A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 308 – Tombstone

Tombstone – January 2nd, 2011

I am not a big fan of traditional Westerns. It’s tough for me to put my finger on why, though I suspect it’s a combination of most of the genre being about manly men doing manly things and some unfortunate early exposure where I had to watch the entirety of The Searchers while I had a 100+ degree fever and was then criticized for not loving it. My bias, let me share it. And I am well aware that at least some of it is foolish bias. I won’t apologize for not always enjoying a “men shooting at things” movie. If done with style and not simply brute force I’d be willing to make a go of it. And this movie does indeed have style, which is why I like it.

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday is definitely my number one reason for liking this movie. Sure, he’s coughing up blood for most of it and he looks like he’s about to keel over right from the start. He’s clammy and pale and his eyes are bloodshot. He’s sick. And yet he still manages to be the slickest dude in the movie. Yeah, the Earps are cool and all, but Holliday is suave. I could watch this movie only for him and I’d be happy. Him and his fantastic coat. The one he’s wearing on the cover. I covet that coat.

While Kilmer as Holliday is what originally drew me to this movie, I do enjoy more of it than him. But it does have a good deal of flaws. It’s terrifically fictionalized, from what I’ve read, but well, I really don’t expect complete historical accuracy here. It makes it so much more dramatic to speed things up and have people be in the right place at the right time. And while eventually Wyatt Earp did indeed get a posse together and go hunting down his brother’s killers for revenge, in the movie it’s all made out to be very much a good vs. bad situation. In real life, well, there’s bad and then there’s varying levels of not-bad. Things got messy, but messy doesn’t make for the same sort of dramatic tension as a clear hero.

Wyatt Earp is set up right away as a reluctant hero who’d prefer to avoid fighting altogether. He refuses several requests that he take a law enforcement position in his new home and he gets rid of a troublesome faro dealer at the saloon he later works in without firing a shot or even being armed. Clearly this man is the man we want to win. The man we’ll be pissed off to see hurt. While his brothers back him up, Holliday is the real co-star here, being the rogue to play against Wyatt’s more straightlaced ways. I’ve mentioned it before, but really, having a knight/rogue dynamic in an action/adventure story works so well if you get the characters right (and from my reading it seems this was rather true to their actual personalities). It’s a great duo. And our villain, Curly Bill, is set up to be pure evil right from the start, interrupting a wedding to murder everyone, priest included, before sitting down to eat the wedding feast, surrounded by corpses. This is a movie trying very hard to put white hats on the Earps and Holliday and a hat black as coal on Curly Bill.

What with being based on historical events, the plot of the movie is sort of a given. Wyatt and his brothers, wife and sisters-in-law move to Tombstone to try and make some money and build decent lives. This is made difficult by a gang of outlaws known as the Cowboys who have ensconced themselves in the town. Wyatt avoids getting involved, but eventually his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, get themselves deputized because they can’t bear to sit by and watch the town be terrorized. The O.K. Corral gunfight happens mid-movie and then the rest of the movie is about the fallout from it, following the Cowboys’ revenge on the Earps and Wyatt’s revenge on the Cowboys for their revenge. The beginning starts with a clearly delineated good and bad but pretty soon we’re riding through a whole lot of grey area. And I don’t mind grey area. I like questionable morals and characters who seem like good people but who do horrible things and characters who seem like bad people but manage to do good. The problem is that while that’s how history actually went, that’s not how the movie presented itself to start. By the time Wyatt Earp and his posse go off to hunt down the Cowboys they’re working against the law. Wyatt’s no longer a lawman looking to bring murderers to trial. He’s a vengeance-obsessed brother, killing people on sight.

There’s an attempt at the beginning to do some biblical foreshadowing, having one of the people at the wedding quote Revelations 6:8, with the pale horse and whatnot. And then later, when Wyatt has truly lost his calm, he shouts about how he’s going after the Cowboys and bringing hell with him. The King James Bible translation of that particular bit reads “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” There’s lots of imagery of Wyatt on a horse, with three other men with him, riding across the plains to deal out death to his foes. It’s an attempt not just to make Wyatt Earp a hero, but to make him mythical. Stories of the Old West are a modern mythology for the United States and I will acknowledge that this movie made a valiant attempt. Unfortunately, Death on his pale horse, bringing Hell with him to Earth? Not really a heroic figure, you know? And it flies in the face of the whole Good and Bad thing that the movie set up at the start.

It’s all a pity really, because there are a lot of good performances here from people I enjoy. Sam Elliott is mighty fine as Virgil and Bill Paxton does a nice job with Morgan. I like Kurt Russell as Wyatt, even though I think the character is scripted unevenly. And I like Micheal Biehn as Johnny Ringo, Doc Holliday’s personal nemesis in this fictionalized account of events. And of course I like Kilmer as Holliday. I wish things had been done differently from the outset. From what I can tell the production was plagued with problems, from an overlong script to an absent director to trouble finding someone to distribute the picture. Maybe if things had gone smoother? But no, because the problem is the script from the start, trying to take what could have been a very interesting story about people doing horrible things for the “right” reasons, and squishing it into rigid morality roles. So while I do enjoy the movie, it’s not without reservations and it’s mostly for some great gunfight scenes and Val Kilmer in his kickass coat.

January 2, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,


  1. This movie, like all the stories I have seen about the gunfight at the OK Corral, and Earp is horse shit!
    When something in reality was so interesting why is it that Hollywood feels the need to fictionalize it? One wonders if the offspring of some of these people murdered on the streets of Tombstone couldn’t sue the writer.

    Comment by Charlie Smith | January 15, 2011 | Reply

    • I think the reason Hollywood feels the need to fictionalize events such as the OK Corral is a desire to mythologize modern American history. The trouble is that they tried (and continue to try) to make it into a simplistic Good vs. Evil story when it’s not. And many wonderful myths and tall tales and the like aren’t that simple either. They’re complex, with flawed and fascinating figures at their hearts. Take away the flaws and fascination and you end up with something so watered down. It’s sad, in a way.

      Comment by ajmovies | January 15, 2011 | Reply

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