You read that title correctly. I am indeed blogging about the movie Tombstone. I figured I’d expand on the scope of this particular series to something beyond “just” fiction. When it comes to modern mythology, there are few things that can compare in my mind than the myths of America. I realize that not everyone appreciates the genre of the Western, but bear with me and maybe I’ll even make some sense. The “gods and heroes” aspect of mythology marks a path something like this in my mind: the gods and heroes of Olympus (and their equivalents) –> knights in shining armor –> Old West gunfighters –> pulp age mystery men –> comic book superheroes. To put it into proper perspective with the Victorian age going on across the pond, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral occurred on 26 October 1881. Sherlock Holmes would first appear in print six years later, and Jack the Ripper would terrorize Whitechapel a year after that. What do all of these things have in common? Something in the world has gone terribly wrong, and there is a quest for Justice. With a capital “J.”
The Old West is the firearms equivalent of the Middle Ages in the minds of many, the last bastion of Chivalry where the good and the just take up noble quests to protect what little passes for law and order and vanquish evil. It was a time and place in American history that was being mythologized as it unfolded, so much so that people would travel the world over to see “the real American West” in the form of stage shows not unlike what you might see today at a Renaissance festival. The law of the West was, more often than not, the law of the gun. If you presented enough swagger or carried a high enough reputation, you could avoid most fights. Sooner or later, someone would come to test that reputation, or to build their own by ending yours. The people with those reps typically earned them the hard way, and they were legitimate, but newspapers and the ever popular dime novel tended to blow things wildly out of proportion. The only thing harder than living long enough to get a reputation like that was keeping it and living up to it. Another favorite of mine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, bears a quote that I often repeat, and to me it symbolizes pretty much everything about this era, in fact and fiction.
“This the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
(Geek note: the same excerpt from Shakespeare’s Henry V “St. Crispin’s Day” speech appears in both movies.)
The era of the Old West more or less ended right around the time film was becoming a true art form, so those who lived the experience were there to inform those who brought the myths to film.
Case in point is the central character of this entry’s film, infamous lawman Wyatt Earp. The last thing the narrator tells you before the film ends is that Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929, and that among the pall bearers at his funeral were early Western film stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix. “Tom Mix wept.” These names may not mean much to modern audiences, but to audiences of the silent screen, they were the equivalents of any of the Hollywood royalty we have today, perhaps more so because film was a novelty. That torch got passed, then, directly from the likes of Wyatt Earp, onto the silver screen, and into the collective imaginations of the American culture where it continues to live on on some level thanks to movies just like Tombstone. In some ways, the legacy is even more cemented on this one. One of the consultants on this film was none other than the lawman’s fifth cousin, Wyatt Earp III, who also appears in the movie as Billy Claiborne.
Before I get into this, let me explain the direction I come from this. Before moving back to Dallas, I was raised in my middle and high school years in the sticks outside of the Waco area, aka Washington-on-the-Brazos, aka Six Gun Junction, “where the Deep South meets the Old West.” It’s home to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, which is subject to some heavy mythologizing of its own despite the museum’s attempts to show the reality. One side of my family lived in ranching country in West Texas, where I got to know up close and personally the differences between fact and fiction when it came to all things cowboy. I was the “black sheep,” the one that didn’t subscribe to the look or paraphernalia that went with that lifestyle. After all, I was the Star Wars kid in a collective of wanna-be gunslingers. The other side of my family lived in Kansas, the legendary stomping grounds of men like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, “Wild Bill” Hickok, James H. Kelley, and so on. There’s a wall in the heart of Wichita, Kansas (smack in the middle of what most today would call “flyover country”), that honors famous Kansans ranging from Earp and Masterson to Amelia Earhart, Dorothy Gale, and Superman. So you see, I’m sort of steeped in this stuff whether I like it or not, with one foot in fact, the other in fiction, just as the Old West came to be formed. Heritage and pride are two things that states like Texas and Kansas have in common, and when it comes to the liturgy of the Old West mythos, these things go hand in hand, no matter where you go on the map. Mix that in with a number of already infamous personalities who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, one of the earliest examples of organized crime running unchecked in a mining town where people came to find their fortunes, and arguably the most famous gunfight in history, it makes for a story that simply will not die. Hollywood proved as much in the early 90s, when Wyatt Earp opened a mere six months after Tombstone. These aren’t the first films made about this, and they won’t be the last. This gunfight has been depicted in several movies and on Wyatt Earp’s own TV series, to say nothing of science fiction TV shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who. There’s no telling where it’ll show up next. Look up Wyatt Earp on IMDb, and it’ll tell you everything you need to know about the legendary status of this man.
