Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Lawmen, The Cowboys, And The O.K. Corral

Some links before I get things started today. Norma has new passage at her blogs for Sam's Story and her memoir. PK wrote at her blog about the passing of Robin Williams and how to deal with depression.  And Whisk has something too tempting to pass up.

Today I'm doing a film review, the first of two reviews of films from the 90s dealing with the same people.

“Doc, you’re not a hypocrite. You just like to sound like one.” ~ Wyatt Earp

“And you must be Ringo. Look, darling, Johnny Ringo. The deadliest pistoleer since Wild Bill, they say. What do you think, darling? Should I hate him?” ~ Doc Holliday

“I’m a woman, I like men. If that means I’m not lady-like, then I guess I’m just not a lady. At least I’m honest.” ~ Josephine Marcus

“A man like Ringo has a great big hole, right in the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, to fill it.” ~ Doc Holliday

“The cowboys are finished, you understand me? I see a red sash, I kill the man wearing it. So run, you cur! Tell all the other curs the law’s coming! You tell ‘em I’m coming! And hell’s coming with me, you hear? Hell’s coming with me!” ~ Wyatt Earp

Tombstone is the 1993 Western from director George Cosmatos, following the story of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday in the dusty Arizona town in the 1880s, recounting the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the aftermath of that incident. It was initially meant to be helmed by director Kevin Jarre and starring Kevin Costner, but creative differences ensued, Costner went off to make his own film bio of the western lawman, and Jarre was later removed from the project altogether. It is a sprawling action film that sets two opposing forces against each other, albeit with shades of gray in between. It’s tighter in scope than Costner’s bio, concerning itself with a more limited time frame, but touches some of the same territory as it goes along.

The film opens up with retired lawman Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) arriving in Arizona, meeting up with his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton). All of them have women in their lives, all of them are looking forward to a quieter life and the financial opportunities that Tombstone seems to have for them. They also run into Wyatt’s old friend John “Doc” Holliday (Val Kilmer) and his significant other, Kate (Joanna Pacula). Doc has come to Arizona for the climate; he suffers from tuberculosis. Wyatt and his brothers quickly get themselves started, securing a stake in a local gambling hall. Tensions start to rise with a band of cowboys, led by Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Boothe), Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang), and Johnny Ringo (Michael Beihn), who we’ve already been introduced to earlier in the film. They’re a ruthless, vicious lot, for the most part, a band of psychotics who take pleasure in killing for the sake of killing. The one exception is Sherman McMaster (Michael Rooker), who seems troubled by the actions of his fellow cowboys.

Wyatt is occupied with his growing financial interests. His common law wife Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) is spending her time getting addicted to laudanum. He doesn’t particularly get along with the county sheriff, John Behan (Jon Tenney), who’s more sympathetic to the cowboys. He’s drawn to an actress, Josie Marcus (Dana Delany) in town with an acting troupe for an extended stay. He has little interest in returning to the days of being a lawman, despite the growing unrest in the town, the urging of the mayor (Terry O’Quinn), and the unease of his brothers in standing by while cowboys ride around drunk and getting into trouble. Everything changes, however, with the killing of the town marshal by a drunken Curly Bill, and Wyatt and his brothers find themselves drawn back into the life they used to lead, and into a vendetta that will cost them dearly.

Though Jarre didn’t last as director, the story is drawn from his script, and there’s a whole lot in it. The film was plagued by various problems at the time during production. Jarre’s screenplay was too long, with too many subplots, and that was one of the reasons the studio removed him and brought in Cosmatos, who worked closely with Russell in the filmmaking process- it might well have been a ghost-directing job, as Russell had a lot of involvement in the film’s staging. It was filmed largely on location in Arizona, and the terrain is as beautiful as you’d expect of that area. The story does take liberties with the facts, mind you. There was another brother, James Earp, in Tombstone the entire time, though he didn’t take part in being a lawman. The youngest brother in the family, Warren, took part in what was referred to as the Earp Vendetta Ride. Neither of the brothers is mentioned in this film. Another participant in the real Ride is murdered during the film, contrary to the fact that the man himself lived for many years afterwards. And there’s a pair of shootings in the wake of the O.K. Corral taking place on a single night; in fact, the two shootings took place months apart.

The film does very much set two sides against each other in its story. The cowboys, for the most part, are sadistic, with only one of them crossing the line, renouncing them, and taking the side of the Earps as the story moves along. They are very much the villains, with nothing redemptive among the rest of them. The opposing side is more nuanced. Wyatt is more self-interested when the film starts out; he’s interested in getting rich and taking what he can from Tombstone and its surroundings and cashing out. It’s quite a capitalist viewpoint, though the real Earp did concern himself with having business interests. It takes him time to return to the idea of justice; he’s had his time as a lawman, but events force him back to old habits. He’s not altruistic as far as the community is concerned, but his mindset changes as things go along. Doc Holliday is another shade of gray for the story. He spends his life as a gambler, but he has killed people, seems to enjoy provoking people with a hair trigger temper, and we sense that the only reason he’s not in jail for murder is that he knows how to kill someone within the confines of the law. That doesn’t mean he’s not willing to break the law, such as when he and Kate commit a robbery on their way out of town early on when a card game goes awry. He might be acting on the side of the angels, mostly because he’s loyal to his friends, but he has a shaky foundation where ethics are concerned. 

