Directed by “George P. Cosmatos” (We’ll get to this guy later…)
Starring: Kurt Russel, Val Kilmer, Bill Paxton, Sam Elliot, Powers Boothe
President Bill Clinton named Val Kilmer’s performance in Tombstone his all-time favorite. Roger Ebert frequently praised the film as Kurt Russel’s and Val Kilmer’s career bests. It is a mainstay in nearly every “greatest Westerns” list, especially if that list focuses on modern Westerns. Many also consider Tombstone to be the definitive dramatization of the O.K. Corral fight and of the American hero Wyatt Earp.
When not crafting these bespoke cinema evaluations for the edification of discerning cinephiles like yourselves, I sling low-budget horror scripts with a close colleague of mine. Tombstone is one of his favorite movies, so I sheepishly told him that I’d watch it as soon as possible. Based on my opinions below, I’ll be pointing him to this review with equal meekness.
Wyatt Earp is retired, having been a Marshall of some notoriety in Dodge City, Kansas. After a shooting weighs heavy on his conscience, he decides that he’s paid his dues and settles in Tombstone, Arizona, to make his fortune.
Since there’s a silver rush, his brothers and their wives decide to tow along. Equally enticed by gambling and money is Wyatt’s best friend, Doc Holliday. Also in town are “The Cowboys,” a band of 100 or so red-sashed bandits led by Curly Bill, with standout scum like the Clanton brothers and Jonny Ringo. The only reason they’re allowed such free rein is because of the corrupt industrialist, Behan, who gets kickbacks from the Cowboys’ heists. The only traditional law in town is Sherriff William, who’s woefully outmatched and past his prime. Also in town is a troupe of actors, led by firecracker Josephine Marcus. She’s got her eyes set on Wyatt, even though he’s married. Speaking of, Wyatt’s wife is an opium addict who–
Is this too much? Too bad because I haven’t even mentioned…
The Wyatt brothers and Doc Holliday eventually confront the Clanton brothers at the O.K. Corral, where–
Oops! The plot section of this article spilled over. So yeah, they tried to fit a pound of plot beef into a quarter-pounder movie cheeseburger. Were it made today, Tombstone wouldn’t be in theaters, it’d be billed as a six-part miniseries event on some premium streaming service.
Watching the film, I was baffled by its sudden inclusion of plot threads and refusal to follow up on them. Sometimes short scenes with obvious dialogue voiced over would say how much time had passed: “It must be spring now since the weather’s getting warmer,” followed in the next scene by, “Winter’s coming soon. Your gunshot wound looks a lot better.”
The prime example of my bewilderment comes when a character confesses his love to another woman after the movie shows us his previously unfailing fidelity to his wife. I thought this character was going home to reunite with his wife. Why the sudden change?
The next scene explains via narration that the wife died two years after leaving Tombstone, so it’s all good. To recap, a character’s wife is introduced as a major character, disappears for an hour, dies offscreen, and is replaced by a new love interest all before NARRATION catches the audience up to speed.
With any other film, I would be fuming. This criticism isn’t fair, though, because the making of Tombstone is almost as infamous as its characters.
An industry trend from the early 90’s that negatively affected this film was the spec script craze. Great writing is always in short supply, but, during this period, Hollywood had obscene bidding wars for the coolest original scripts from the hottest writers of the day. Tombstone was one such script, and was produced under the stipulation that the writer, Nick Jarre, an industry newbie, also direct it.
The result was disastrous. Jarre became overwhelmed by the massive project and couldn’t meet production demands, meaning he couldn’t get the shots required from the locations used before the permits expired. To make matters worse, there wasn’t any time for reshoots because Kevin Costner was filming a dueling version of the Wyatt Earp story, titled Wyatt Earp, as one does. If Costner’s version made it to theaters first, Tombstone would be dead on arrival. As such, the studio lost faith and fired Jarre, leaving the cast and crew stranded in the middle of production.
Enter George P. Cosmatos, a ghost director who was brought in to salvage the project. While Cosmatos kept the production on track, Kurt Russel directed many of the scenes in an effort to retain the artistic eye that Jarre initially brought. Because time was running short, Russel also had to pare down the script so that the scenes they DID shoot coalesced into a sensible story. Therefore, Russel focused the movie on Wyatt and Doc’s friendship with Josephine Marcus’ romantic pining serving as the B-story. Everything else was trimmed to bare bones in order to get the film cut under three hours.
The result is a film that narratively makes sense, if just barely, instead of the sprawling epic that could have been had Jarre not gotten in his own way.
After all this complaining, I actually think the answer is yes, so it appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds. Enjoyed as pure old-fashioned entertainment, Tombstone delivers in spades. Kurt Russel turns in a sturdy performance, Sam Elliot gravels through speeches about justice, and Val Kilmer gleefully crafts his greatest performance (though he was famously squeezed out of the Academy race by Tommy Lee Jones and Ralph Finnes). That’s not even mentioning Powers Boothe’s meme-worthy “Well…Bye!” line. There are gunfights and horse chases galore as well as sweeping scenery and sweeping romance.
Bottom line–this here film is high-quality saddle leather. Just don’t look real close at the stitching.