The Hollywood machine has always understood this. The gunfight was just that, a momentary event. It lasted about 30 seconds, and about 30 shots were fired, depending on the source. It’s more than heroes and villains, it’s more than law vs. organized crime. Tombstone, in my humble opinion, is perhaps the greatest Western ever made. More than that, it’s one of the most perfectly crafted movies I’ve ever seen, regardless of genre. Here, the gunfight is put into proper perspective as a single moment in time that came to mark the beginning of the Earp Vendetta, truly a tale worth telling. That’s not to say this film is 100% historically accurate (it’s not even close), nor is it to say that it’s flawless in terms of flubs, goofs, and inconsistencies. You’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that fits that description, ever. What Tombstone does so incredibly well is offer a superb cast at the absolute top of their games, some amazing visuals (sets, costuming, fight choreography, etc.), and a script that somehow captures the romance of what these personas have come to represent while pushing forward aspects of what the Old West was really like. The storyline uses the exact same formula that makes pulp and comic heroes as popular as they are, applied to the characters in this film, and the filmmakers doubled down on that idea. If you follow central character arc of Wyatt Earp, it’s the same Hero’s Journey formula deciphered by Joseph Campbell that’s been applied to pretty much every story from the age of Olympus to Star Wars to Harry Potter and beyond. The difference is that this time the hero is established and retired, having already done his duty, which is why he’s reluctant to pursue his destiny. Some people are born to greatness, and others are pushed into it face first while receiving a butt kicking. A man stands alone, against the chaos of the world, with only his wits and a gun, protecting and/or avenging those he cares about. And, of course, there’s a woman involved, one worth impressing and protecting.
Today, it’s chauvinistic fantasy. It was back then too. It was also a way of life, when men were men, women were women, and bullies were armed with guns, booze, and a big mouth. Some things transcend time and place; such bullies just need to be dealt with, which is why the formula works so well regardless of the genre that uses it. In many Westerns, the heroes and villains are stereotypical. There are white hats and black hats. Tombstone harnesses both the human and superhuman elements of these characters and situations. It’s grim and dark, but it’s fun, and it’s oh-so quotable.
After all that, I realize I haven’t yet discussed the plot. The basic set up is that the Cowboys are one of the first examples of organized crime in the American West, and they pretty much run everything. The Earps and their wives arrive in Tombstone, retired from active duty as lawmen, seeking their fortunes, where they meet up with Wyatt’s old friend “Doc” Holliday. Holliday is suffering from tuberculosis (for which there is no cure at this time), so he has become a roving gambler and gunslinger out West where he hopes the dry climate will help his condition. Right from the beginning, the Earps stake their claims and cross paths with the Cowboys. The leader of the group, “Curly” Bill Brocius, kills the local US Marshall in a shooting after a night in an opium den. When Wyatt steps in to stop the situation, he marks himself and his family. Tensions escalate as Virgil Earp volunteers to become a US Marshall and bring law and order to Tombstone, which directly leads to the infamous gunfight that results in the “murder” of three Cowboys. In retaliation, the Earps’ wives are terrorized, Virgil loses the use of his arm, and Morgan is shot in the back. Thus begins the Earp Vendetta as Virgil and the wives are escorted out of town, and Wyatt claims the first death in the reckoning to come. With Doc and a handful of supporters at his side, Wyatt Earp brings an end to the reign of the Cowboys and wins the heart of the woman who would become his lifelong companion because he did the right thing when nobody else would or could. Simple, powerful, and so very satisfying. In short, classic.
