Tombstone

1993, Movie, R, 128 mins

Review

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Though apparently conceived as a revisionist Western, TOMBSTONE falls prey to the cliches of the genre, and its last third is a muddle.

The righteous Earp brothers--former US Marshalls Wyatt (Kurt Russell), Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton)--arrive in the rough and ready town of Tombstone, hoping to exploit its new-found wealth. They're accompanied, respectively, by wives Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), a laudanum addict, Allie (Paula Malcolmson) and Louisa (Lisa Collins). In Tombstone, they are reunited with their principled, if dissolute, friend, gambler and cultivated drunk Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), traveling with his girlfriend/partner in crime Kate (Joanna Pacula). Wyatt takes over the running of a local casino and falls in love with a spunky, unconventional traveling actress, Josephine (Dana Delany). The future looks bright until it becomes clear that the Cowboys, a vicious gang whose members include the despicable Clantons--cowardly Ike (Stephen Lang) and Billy (Thomas Haden Church), sociopath Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), and bully boy Curly Bill (Powers Boothe)--are going to make trouble until someone teaches them a lesson.

Tombstone's lawlessness surpasses even the frontier norm. Eventually, when women and children can no longer walk the streets without getting caught in the crossfire, the Earps--first Virgil, then Morgan, then, reluctantly, Wyatt--put on their badges and start cleaning up. Contrary to expectations, the movie does not end with the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral. Instead, in a subsequent sneak attack, Morgan dies and Virgil is wounded and packed off to California with his long-suffering wife and Kate. Doc Holliday kills Johnny Ringo and later dies of tuberculosis, Wyatt kills Curly Bill, while Ike Clanton escapes to be dealt with in a spoken epilogue (narrated by Robert Mitchum). Wyatt lives to tie up his storyline by taking up with Josephine (presumably after having abandoned Mattie), with the voiceover assuring us that the two lived happily ever after. (In fact, they wound up in Hollywood, where Earp helped shape the movie myth of the West; the pallbearers at his funeral included silent cowboy stars Tom Mix and William S. Hart.)

TOMBSTONE was a troubled production. The original director, screenwriter Kevin Jarre (GLORY), was replaced during filming by utility director George P. Cosmatos (RAMBO), and it was rumored that much of the script had been abandoned; certainly, it was significantly rewritten. It seems likely that Jarre's intention was to focus on the aftermath of the notorious gunfight, a la John Sturges's HOUR OF THE GUN (1967), particularly the chain reaction of murder and vengeful cruelty it caused, and to develop the secondary characters; most are played by well-known actors, including Terry O'Quinn, Michael Rooker, Billy Zane, and Robert Burke, whose roles seem, in the finished film, surprisingly small. What wound up on screen is a movie with too many characters and not enough time in which to deal with them, and action that seems so rushed to get to the end that important scenes are left out.

TOMBSTONE is packed with things that ought to be interesting, but aren't; things that would be interesting, if we only got to see them (Mitchum's gravelly voiceover is used to fill in far too many gaps); and things so ludicrous, one can only imagine someone found them interesting but didn't think about whether they'd play on film. The scene in which Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo face off in Wyatt's casino and swear at one another in Latin must have sounded fabulous on many counts: character revelation (Holliday and Ringo are both educated men as well as gun-toting desperados); defiance of audience expectations (who ever heard John Wayne spouting off in the language of Caesar?); and just plain novelty value. But the scene's ridiculous; it's difficult not to laugh.

Generations of filmmakers have used the western as a means of reflecting upon contemporary society. TOMBSTONE may not wear its political correctness on its sleeve quite so conspicuously as Mario Van Peebles' POSSE, in which black cowboys and settlers deal with racist honkies in ten-gallon hats, but it comes close. We know we're in the presence of a bad man when he announces that he's head of the local anti-Chinese league; and we know Virgil Earp is righteous when he mandates gun control in Tombstone. Josephine is a liberated woman, art loving Billy Breckenridge (Jason Priestly) a put-upon homosexual, and drug addict Mattie a victim of patriarchal society. Tombstone's citizens also include a conspicuous minority of black men and women.

Despite its troubles, TOMBSTONE proved a surprising hit at the box office, grossing over $50 million in North American theaters. (Violence, sexual situations.) leave a comment

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