christopher plays a ranch hand. Narrator Bob describes the Cowboys as an early example of “organized crime” in America, and this was not a new idea. WR Burnett, the novelist whose 1930 Earp tale Saint Johnson was used for movie versions of Law and Order (1932 and 1953), was really a gangster writer – Little Caesar, Scarface, High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle showed that – and he translated Eastern organized crime sagas to the West. I want to write about the gangster/Western crossover another day. But whether the Cowboys were a gang of hoodlums on that pattern is moot, or even if they were ‘organized’ at all. They wear red sashes in Tombstone, to identify them and give them some flourish, which is one of the few period details to be got wrong – though perfectly permissible in a Western, movie. It’s not a documentary, after all. Virgil lets drop that he had run into the Cowboys back in Prescott, but I doubt that.
Josephine Marcus, Wyatt’s wife-to-be (although no marriage certificate has ever been found) features prominently, and this perhaps comes from I Married Wyatt Earp in the 1980s, which did at least have the merit of bringing showgirl/actress Sadie, as she was known then (she hated the name later and always insisted on Josephine) to the fore. Dana Delany, who plays her, was curiously only billed twelfth, after Thomas Haden Church as Billy Clanton, but I guess that’s to do with star power rather than the importance of her role. Josephine Earp (let’s call her that) always insisted with biographers and early movie-makers that there be absolutely no mention of the fact that she had been Sheriff John Behan’s kept woman in Tombstone before transferring her affections to Wyatt, and Tombstone also is rather mealy-mouthed about this. Josie and Behan are not lovers. Delaney’s Josie is very ‘modern’, as Stephen Holden in The New York Times said, “the most casually and comfortably liberated woman ever to set foot in 1880s Arizona.”
We get the other Earp women too, for once, Allie (Virgil’s wife), played by Paula Malcolmson, Morgan’s wife Louisa (Lisa Collins), and Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), the common-law wife of Wyatt.
It seems that Jarre was fired as director by producer Andrew Vajna quite early on, I don’t know the ins and outs of that, but Wikipedia says that Jarre “was quickly overwhelmed by the job–failing to get needed shots and falling behind the shooting schedule”. He was replaced by George P Cosmatos, who hired John Fasano to trim down the overlong script. Cosmatos (who was recommended by Sylvester Stallone – he had helmed the 1985 Rambo) had never done a Western, and hasn’t done one since. Actor Michael Biehn (the Ringo) recalled feeling that Cosmatos “…had no understanding or appreciation of the screenplay.” Cosmatos does seem to have managed this one well, though Kurt Russell has said that he did a lot of the directing too. John Carpenter once claimed that he nearly got the job.
The opening scene of the wedding massacre is really quite spaghetti-influenced – Cosmatos knew Sergio Leone in Italy, so that’s maybe why – as the smiles and celebrations are intercut with menacing approaching hooves beating, and a focusing in by the camera on boots, very loud sound effects of locking and loading, then the bloody killing. The priest (it’s Pedro Armendáriz Jr) protests but Ringo dismissively shoots him dead, which causes Curly Bill to laugh at Ringo’s bravado.
We now see the Earp party arriving, in Tucson, presumably, by train, and right away Wyatt sees a man whipping a horse and intervenes. This is one of the oldest ways in the business of establishing your hero’s credentials in the first reel: have him (it’s always a man) stop a brute mistreating an animal or a child. Works every time. Virgil will also show his goodiness later in the film by whisking a young boy out of danger as Cowboys thunder down the street, so they got the most out of this device.
We see Mattie’s addiction to laudanum early, too, making of her a rather shrewish and unattractive figure. This will soften the blow when Wyatt deserts her for Sadie. We meet Doc, drawling with his Southern accent and cough, coughing. Kate is with him (Joanna Pacula, a rather glam Kate, as they often were) and this “Hungarian devil” as he calls her goads him on, to smoke and drink more. The couple clean out a poker game, greatly annoying player Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef in the 1957 version, you will remember, Frank Stallone this time). Doc beats Ed to the draw but ends up by knifing him. If this happened at all, it probably happened in Texas at another time, but it’s part of the Doc lore.
Red sunset, saguaros, grand music, and the Earps arrive by wagon in Tombstone (we get a brief glimpse of the grave of Lester Moore in Boot Hill).
Sheriff John Behan welcomes them and finds them lodging. Very obliging. We also meet Mayor John Clum (Terry O’Quinn) though he is another to have a very small part. You’d think they’d build his role up a bit, his being a lifelong friend of Wyatt and founding editor of the pro-Earp Epitaph and all, but I suppose there’s only so much you can cram in, even with a 134-minute runtime.
The way Wyatt gets established at the Oriental is my brother’s favorite bit in a Western. Poor soul, he is not one of the cognoscenti as far as Westerns go; still, he has good taste in this one. The way Wyatt ejects the petulant Billy Bob Thornton by the ear (“No need to go heeled to get the bulge on a dub like you,” he tells him) and takes over the gambling concession is a sight to behold.
A troupe of actors arrives in town. Definite references to My Darling Clementine. Sadie (I mean Josephine) seems to be their leader and there’s a young man, a sensitive flower (Billy Zane) with her. This poor fellow will perish, to illustrate the brutality and coarseness of the Cowboys, and will be much mourned by Billy Breakenridge. The players put on scenes from Henry V and Faust (with Josie as the devil) in the Bird Cage Theater, enjoyed by all (with the rowdier element showing its appreciation by firing pistols into the ceiling). Actually, the Bird Cage didn’t open till December 26, 1881, two months after the OK Corral, so they got that wrong, but I’m just being picky now. Sadie/Josie sings Red River Valley, sweetly, and is a vast improvement on the shouty 1970s-pop voice of Marie Osmond in a previous version.