The crew brings the old west to life in various ways; it helps tremendously that much of the filming was done on location. The clothing feels certainly drawn out of the era, both in the fashions of those who were seeing the town as a future emporium of culture and so dressed respectably, and in the dust-covered grime of cowboys who might not bathe for weeks on end. The buildings of Tombstone, particularly inside, have a gaudy, garish feel to them, like Las Vegas before it was Vegas. It’s the mark of a frontier mining town with no sense of its boundaries, and so feels like the place might have once felt about itself. By contrast, once we’re out in the countryside, for instance, on a ranch that turns up late in the film, it’s not that hard to imagine we’re stepping onto that ranch over a century ago. It feels like a working place. Lastly, the score by composer Bruce Broughton (Silverado) is epic, romantic, and harsh when it needs to be, brooding over the entire film.

A number of old veterans of the silver screen turned up along the line during the story. Harry Carey Jr. was an old hand of many a Western, including for John Ford. He appears in this film in one of his last roles as the ill fated Marshal White, playing the part much like the man himself might have been- a reasonable man who knows he needs more help to deal with the lawlessness of his town. Robert Mitchum was supposed to play the part of the ringleader of the Clanton and McLaury gang, but a riding accident left him out of the part, and rewriting was done to delegate his lines and leadership to Boothe’s character instead. He does turn up as the narrator at the beginning and end, however. Charlton Heston also turns up in a cameo, one of his final roles. He plays Henry Hooker, a rancher who gives refuge to Wyatt, Doc, and the other Vendetta Riders late in the film. While initially hesitant to get involved, he makes a promise to Wyatt that makes us think of him as a man of his word, a stark contrast to the mayhem of the cowboys.

The various members of the Clanton and McLaury gang are populated with a cast that includes Thomas Haden Church, John Corbett, and Tomas Arana, but three of them are the most developed. Powers Boothe (24, Sin City) plays Curly Bill as a vicious drunk, mean spirited and finding amusement in killing anyone who crosses his path. He’s a sociopath, and Boothe certainly plays him that way. Stephen Lang (Gettysburg) is a splendid character actor who’s played his share of villains down through the years. His take on Ike Clanton is similar to Curly Bill, but with some other nuances. He’s a drunkard with a hair trigger temper, looking like he hasn’t bathed in months. He’s also something of a loudmouth and a bully, but when really confronted with someone who’s willing to fight back, there’s a streak of cowardice in him. Ike is a thoroughly unpleasant character, so we as an audience aren’t all that unhappy, for instance, when he gets his face cut open by a boot spur. The third is Johnny Ringo, as played by Michael Beihn. As an actor, Beihn’s never really had the career that early roles might have pointed him to, but he has a good presence as the gunman. His Ringo keeps his anger and his sadistic side in more of a check than Curly Bill or Ike, but it’s there. He plays the role almost like a rattlesnake, coiled and tense, ready to strike. There’s a particular loathing in him for Doc Holliday; something that Doc remarks to Wyatt about him rings true- that Ringo’s trying to get revenge on life, for merely being born in the first place. 

Michael Rooker’s character McMaster has to shift his loyalties as the story goes along. He starts out as one of the cowboys, but we see his unease. The suggestion has been made that the real man might have been a spy for the railroads infiltrating the gang, and in fact he did switch sides to join Wyatt, and did take part in the Vendetta Ride. His reason for the decision does ring true; an attack on the Earp women is his point of saying “enough.” Dana Wheeler-Nicholson’s role is a challenge. She plays Mattie (at least until we last see her in the film) in a way that’s emotionally distant, seeking solace in drugs; she has to play the character in an unsympathetic light; the audience doesn’t mind Wyatt’s interest going elsewhere. Joanna Pacula plays Doc’s paramour Kate as his accomplice and partner, the two of them well suited for each other- the real life couple were probably a good deal more tempestuous. But we like her anyway- she’s loyal and just as ethically shifty as her lover. Dana Delany plays Josie as a liberated woman who knows what she wants. She’s smart, outspoken, likes the idea of adventure (and room service); She’s drawn to Wyatt as much as he’s drawn to her. Delany brings all these qualities across in her performance. And Delany has good chemistry with Russell.