Tombstone got lost in the holiday shuffle of the time, opening to lukewarm reception by early critics, but those reviews were quickly overshadowed once the film formally debuted. As Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp or other movies featuring Kurt Russell or Val Kilmer were released (such as Stargate or Batman Forever), the inevitable comparisons were made, and Tombstone rocketed to new levels of appreciation.
Of note, Kevin Jarre was the original director of this film. When he was fired, Sylvester Stallone recommended George P. Cosmatos, whom Stallone worked with on Rambo II. Cosmatos’ name may be listed, but the real director of this film is Kurt Russell. He rallied the cast and crew for fear that the production would be shut down in lieu of replacing the director.
The cast list on this is just stellar. I can gush about Russell and Kilmer all day, especially the latter, who outright steals this movie. But when you surround those guys with Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Dana Delaney (whom I was already crushing on from her role in television’s China Beach), Powers Booth, Michael Biehn, Thomas Haden Church, Billy Zane, Michael Rooker, Charleton Heston… and then you give all of them and everyone else involved parts they seem born to perform… wow.
I also have to give a respectful nod to composer Bruce Broughton. It surprises me that more people don’t know his name. He’s a giant in the business, most notable for his work on Silverado, How the West Was Won, and Hawaii Five-O. Admittedly, most of his work isn’t as high profile, but he’s so good at what he does. The tone captured here is superb. You need see only the final shot of the Earps and Holliday walking down the center of the street to experience how well that music works. When I ask people about it, usually they don’t know the name, and they say it sounds like “a classic Western soundtrack.” Well, yes… he kind of helped to define what that was for modern ears in his earlier work. I think perhaps he got overshadowed by Ennio Morricone on that front, but to my ears, Broughton’s work is every bit as rich, and equally as flexible in terms of genre and variety. Yes, I am listening to it right now as I type this up because I love me some soundtrack music, and I proudly own the double-CD complete score album. The day I found it was a very happy day indeed.
There are so many little details and anecdotes about what you see on screen that I could go on and on. What movie doesn’t have it’s trivia, after all. For example, the famous “Here lies Les Moore” tombstone in Boot Hill Cemetery wouldn’t be there for three more years as Les Moore was shot in the back with a .44… in 1884. That it rhymes is the only reason I know that. The juggler “Professor” Gillum staged his act so that when someone would fire at him with blanks saying “Catch This!”, he’d smile and spit out a pre-prepared slug. Doc Holliday used to be a dentist, and the role of Doc was previously played three separate productions in 1959 by Batman television actor Adam West. Doc played Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No. 1, on the piano; Chopin also died of Tuberculosis, age 39. Holliday was 36.
To close out this entry, I’d just like to circle back to the point and state the obvious. The lives of the people portrayed in this film were considerably more complex than what we see on screen. Historical fiction in any format, as good as it may be, will always pale in comparison to the real story. But how the story is told, especially in fiction, is what lends so much to the modern mythology. We’re going on 135 years after the gunfight, and this legend endures in its own way. I’ve joked in the past that Wyatt Earp is the Old West’s equivalent of King Arthur, and while there’s not a direct correlation that can ever be made, it’s not exactly a false comparison in terms of legendary status or accomplishment. Tales of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are going to be told long after all of us turn to dust. Some of them might resemble the real deal, some might have them riding steampunk airships or travelling through time. They’ve gotten close to that already, so you never know what the future might bring. Tombstone, I think, will endure the ages for the right reasons. The whole is far more grandiose than the sum of its magnificent parts. The movie poster says it all: “Every town has a story. Tombstone has a legend.” This is one of those times where Hollywood figured it out.