[6 May 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
One of the main reasons the Western became so popular in early 20th century cinema was the wealth of available folklore to draw from. Every small city had a legend, every frontier outpost a tall tale of heroes and villains, cowboys and Indians. With same came a seemingly endless supply of Hollywood hokum that could be drawn and deviated from. By the mid ‘50s, the oater was everywhere - in film, in song, and splashed across the latest technological breakthrough, TV. But such a glut of good vs. evil, black hat/white hat homages cursed the genre. By the ‘70s, it was dead, in desperate need of something other than Italian retakes and struggling star power to stay alive. While it would take a decade or two to rediscover its footing, the post-modern reinvention of the horse opera is now an often viable - and award worthy - endeavor.
Back in 1993, the Western was red hot again. Clint Eastwood and screenwriter David Webb Peoples had parlayed their take on the mythos amorality into the Oscar caliber Unforgiven, and names like Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell were looking for suitable material to jumpstart their journey into the wild, wild, West. A script for something called Tombstone became a hot property, with the man who would eventually dance with wolves winning the coveted initial greenlight. But then differences with scribe Kevin Jarre saw the two part ways. Costner would go on to helm his own epic look at Wyatt Earp. Tombstone found a home with Russell, and along with a cast including Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston, Powers Boothe, and Val Kilmer, they beat their competition to the box office by six months.
Both Tombstone and Earp deal with the famed lawman, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and their decision to settle down in the Arizona mining town of the former’s title. There, they run into friend and famed gunslinger Doc Holiday. They also discover that the area is being terrorized by a ruthless band of outlaws who call themselves ‘The Cowboys’. Tensions rise between the two gangs until Virgil becomes the local sheriff and tries to undermine the criminals with a weapons ban. This leads to an infamous showdown known as The Gunfight at the OK Corral. Afterward, Earp thwarts an assassination attempt, becomes a US marshal, and vows to bring the rest of the Cowboys to justice. With Doc dying and allegiances scattered, it will be a tough task to accomplish.
For many, Tombstone stands as the pulpier, more popular take on the Wyatt Earp story, a splashy slice of Americana served up with a heaping helping of powerful acting chops. While Costner’s version on the lawman was noted for being bloated and overlong, Russell’s rendering retained much of the saga without truly sagging into overindulgence. Though Rambo: First Blood Part II‘s George P. Cosmatos was eventually listed as director, the passage of time as provided a more concrete production truth. Jarre, having been spurned by Costner, began behind the lens. When the studio stepped in and fired him, Russell took over. He continued until Cosmatos was hired. To make matters worse, Jarre’s script was then trimmed of its epic excesses, the hope being that a more commercial effort would result. In one of the rare cases where studio intervention succeeded, the shortened Tombstone was a solid hit.
Of course, the cast had a lot to do with its appeal. Kilmer was given the ripe role of Holiday when producers wouldn’t back first choice Willem Dafoe (the reason? A little something called The Last Temptation of Christ) and he turned it into a tour de force. Pale, perspired, and drawling like only a sly Southern Dandy can, the notoriously difficult actor was a perfect antidote to Russell and his handle-bar heroism. Indeed, fans still flock to Tombstone because it provides a more Classics Illustrated dynamic to the legend, leaving out most of the sadness and psychological complications to get down to the gun fighting. With their pitch perfect facades and pooled machismo, the men in this movie are lockstep within the creative code set up by the genre decades before.
But there is more to this movie than basic right vs. wrong. Tombstone doesn’t try to educate or expose. Instead, it is merely out to entertain, to wrap its soap horse operaish storyline around some solid actors and watch as the drama unfolds. Sure, Cosmatos can handle the action with flair, but we have to enjoy getting there as well. There’s an unusual jingoism present, a fading fortunes of the few matched with the growing presence of a new nation. Instead of feeling like we’ve stepped back in time, Tombstone argues for the pervasive mindset of justice, the feeling of being wronged, the desire to make things right. Unlike Wyatt Earp that wanted to paint a complicated portrait of just about everyone involved in the tale, Russell et. al. tap into the basics of a John Wayne West - and then stays there.
While it would have been interesting to see where Jarre took the material, or how Russell handled it had he delivered the final cut, the version of Tombstone present is perfectly suited for a category reborn. It doesn’t try to do too much and yet at the same time strived to hit the same beats that made the oater so formidable in the first place. It is a good looking movie (made even more polished by the recent Blu-ray release from Walt Disney Home Video) and doesn’t rush to overwhelm us with information. Instead, it builds layer upon layer of ideas, each one adding to our understanding of the elements at stake. Sure, it would have been nice to see all the deleted material reinserted for a kind of definitive director’s cut (the disc offers some storyboards, and a Behind the Scenes featurette, but that’s all), what we have here does a terrific job of selling the story.
As a subversive sort of buddy film - and one of the best, for that matter - Tombstone does indeed boil down to the closeness and camaraderie between Earp and Holiday. It’s there relationship that frames everything that happens. The film is also a clash of earnest elements, a desire to detail the realities of the West while embracing the mythos that made the era so celebrated in the first place. It’s our past and our perception of same, filtered through a feeling of familiarity and fictionalized history. While there are titles that better serve the genre and all that it stands for, Tombstone is the perfect commercial vehicle to get novice viewers interested in the archetype. It may not be flawless, but for what it accomplishes, it’s faithful.