The Earps do a lot of buffaloing. Wyatt biffs Curly Bill over the head with his revolver and Virgil does the same to Ike. That’s quite real. They preferred to the blow of a steel gun-barrel to shooting people. Until Tombstone, Wyatt had hardly shot anyone.
Wyatt is reluctant to go down to the OK Corral and have it out with the Clantons and McLaurys but eventually agrees. He goes to a chest and gets out his Buntline Special. Well, you gotta have that. On the butt there is a plate inscribed Wyatt Earp, Dodge City, 1878 – supposed to be when Ned Buntline gave it to him.
The three Earps and Holliday do the famous walk-down.
Behan tells them he has disarmed the Cowboys (he hadn’t, of course). Now we see Josie in CS Fly’s photography studio, right by the corral, and we get the briefest of glimpses of her posing for that saucy photograph, known as Kaloma, which Glenn Boyer insisted was a picture of Josephine from 1880. Actually it was a photogravure dating from 1914 sold as a kind of soft porn and is almost certainly not Josie at all. But it all adds to the mystique.
It was the best OK Corral fight to date, a bit longer than the real one but pretty accurate and exciting.
There’s no subsequent trial or inquest. Straight away Curly Bill and Ike plan their revenge, and they attack the Earp women in their house, wound Virgil gravely on the street and shoot Morgan in the back in the billiard parlor (Wyatt isn’t there), all on the same night. It’s legitimate, I think, to ‘telescope’ events into a shorter time frame in a Western movie.
Wyatt seems to decide to quit. He tells Curly Bill it’s all over and pulls out with his broken family. However, Curly sends Ike and Frank Stilwell (Tomas Arana) to “finish it” at the railroad depot. Now Wyatt regains his vim and vigor, shoots Stilwell and runs a spur down Ike’s face, enjoining him to “run, you cur!” We get Wyatt’s famous line, “You tell ‘em I’m comin’, and hell’s comin’ with me!” The Earp Vendetta is afoot.
Luckily, three Cowboys defect, Turkey Creek and Texas Jack (Buck Taylor and Peter Sherayko, the latter the movie’s buckaroo) and Sherman McMasters (Michael Rooker) so Wyatt has some back up. And Doc, of course. Here the movie really goes all in. In reality, the Earp party almost certainly killed Florentino Cruz, known as Indian Charlie, whom they suspected as the shooter of Virgil or Morgan or both, and later Curly Bill Brocius. In the movie we see hordes shot down, a couple hanged, and Arizona is littered with corpses (by one count, 22) as the Vendetta Ride thunders along. Oh well, dramatic license. They do let Ike run away again, though.
And of course we get the ultimate showdown between Doc and Ringo. Highly improbable, I fear. Ringo almost certainly died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while Holliday was far away in Colorado. But you need the dénouement, the final reckoning.
We have an epilogue of Doc in the sanatorium, dying from TB, Wyatt kindly by his side. Wyatt presents the dying man with a pamphlet, My Friend Doc Holliday, by Wyatt Earp. Doc gives his last words, “This is funny” and expires.
There’s a performance of HMS Pinafore starring guess who, Wyatt and Josie dance in the snow, all lovey-dovey, Mitch resumes his voiceover to tell us that Ike was killed two years later (actually it was in 1887 but never mind). We get a replay of the walk-down under the credits (Wyatt’s actor is billed as Kurt Russel). Fin.
All sorts of scenes were cut, necessarily, and some have popped up on cable specials, special editions, and so on. For instance, Doc left Kate to join the Vendetta Ride and drawled, “Well, dahlin, have you no kind word to say before I ride away?” (a quote from Frankie Laine’s ballad in Gunfight at the OK Corral), and Hugh O’Brian (for many the Wyatt Earp) as boss of a wagon train offered Wyatt and Doc assistance on the vengeance quest. Still, we should laud what did make it in. As Barra says, “Tombstone has about as much Earpiana as is possible to cram into a two-hour film.”
I fear my review is pretty well a two-hour one, too. Sorry about that. But I love this Western, and sometimes can’t help enthusing.
The photography is very splendid, by William A Fraker, and the Arizona scenery is ideal.
The score was composed and produced by Bruce Broughton, and performed by the Sinfonia of London. It contains strong echoes of Max Steiner’s music for The Searchers with variations on the ‘Indian Traders’ theme used midway through the movie.
The picture did really well on its release at Christmas 1993, earning $56.5m in total ticket sales in the North American market on its $25m budget, and of course it went on to be a major earner on TV and DVD. Compare this with the $40m Costner’s Wyatt Earp took soon after, but on a $65m budget, so it lost money seriously.
The critical reception was surprisingly mixed. Roger Ebert said it “got lost in the year-end holiday shuffle and never got the recognition it deserved” but praised it, and thought it much better than Wyatt Earp. Emanuel Levy for Variety thought the film was a “tough-talking but soft-hearted tale” which was “entertaining in a sprawling, old-fashioned manner.” But the Austin Chronicle, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post all slammed it. Entertainment Weekly gave the film a C– rating, calling it “preposterously inflated”. The Post said “not much happens and little that does seems warranted”. I wonder if we watched the same movie. The picture was ignored at the Oscars.
I think it’s great.