Tombstone seemed impressively cast at the time, but it’s even more so in retrospect, given the way so many of its supporting faces have only become better known. I’d hesitate to call it star-packed, but it comes armed with that general ambience (in fairness, Wyatt Earp too is heaving with recognisable names, but to largely inertly self-important effect). Tombstone’s also a movie that bears witness to the way a fraught production may very occasionally deliver the goods, despite everything, and one successful enough to cement the western’s early ’90s renaissance.
One that would rather be cut short, following Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory, Back to the Future Part III, City Slickers, The Last of the Mohicans and er Quigley Down Under, by a rash of failures (City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, Bad Girls, Wild Bill, The Quick and the Dead and most damagingly Wyatt Earp – you can just about throw Wild Wild West on the heap while you’re about it). Of all the decade’s efforts, this is probably the western with the brightest afterlife, thanks to a keen understanding of the genre feeding into a retelling of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, one that knows to furnish the material with a succession of crowd-pleasing set pieces and characterisations.
Kurt Russell is commonly cited as not only the star, but also Tombstone’s ghost director, responsible for exiting writer Kevin Jarre from dual duties and bringing in George P Cosmatos (perhaps not the most obvious choice for purveying quality, but Russell surely chatted to his Tango & Cash cohort Sly – Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra – who likely vouched that Cosmatos would be sufficiently malleable to service Kurt’s demands). Val Kilmer, Doc Holliday to Russell’s Wyatt Earp, has suggested as much in support of Kurt’s allusions. Michael Biehn, the movie’s Johnny Ringo, attested that Cosmatos had no idea about nor affinity for the material (he was “crude and clueless”), and it’s been said he clashed with cinematographer William Fraker.
Jarre was axed from the director’s chair after four weeks, and Russell has suggested he might one day go back and put together the original conception of “a Western Godfather”. But don’t hold your breath. He threw out twenty pages (including a significant portion of his Earp material), and Biehn opined that much of the depth and nuance of villainous gang the Cowboys was lost too (how they had their own reasons and grievances, and how Earp was a criminal).
But a historically accurate – and one needs quotation marks for the phrase, as the unvarnished itself may be varnished – document wouldn’t necessarily spell box office, not when printing the legend tends to be a recipe for success. Earp’s version may well be a consequence of his promoting himself in Hollywood (which was reputedly when the gunfight rose to prominence) and the rep of his wife Josephine (Dana Delaney in the movie), whereas he was actually a pimp and no kind of hero in real life, but who’s going to make that version? Maybe Disney again, as they’re fond of turning their roster of villains into heroes right now (Cruella being the latest).
Biehn said Kurt “didn’t direct me” but affirms his responsibility for the picture too. Russell had said “I’ll do it, but I don’t want to put my name on it”, and it was pretty much his baby in terms of nursing Tombstone to the screen after Costner cast it aside in favour of his own take (Kev also tried to sabotage Russell’s version, a dirty move Kurt says he respected). In Jarre’s conception, Willem Dafoe was Doc (he’d have been great, really dangerous), but it came down, as these things often do, to clout. At one point, the idea of Richard Gere as Earp (with Russell as Doc) was floated as a means to sell the deal. We dodged a bullet there.
By the sound of it, Biehn doesn’t exactly begrudge The Val and Kurt Show, recognising it was a recipe for the picture’s success, but he does regret what the picture lost in the process. It’s certainly true that Robert Burke (the same year’s Robocop 3) is a non-entity, and John Corbett likewise. But Biehn’s Ringo, Powers Boothe’s Curly Bill Brocious and Thomas Hayden Church’s Billy Clanton all make their presences felt. Biehn’s very much in cold-eyed Coffey (The Abyss) mode, just without the nervy paranoia, and it’s curious to see him in a movie like this – a rarity – where he is, effectively the star villain.
Then you’ve got Cameron’s replacement darling villain Stephen Lang as Ike Clanton (playing older as a drunken hayseed), but he’s more rage and cowardice than threat. Boothe summons that genuinely unpredictable ferocity he has (also on display in Deadwood) as Curly Bill, while Hayden Church may be less than rounded, but he has a few strong moments (most notably when Doc is playing “fucking Chopin”). That’s all you can hope for in this kind of fare: moments. There’s surely a great revisionist Tombstone western TV series to be made (or was, as revisionist would now mean woke-ing-it-up rather than telling the less salubrious side of Earp), but in a movie, the more you allow it to sprawl, the more likely you are to lose its inner tension.
There are areas here that do lose it. Anything involving the romance subplot feels shoehorned in inappropriately, in concert with a rather pathetic attempt to justify Earp and Josephine’s liaison based on Mattie’s (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) laudanum addiction. It doesn’t help that there’s no chemistry between Russell and Delany (whom I mostly recall for bondage comedy bomb Exit to Eden). There’s also one too many (actually, two too many, since there are two) pursuit montages. But when it comes to it, the key moments – the gunfight, Wyatt’s creek charge, Doc’s showdown with Johnny Ringo, having apparently been on his deathbed – Tombstone plays like dynamite.
And its main weapon is Kilmer. Today, there’s surely little doubt his performance would get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod (Tommy Lee Jones won for The Fugitive, another crowd pleaser, but a more workhorse one). It’s the best part Johnny Depp never played, and the likes of this, True Romance and Heat are indicative that Kilmer was unwise to listen to his – agent, presumably – when it came to chasing the starry role likes of Batman and Simon Templar.
If shearing away others’ spotlights is down to Val’s Holliday – as Biehn thinks – then fair enough. Accuracy is sacrificed for iconography. That’s generally the way the movies go down, and work best. Certainly here. His almost every line is a gem (“very cosmopolitan” is his take on Tombstone; “I have two guns, one for each of yer” on seeing double while drunk; “Maybe poker’s just not your game. I know, let’s have a spelling contest!” on playing a moron; “Yes, it’s true you are a good woman. Then again, you may be the antichrist”; and of course, “I’m your huckleberry”). Even when he isn’t speaking, his desiccated presence requires all eyes on him. Or one, with the sly winking at Church that ignites the gunfight.
Bill Paxton delivers serviceable Paxton support (he was always most satisfying when allowed to let loose a little, though). Sam Elliott has that cowboy thing going on. Chuck Heston cameos (his role was larger, and Biehn at least had a whole scene with him). Jason Priestley portrays Billy Breakenridge as perhaps infatuated by Billy Zane’s thespian. A chunky Billy Bob Thornton is terrified out of the saloon by Earp (“You gonna do something, or just stand there and bleed?”) Paula Malcomson, way before Deadwood, is Allie Earp (as opposed to Ee-Urp!). Joanna Pacula is Big Nose Kate. Michael Rooker is a good guy. Terry O’Quinn is the mayor. Bob Mitchum offers narration (he was supposed to appear too, until injury prevented it).
Tombstone is essentially what you’d expect an effective updating of the western to be, without gimmicks (“Brat Pack”) or customary Clint gravitas. That they don’t happen very often testifies, though, to how deceptively difficult they are to pull off well. After Tombstone, the next good ‘un was probably Costner’s more serious-minded Open Range.
You can marvel at Kurt and Val’s peak star wattage here too. Kurt has recalled how the following year’s Stargate saw him being offered big bucks (up until Soldier nixed all that permanently), while Val, difficult or not, was still in demand pretty much until the end of the decade, after which most decided he just wasn’t worth the bother. Tombstone’s definitely worth the bother. I’m not sure the real director’s cut (there’s a director’s cut out there, but I’ve yet to see it) will be as satisfying, but it would definitely be tantalising, given how much good stuff there is in what we’ve got.