Movie Review: Tombstone (1993)

Tombstoneby Brad Nelson   1/1/14
Hicks and Hudson (Bill Paxton and Michael Biehn) from 1986’s Aliens reunite in this retelling of the O.K. Corral story. My favorite film of this event is 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. But the Russell/Kilmer effort is a close second.

Kurt Russell, with the help of films such as Escape from New York, was able to go beyond his Disneyesque All-American Boy image. Snake Plissken remains one of my favorite characters, a movie that is a fun romp in a dystopian future. In that film, it was the large eyepatch of Plissken that helped hide the All-American Boy, Russell. And in Tombstone a similar device works as well: Russell sports a gnarly-looking handlebar mustache. Shades of Snidely Whiplash.

Russell does a superb job of playing the no-nonsense tough guy, Wyatt Earp. But this tough guy (somewhat unlike his brother, Virgil) is tired of playing a town marshal and just wants to settle down and make some money.

Unfortunately, the local gang, called “The Cowboys,” makes it difficult for the Earp brothers to just sit back and do nothing. Events take hold of them. History rates Wyatt as the law enforcement star, but it was really Virgil (as also noted in this movie as well) who was more the stalwart lawman. According to Wiki, “[Wyatt] is often regarded as the central figure in the shootout in Tombstone, although his brother Virgil was Tombstone City Marshal and Deputy U.S. Marshal that day, and had far more experience as a sheriff, constable, and marshal and in combat.”

Well, apparently a biography published by Stuart N. Lake after Wyatt’s death cemented, or created, the legend that we all know and love. I haven’t a clue to what the real story is. But it’s wonderful to imagine that it was as it was played out by Russell and Kilmer in this movie.

But, really, this is a Val Kilmer film when all is said and done. Russell is good, and Sam Elliot is a hard-bitten manly rock at his brother, Virgil. But watching this film, you anticipate every scene with Kilmer who plays the “lunger,” Doc Holiday. Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of Doc in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” is edgy and shows a very violent and callous man. But this performance by Kilmer perhaps bests even Douglas. Kilmer sweats his way to a sickly portrayal of a very edgy, fearless, and dangerous man.

Charlton Heston has a bit role, and it is just that: a bit. Anchoring the villain portion of the film is Powers Boothe. Whether you think of him as the cult leader of Jonestown, or the whorehouse villain in HBO’s Deadwood, Boothe oozes sleaze in this movie to the same awful degree.

Michael Bain is ok as Johnny Ringo, but he seems a little weak in the role. He doesn’t have quite the edge that Stephen Lang does in his marvelous portrayal of the dirtbag, Ike Clanton. Perhaps the problem with Bain is that I kept waiting for him to say, “I say we take off and nuke the entire corral from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

Thomas Haden Church (Wings) is somewhat miscast as Billy Clanton. But it should be said that Westerns are indeed in his blood because he gave a fine performance in the excellent Broken Trail (2006) with Robert Duvall. But he’s tough to take as a bad guy.

But all that is a quibble. You’ll love the shoot-out action and the big sound of the booming guns. And Val Kilmer gives his best performance — one that really should have been more formally rewarded with an Oscar. He, too, has come a long way from his good-guy image first evinced in the hilariously quirky Top Secret! with Kilmer as the Elvis-like Nick Rivers.

Tombstone (1993)

Available on widescreen DVD ($9.96 new, $5.95 used), Blu Ray ($19.96 new, $14.99 used), or Amazon Instant Video ($3.99 rent). Not available for streaming on Netflix.

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.

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13 Responses to Movie Review: Tombstone (1993)

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I share your fondness for the 1957 version, though I haven’t seen this one. There are a number of books on the shootout, including an excellent recent one by Jeff Guinn (who has also written on Bonnie and Clyde, and more recently on Charles Manson).

  2. faba calculo says:

    This was my favorite movie for a while as is still one of my favorite westerns (along with Unforgiven). A couple of comments:

    * You failed to mention Dana Delany, who did such a great job playing the love interest and future wife of Wyatt, Josephine Marcus. This was one of sexiest roles I ever saw played without being a bit trashy. She was a lady. I’d take my oath on it.

    * Speaking of sexy (but DEFINITELY no lady), let’s not forget Joanna Pacuła as Doc’s codependent love interest, Kate. Historically speaking, she was all wrong in appearance to play the woman known as Big Nose Kate, but if God had created one woman to be the companion and equal of Doc Holiday, it was Pacula’s Kate.

    * I really thought that the center of the villainous side was held much more by Johnny Ringo than by Curly Bill. Even the later seemed to secretly dread the day the former became head of the Cowboys. Forced to choose, I’d have had gun fights with a dozen Curly Bills before I’d have one with Johnny Ringo.

    My only disappointment with the film is some of its historical inaccuracies. These, no doubt, are absolutely necessary, if we are to have a tale of a hero and a villain, but the film is such a high, finding them out does kind of hurt. The prime example of this is how it presents Wyatt’s then-wife Mattie as being addicted to laudanum – which was true – and then accidentally over-dosing on it and dying, thereby leaving Wyatt free to marry Josephine – which wasn’t. In truth, Wyatt abandoned Mattie in favor of Josephine, leading to Mattie’s suicide via overdose.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Yes, I certainly think Dana Delany was charming a time or two. Her character was interesting because, as you said, she played that fine line between lady and slut.

