The western still holds a special place in the heart of the American movie goer. Once the country’s most successful genre, its popularity has waned severely during the last half century. We still know a good one when we see one though. Tombstone is one that falls into that category. Cinema writer Ryan Cracknell calls the 1993 film, “One of the finest Westerns to come along since the genre decided largely to pack up and ride into the sunset”.
Released thirty years ago this month, Tombstone was directed by George P. Cosmatos and stars Kurt Russell, Dana Delany, and Val Kilmer. The plot focuses on the real-life exploits of famed frontier peacekeeper Wyatt Earp during his time in Arizona. It commences as Wyatt, along with his brothers Virgil and Morgan, arrive in the mining boomtown of Tombstone in 1879 to pursue their fortune via the gambling trade.
The Earps are soon joined in town by their ailing friend Doc Holliday, a former dentist turned gambler and gunfighter. When the brothers (and Doc)run afoul of the local outlaws known as “The Cowboys”, confrontation is inevitable. The two factions eventually have a showdown behind a livery stable called the O.K. Corral.
Tombstone was a moderate success at the box office and for a brief period, it made the western cool again. The trend did not last but the movie has continued to enjoy steady support. The most recent Rotten Tomato rating gives the film an audience score of 94%. In the thirty years since its release, Tombstone has gone from cult classic to classic western. Here’s why we still love it.
Wyatt and Doc
Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday have been immortalized in film since the 1930s. Hollywood heavyweights such as Burt Lancaster and Henry Fonda have portrayed the infamous lawman while the legendary ex-doctor has been depicted by legends like Kirk Douglas and Jason Robards. However, the revered duo has never been as much fun as they are in Tombstone.
In the hands of Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, Earp and Holliday are both dynamic and deadly. The sardonic repartee between the two brings some welcome levity to an overly intense narrative. It also provides another perspective on their relationship. Despite the near constant unpredictable tension between them, it is easy to believe the two are sincere friends.
The Lead Performances
Kurt Russell convincingly captures the brutal nature of Earp (and his mustache). The actor made the calculated decision to portray the man and not the myth, frailties included. Russell simply does a great job of anchoring the story while not dominating it. It is also rumored that he served as the film’s de facto director. When the movie’s original director had to be replaced, it was Russell who stepped in to keep the project afloat. In the words of co-star Sam Elliott, “Kurt was right there on top of it. He was orchestrating a lot of it. He held it together”.
In the case of Val Kilmer, Doc Holliday may be his most renowned role. Movie critic Erik Childress calls his performance “legendary and a likely reason this film is more fondly remembered”. Though the effects of tuberculosis are ever present, Kilmer plays the notorious gunfighter with devastating charisma. His debonair charm is so engaging, the viewer occasionally forgets Doc is a coldblooded killer. From history buffs to movie buffs, Val Kilmer embodies everything that fans imagine, and hope Doc Holliday was.
Among the Decade’s Finest Ensemble
The casting in Tombstone is brilliant because it contains a diverse mix of seasoned western actors and actors not usually associated with the genre. For example, Kurt Russell was a child star turned romantic leading man. Outlaw gunfighter Johnny Ringo is played by Michael Biehn, hero of the first Terminator picture. Val Kilmer was best known for teen comedies, action movies and playing Jim Morrison before he accepted the role of Doc.
Conversely Sam Elliott, who plays Virgil Earp, had numerous cowboy roles in both film and television before 1993’s Tombstone. Actor Buck Taylor was another veteran of the genre, including an eight-year stint on Gunsmoke. Harry Carey Jr. had appeared in more than 50 westerns before being cast as Marshal Fred White. It was a risky strategy, but it worked. The vibrant screen pairings keep the scenes fresh and unpredictable.
Charlton Heston and Billy Bob Thornton, both Academy Award winners, play small but pivotal parts in Tombstone. Television stars Jason Priestley, Terry O’Quinn, Michael Rooker, and John Corbett each contribute convincingly to the period milieu. Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church portrays one of those slain in the illustrious gunfight. Western icon Robert Mitchum even serves as the film’s narrator. From the stars to the bit players, each part is perfectly cast.
Setting and Screenplay
It is easy to ruin any period piece by not staying true to the era. Tombstone does a good job avoiding these pitfalls. Although not every plot element is utterly factual, it certainly gets the broad strokes right. And it takes nothing away from the viewing experience. Another element that adds to the overall ambiance of the film is undoubtedly its screenplay.
Kevin Jarre wrote the script that brings an unmistakable feel to Tombstone. The dialogue is reminiscent of top-notch film noir in that the witty banter and snide remarks unfurl themselves in rapid succession. It is certainly not the usual tedious interactions that so commonly bog down westerns. There are even a few classic lines that fans always remember. These include Wyatt’s frenzied warning to the Cowboys: “You tell ’em I’m coming! And Hell’s coming with me!” Doc Holliday’s memorable lines are far too abundant to list.
Known as “The Town Too Tough to Die”, Tombstone was a place where justice was the law of the land. Even if one had to go outside the law to get it. The town has been the subject of numerous interpretations through the years. The movie is not a documentary and doesn’t pretend to be. Tombstone is a fictitious account of actual events. However, one element that the film executes exceptionally well is that it sticks to the parts of the story that viewers care about. This is why the film ultimately succeeds.
Six months after Tombstone hit theaters, the film Wyatt Earp made its debut. It starred Kevin Costner, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time, but the picture was poorly received compared to Tombstone. A primary reason why is because Costner’s film is essentially a full bio of the man, starting with Earp’s childhood. As a result, Wyatt Earp is more of a character study where Tombstone hits the highlights. Apparently, the fans agree. Tombstone’s Rotten Tomato viewer rating is currently 33 points better than Wyatt Earp.
Tombstone, Arizona personifies the epic place remembered as the “Wild West”. It remains the standard for western lore because it is still the town too tough to die. Thirty years after its release, the film of the same name continues to endure as well.
Robert is a freelance writer and American scholar. He is known for bringing his old-world perspective to the modern world landscape. In his spare time, Robert can usually be found reading Steinbeck or watching reruns of 90s sitcoms.