Western movies, of course, start and end with John Wayne. Whether it is Rio Bravo (my favorite John Wayne Western), Red River, The Shootist, True Grit, Stagecoach, or any one of the dozens of other Western classics he made in his long and illustrious career, John Wayne remains the Michael Jordan of the Western film.
Films about Wyatt Earp, the most famous Old West lawman, also abound in film history, whether it be Gunfight at the OK Corral, My Darling Clementine or the scores of lesser cinematic tributes, Earp remains "the" Old West icon of icons. With all this said, in my own humble opinion, 1993's masterpiece Tombstone is the finest western ever made.
Filmed on a budget of $25,000,000, Tombstone was the first-ever Wyatt Earp film to deeply research and pay actual attention to the Wyatt Earp period in Tombstone. Ironically, when the film was released, a few critics panned the film's straying from the truth and indulging in "revisionism.” This statement couldn't be further from the truth.
Tombstone has unparalleled accuracy in detail not only with dialogue, but mustaches, clothes, guns (including long-barreled and nickel-plated weapons), and, especially, hats (which had a clearly southwestern flavor, particularly in the cavalier-style sombreros worn by Wyatt and Doc Holliday.) It is also the first and only Wyatt Earp film to be shot in the country where the actual events took place, the first movie to use young, vigorous actors as the principals, and the first to make the town of Tombstone itself look exciting.
When the Tombstone film project was originally conceived, Kevin Costner was approached to play Earp (the lead). The initial idea was to do the Earp story as a six-hour miniseries. But Costner was already developing another Earp treatment, which was to become a much-lesser (and duller) film called Wyatt Earp in 1994. Kurt Russell stepped in as the film's title character. (Russell's father, Bing, a veteran character actor, had played a bartender in Gunfight at the OK Corral a few decades earlier.)
Russell brings an incredible humanity to the legendary lawman, a visceral touch that has never been remotely equalled by any of his many predecessors.
Kevin Jarre, the talented screenwriter of the Civil War epic Glory, sold a script called Tombstone to Universal. Jarre was the film's original director, but was canned shortly into the shoot. Interestingly, after the firing of director Jarre, Kurt Russell claims he stepped in and directed a majority of the film's remainder. (Russell claims the film's credited director, George P. Cosmatos, was a figurehead, credit as "director" given merely to make things run smoothly.)
Gravel-voiced Sam Elliott was hired as Wyatt's older brother, Virgil, and Bill Paxton took on the role of Morgan Earp, Wyatt's kid brother.
Tombstone opening scene was supposed to have been the Skeleton County Massacre, featuring legendary actor Robert Mitchum as Old Man Clanton. Unfortunately, on the first day of shooting, Mitchum fell from his horse and injured his back. The Old Man Clanton role was clipped and Mitchum became the film's narrator at it's beginning and end.
Dana Delaney is cast as Wyatt's main love interest, Josie Marcus, and another Dana (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) portrays Wyatt's drug-addicted, downer wife, Mattie. Michael Biehn is the film's main Earp antagonist, Johnny Ringo, and an almost demonic Powers Booth is Curly Bill Brocius; they are the leaders of Tombstone's resident heavies “The Cowboys,” a nefarious gang of cutthroats, murderers and bullies.
While Tombstone is a great film, it is the casting of Val Kilmer as Wyatt Earp's close pal, John “Doc" Holliday, that elevates it into the pantheon of true classics. Kilmer takes win, place, and show money as the scrawny but feisty Holliday, and as great as the rest of the cast is, in almost every scene in which he appears, Kilmer steals everything but the camera. Incredibly, of all the many actors to portray Holliday in a Western, Val Kilmer was the first to actually (and accurately) play him with a southern drawl.
The film's centerpiece scene, the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral, includes an incredibly dramatic walk by the three Earp boys and Doc- by far, the finest O.K. Corral walk to date (at one point, the four, all dressed in black, are outlined against a burning building, as if they had just walked out of Hell.)
The gunfight, although longer (and noisier) than the historical one, incorporates such historical detail as Virgil (Elliott) waving his cane and saying “That's not what I want!" and the cowardly Ike Clanton (played cravenly by Stephen Lang) fleeing from the fight. Jarre's period dialogue is distinctive and idiomatic.
But the heart of the film are the scenes showing the relationships between Wyatt and both Doc and Josephine. These are important facets of Earp's life that previous films had left unexplored. Delaney's Josie is immediately established as a liberating influence on Russell's Wyatt, who up to that point had just wanted to lead a "normal life.”
“It doesn't suit you,” Delaney chides. When she tells him her idea of paradise is "room service,” a light seems to go on behind Russell's eyes.
Wyatt also reveals his bond with Doc early in the film. He doesn't say the standard “He saved my life,” the usual reason given for their friendship. He says, “He makes me laugh.”
For his part, Doc has sworn lifelong fealty to Earp because, as Kilmer tells Buck Taylor's Turkey Creek Jack during a pause in the action, “Wyatt Earp is my friend.”
“I've got lots of friends,” says Jack.
“I don’t,” replies Doc.
Thin, pale and red-eyed, Kilmer's Holliday seems to be sweating alcohol through his pores; he looks as if he has no soul left to trade with the Devil. In the dramatic duel between Doc and Johnny Ringo, Doc outdraws Ringo, shoots him in the head, twirls his gun, and holsters it without losing his cigarette. At film's end, Doc finally dies (sans his boots) in a sedate sanitarium. The farewell scene between Wyatt and Doc is enough to bring tears to the eyes of a Nazi Bundist.
Similarly, in the movies' final scene, Wyatt humbly approaches Josie, almost on his knees, and proposes marriage. (Russell is the first actor to dare show weakness behind Wyatt's icy facade.) Josie gladly accepts and the two go off dancing merrily into the night.
Tombstone, although not a major hit, did turn a minor profit at the box office, and now has a rabid cult following. President Bill Clinton asked to have it screened at the White House and praised it. Basketball superstar Karl Malone enjoyed Kilmer's performance so much he sent him season tickets to Utah Jazz games.