      Bet let’s go ahead and forget Joanna Pacula as Big Nose Kate. I thought her character was fairly forgettable. All of the women in “Tombstone” were somewhat props or sidelines. They were not central to the story. This was definitely a guy film.

      To see a real relationship you need to go to 1957’s “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” where there is a lot of interesting fireworks between Kirk Douglas (Doc) and Jo Van Fleet (Big Nose Kate). In that one, Kate is anything but a prop and is central to eking out Doc Holiday’s character (or lack of). And she seemed to hold her own in a sort of weak, co-dependent way.

      Certainly Ringo was a better gunfighter than Curly Bill. But for sheer depth of nastiness, Powers Boothe easily gets the nod as the best villain in “Tombstone.”

      I understand that there are various cuts of “Tombstone.” The one I saw made no mention (I think) of Mattie dying. And although her character was unimportant to the film, boy did she have the look of a laudanum-addicted woman.

      And if it’s true that Wyatt abandoned Mattie, and this contributed toward her suicide, that would have been an interesting inclusion. Perhaps someday someone will do a miniseries a la “Lonesome Dove.” Then such material (and more) could be integrated. As it was, this was really a good guy vs. bag guy movie with the relationship stuff thrown in for decoration. In “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” this was not true, at least in regards to Kate.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Doc Holliday is a rather tragic figure in his way — a well-educated man and a competent dentist whose health forced him to live among people who didn’t share his education, and also made his profession virtually impossible. An interesting recent take on his character can be found in Doc by Mary Doria Russell.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Yes, well said, Timothy. I read the Wiki article on Doc last night. And there were some quotes from Wyatt, I think, that made a similar sad point.

          This guy was all set up to be a dentist, in Miami, I think. And then tuberculosis set in so he went to dryer climes for his health. And apparently because few people wanted to go to a forever-coughing dentist, Doc turned to gambling to support himself.

          Even so, that article didn’t have much info on Doc. Was gambling his only choice, or was there that mean streak in him always that naturally gravitated toward hard drinking, gambling, and gunplay? He might just as easily become a carpenter or picked up another trade.

          We don’t really get into his transformation from a supposedly run-of-the-mill middle class white bread dentist to the person he became. That would make for part of a great mini-series, even if they just had to fill in the gaps using their imagination.

          Doc is typically thought of as being so dangerous because he was without fear. He knew he was dying. I thought Kilmer did a great job with Doc. But if that movie had ran on for four hours (perhaps starting with Doc’s more placid life on the East Coast), I would have been fine with that.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Russell covers his whole life, but with a particular focus on his time in Dodge City, when he actually was able to practice his profession occasionally and even had a girlfriend (aside from Kate). One problem he faced was that he was primarily a dental surgeon, and in the hard times that started with the Panic of 1873, there wasn’t much call for that, particularly in the dry but low-money areas he lived in. The tuberculosis also left him physically weak, which played a role in limited his choices.

      • faba calculo says:

        “Certainly Ringo was a better gunfighter than Curly Bill. But for sheer depth of nastiness, Powers Boothe easily gets the nod as the best villain in ‘Tombstone.'”

        Remind me again, which of the two shot the priest? And which of the two looked so shocked that the other had done so?

        But, seriously, it’s a matter of taste in baddies. And they were both certainly bad people as portrayed in the films. Hell, just the scene where the no-name Cowboys drag the former bride, now widow, back into the church, presumably for raping, still makes my blood run cold.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Yes, Ringo’s punctuated moments, such as killing the priest, make him out to be a very bad man indeed. But I thought Powers Boothe’s low, rolling-boil of evil was much more effective cinematically. And Boothe is a better actor.

          Ringo’s best moment was when he was showing off his fancy gun handling. And it made it one of the best scenes in the movie when Doc mocked him in return by doing the same thing with a tin cup.

          Yes, the rape scene (or suggestion of such) was jolting. That really set the tone for the movie and showed you that these “cowboys” were in no way John Wayne’s “Cowboys.”

          • Timothy Lane says:

            This is one of the things Guinn brings up. The people of Tombstone made money off the cowboys (and also off the silver miners), but regarded them as mainly troublemakers. I suspect this was also true in the various cities where the cattle drives ended.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Neither Johnny Ringo nor Curly Bill Brocius was at the OK Corral. For that matter, Ike Clanton (who probably did more than anyone to cause it) fled the fight at the beginning.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        “Tombstone” doesn’t have Ringo at the shoot-out, but I think the Lancaster/Douglas version did. And Ike Clanton in “Tombstone” really does come across as a fight-fleeing worm. Great acting by that guy.

        And apparently the post-corral vendetta part of Wyatt’s rampage consisted only of killing about three men. But in “Tombstone,” it looks as if they kill dozens. Oh well, it’s just a movie.

  3. steve lancaster says:

    An excellent movie. Val Kilmer gave the most convincing Doc. Holiday of any in the movies. Wyatt and Josie seem to have had a great life. The most interesting irony is that Wyatt is buried with Josie in the Jewish section of the cemetery at Coloma Ca.

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