Bill Paxton plays Morgan as the charmer the real one might have been. He looks up to his brothers, has followed in their footsteps, and rightfully remarks that he has to back his brother’s decision when an ethical dilemma presents itself. He’s affable in the role, a friendly sort of guy. Yet there are also quiet moments in the presence of unwelcome company when we see the awareness in his eyes; this is a man who can take care of himself in a fight. That’s even more expressive in Sam Elliott’s role as Virgil Earp, the older brother of the lot. Elliott is one of those few actors who I’ve always been convinced could tear a man in half if he wanted to. He brings a hard, gruff quality to Virgil, a man who sees lawlessness in his community and decides he can’t stand by and do nothing while it happens. He’s compelling in the role, but then Elliott is compelling in whatever he does.

Val Kilmer got a lot of praise for his role as Doc Holliday. It’s generally a rule that in films about Wyatt and Doc, the actor playing Doc gets the best lines. He plays the character like a Southern gentleman, but a thoroughly dangerous one. He seems to like poking and heckling people he dislikes, goading them into a fight. He also looks thoroughly sick, though not as gaunt as Dennis Quaid’s take on the character. He does get a good many of the laughs in the film, but at the same time, we’re seeing a man who knows he’s living on borrowed time, and has a justified dangerous reputation. Like Ringo, he too is a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike.

Russell has to take Wyatt through a process of change as the story goes along. When we first see him, he’s determined to put his past as a lawman behind him (though this doesn’t stop him from fearlessly staring down and throwing out a temperamental armed drunk played by Billy Bob Thornton from a saloon). He’s not looking for a fight, not looking to get involved in the law anymore, even argues with his brothers about their decisions to return to the life of the lawman again. Yet he’s drawn in again and again despite what he might want. When circumstance forces him back to the way of the gun, he’s forceful and decisive, utterly fearless in moving forward, giving the role a ruthless quality that the real Wyatt would understand. And as events accelerate and he’s driven by grief and rage, we understand his point of view, and we sympathize with him. We might count ourselves lucky that we’re not on this character’s bad side.

Tombstone is not the better of the two films in the 90s about the lawman and the world he inhabited, but it is an entertaining film in its own right. It follows two very different groups of people into an inevitable conflict. One is on the side of right, the other is a band of sociopaths. It features two leading characters who trust each other as friends, who understand that they can count on each other. It's a film I enjoy whenever I watch it. 

Even if it does ignore the complete existence of a pair of Earp brothers.


  1. Very in-depth review William.. P is a sucker for a good cowboy movie, most men are I guess.. some very impressive moustaches amongst these wild west men :)

  2. P.s. Meant to say the wattlebird is named so for the little pink flap under it's beak, can juuuuust see it there :)

  3. Excellent review, as always. If I liked westerns, your review would prompt me to go see it!

  4. You're my huckleberry. Or at the very least a great reviewer. This movie has played in our house no less than 20 times. Husband loves it and so do my boys. Hope it doesn't get passed down to the grands.

  5. Nice review! I confess I dislike movies that deliberately skew or ignore the actual facts.

  6. One of my favorite movies based on my favorite historical character. Excellent review, as always.

  7. @Grace: come to think of it, the guys in this film with facial hair vastly outnumber those who are clean shaven.

    @Norma: thank you!

    @Carole: ah, not a fan of the Westerns either?

    @Cheryl: the other film I'll be reviewing on the weekend is a bit closer to facts.

    @Gina: thank you!

  8. Excellent review. I'm kinda fond of westerns, and this one is among my top favorite films of all time.

  9. Wow, you love this movie and it shows in your writing. Though I'm not a huge fan of Westerns, this all star cast and your review make me want to see it.

  10. I grew up not far from Tombstone. And of the two movies this one is my favorite.
    I always wondered if the fact when Costner found out the second Tombstone movie was being made that he tied up all the sets and costumes but I really think that helped with the feeling of this film.
    Kurt Russell really became Wyatt and his interactions with Val Kilmer as Doc are spot on. Plus I think this is one of Val Kilmer best roles.
    All the cast was well played.
    As for the missing brothers, remember the Costner's movie The Untouchables ? He really dropped half of the group. Movie time is different than real time.

    cheers, parsnip

  11. Great review as always William! I've never gotten into cowboy movies. My dad loves them though.

  12. @Lisa: thank you!

    @Eve: you should!

    @Parsnip: apparently Costner did pressure studios not to back Tombstone, but the film came out anyway. I rather like comparing the two films.

    @Auden: for me, it depends on the film. I can't stand John Wayne, for instance.

  13. I'll admit that I completely fell asleep in this. I'm not much for westerns, I'm afraid!

  14. I can't remember if I saw this one or not. Me and movies. lol

  15. Nice review. But I've never been one to watch westerns. Except for the Wild West.

  16. Introduction of Sam Elliot into any film makes it a Western! :)

    Love that man.

    Having the rambunctious lot take liberties with his woman might get Wyatt going for justice once again.

  17. I haven't seen this movie yet but hear good things on the whole. I skipped reading the review, should I watch the movie.

    Thanks for the shout out.

  18. I love your ShoutOuts, good to find new blogs.


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