Directed by George P. Cosmatos
December 25, 1993
Wyatt Earp’s plans to retire fall apart when he encounters outlaws in his new town.
This is quite probably my favorite of the newer westerns of the last 20 years or so. There is a fantastic cast and a great story here. We get this all in an immersive environment that pulls you in and holds you.
The cast is all great. They are or would soon become recognized names. The great Kurt Russell is in the lead role as the retired Wyatt Earp. Russell himself is just a fantastic actor. He can exude onscreen tough and that is no mean feat because physically he is not a tough looking person. He has no bulk and leaves the impression he is an easy-going guy. But he can make you feel intimidated. That there is what real acting is.
Earp is portrayed as a man trying to avoid what is coming and wanting no part of it, yet fate will not allow him to stay out of it. He and his brothers, Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), have come to Tombstone to start a new life away from law enforcement and violence. They are seeking their fortune in the frontier. Virgil and Morgan are more willing to step back in, but Wyatt is looking for peace even though the confrontation is inevitable.
Back in the day Val Kilmer was the man when it came to acting. He was just always so good, and his role as Doc Holliday is a perfect showcase of his talents. Doc Holliday is an unusual character and quite possibly one of the most unique Western characters ever to be put to film. “I’m your huckleberry,” meaning he was the perfect man for the job/situation, has become such an iconic cinematic quote and would not have become so without Kilmer’s quirky performance as the ailing gambler. He is a complex character who is at times menacing and at others sympathetic but always deeply loyal to one of his few friends Wyatt.
Michael Biehn was especially good here as Johnny Ringo. Biehn is a talented actor that is known but just never made it big for some reason. He is dark and threatening and dangerously crazy as the second in command of the rogue Cowboys.
I saw that Jason Priestley was in this, but it took me forever to find him in the movie. I am part of the generation that directly experienced Beverly Hills 90210 and while I didn’t watch the show on a weekly basis or any basis really, I am familiar enough with it that his ability as shown there was not equal to the talent present in the film. Yet he does have the skill. I dare say he actually acted here. As Billy Breakenridge he was not in a role that I would have expected him to go for here. Billy is timid and a bit emotionally weak and not a dashing type. Priestly was fantastic and really upped his game in a time he probably did not need to do so.
Powers Boothe as “Curly Bill” Brocius was the only actor here that I was just kind of disappointed in. It was as if he was trying to channel Eli Wallach as a western villain like in the original The Magnificent Seven or even How The West Was Won (and his costume here reminded me of both films). His performance did not quite work for me. I am not saying I hated the performance but given the whole tone of the film it did not quite live up to it to what it should have been.
And then there’s Dana Delany as Wyatt Earp’s true love Josephine Marcus. Delaney is a volatile talent off screen but on screen she is just magic. She is seductive here and just pulls in Earp while playing barely hard to get. You can understand why Wyatt pursued her in this story.
We have an amazing supporting cast featuring the likes of Stephen Lang as Ike Clanton, Thomas Haden Church as Billy Clanton, Michael Rooker (who would gain serious fame as Yondu in the Guardians of the Galaxy films) shows up as Sherman McMasters, a younger Billy Bob Thornton is Johnny Tyler who is memorably put in his place by Doc Holliday, Billy Zane is the somewhat foppish Mr. Fabian who is Josephine’s lover prior to Wyatt, and Terry O’Quinn is Tombstone Mayor John Clum.
We also have Robert Mitchum, who had more than a few great Westerns of his own under his belt providing the narration. Harry Carey, Jr. who appeared in numerous Westerns shows up as Marshal Fred White. And to top it off we have the legendary Charlton Heston making a brief appearance as Henry Hooker who aids Wyatt and his people on their revenge ride. That is more talent than most movies ever get.
Overall we get a good sense and feel for the characters. From the smallest to the largest parts, they do not feel like cardboard cutouts or extraneous filler. I dare say the latter three I mentioned in my list of actors were cast just to give the film a sense of Western legitimacy. They are all brought vividly to life by the actors.
This film is not historically accurate. Johnny Ringo in reality appears to have committed suicide. Marshal White was 31 at this time and Harry Carey, Jr. most certainly was not. And that is only to point out a few things. I go into these historical films assuming there is little actual history in them but that is not why I am watching it. I am just watching for a good story with good actors and good direction and that is not a disappointment. This is not a disappointment.
Director George P. Cosmatos is said to have insisted on as much realism as possible which meant dressing them in clothing they would wear at the time. That meant wool in the warmest weather along with a detailed background. And it worked. Tombstone looks like a well lived-in town. The environment of the film is rich and really immerses you in the world that is created.
The confrontation between the Earps and the Cowboys is most certainly built up as a clash between good and evil. I am not talking good guys and bad guys. I am talking between ultimate good and ultimate evil. We get thunder and lightning and strong winds and darkness and dust and it just feels like an apocalypse is on the horizon.
This film is very well directed. It is tight. There are no points where it drags, and the action is fantastic and intense. At two hours they managed to keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. What is more impressive is that this movie came off so well despite the behind-the-scenes drama.
Tombstone was to be screenwriter Kevin Jarre’s debut directorial effort, but the job apparently was too much for him. He failed to get needed shots and the film quickly fell behind schedule. Producer Andrew Vajna replaced him with Cosmatos but it has been said by Russell that he was the one that actually directed the film. This was reportedly supported to an extent in an interview with Kilmer. And despite all this we got a really great film.
Tombstone is a fantastic entry into the Western catalog. It is a very well-done film. You will not be disappointed. Watch it!