“A lot of people, a lot of studios, wished Tombstone would just die. Kevin Costner was gearing up his film Wyatt Earp at the same time, and it would have been easier if we’d just gone away. But Tombstone had a lot of things going for it. First and foremost it had me.” – Kurt Russell
Almost every year there seems to invariably be two similarly-themed films duking it out for box office supremacy. One does better than the other because it comes out first or has a big movie star in it or is just better in quality. In 1989, The Abyss out performed two other underwater alien films, Leviathan and Deepstar Six. A few years later, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) outperformed Robin Hood (1991) thanks to the movie star power of Kevin Costner. In the late 1990s, you had the competing asteroid disaster films with Armageddon (1998) vs. Deep Impact (1998) and the rival erupting volcano thrillers, Dante’s Peak (1997) and Volcano (1997).
In the mid-‘90s, Hollywood was at it again with competing Wyatt Earp biopics: Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994). Despite the former having an earlier release date, the latter featured Costner in the title role of the legendary lawman and with respected screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan behind the camera. In addition, Tombstone was plagued with production problems as its director was fired early during principal photography only to be replaced by another with almost no prep time. Amazingly, against the odds, Tombstone was not only made but won the box office showdown over the much longer, slower-paced Wyatt Earp. Audiences preferred the more entertaining, action-packed Tombstone with its fantastic cast of character actors led by none other than Kurt Russell. His film delivered the goods, plain and simple. Despite the absolute critical drubbing it received upon its theatrical release, it should be regarded among the best westerns of the ‘90s alongside the likes of Unforgiven (1992) and Dead Man (1995).
Based loosely on historical events that took place in the American west during 1881-1882, Tombstone opens with a bang as a group of outlaws known as the Cowboys, by the red sashes they wear, ride into a small town and slaughter a large number of men because they killed two of their own. The Cowboys are led by a man named Curly Bill (Powers Boothe). He’s such a badass that he kills a groom on his wedding day and then laughs when his right-hand man Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) guns down the priest who performed the ceremony. These are clearly bad men not to be messed with.
Meanwhile, Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), his two brothers, Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), and their wives arrive in Tombstone. They are retired lawmen looking to settle down and make some money in this boom town. We are soon introduced to Wyatt’s friend, Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), a sickly-looking gambler suffering from tuberculosis but still possessing a deadly sense of humor and an even deadlier way with guns. The Earps quickly learn the lay of the land: there’s plenty of money to be made, just don’t cross the Cowboys. Wyatt stakes his claim early on when he takes over a hard luck gambling joint and like that the Earps are in business with Doc soon joining them.
It doesn’t take long for Curly Bill to cross paths with Wyatt and Johnny Rico to have words with Doc – in Latin to be exact. It becomes readily apparent that these two are each other’s opposites. Rico shows off his incredibly fast and dexterous gunhandling skills to which Doc counters by mimicking Rico’s demonstration only in mocking fashion with the mug he drinks alcohol from. A local actress named Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany) catches Wyatt’s eye. He’s not only captivated by her beauty but intrigued by her assertive nature and zest for life. Wyatt’s opium-addicted shrew of a wife Mattie Blaylock (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) doesn’t stand a chance against this free spirit.
Trouble arises when Curly Bill, high as a kite on opium, shoots and kills the town’s kindly old marshal forcing Wyatt to knock the outlaw out. He throws him in jail but not before making enemies with the rest of his buddies. The town’s mayor (Terry O’Quinn) puts pressure on the Earps to become lawmen once again by appealing to their innate moral sense of right and wrong. Pretty soon Virgil becomes the new marshal and Morgan his deputy, much to Wyatt’s chagrin. He doesn’t want to get involved, he’s just interested in making money and keeping a low profile. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there’s going to be a showdown between the Earps and the Cowboys.
Once Wyatt dusts off his Peacemaker revolver, you just know that the killings are gonna start soon. This culminates in the famous shoot-out at the OK Corral. There’s a fantastic shot, courtesy of the late-great cinematographer William A. Fraker, of the Earps and Doc walking down main street with a burning building behind them as they confront some Cowboys. This gunfight is hardly a glorious one and afterwards Wyatt and Morgan deeply regret what happened. They never wanted things to go this far.
Naturally, retribution for what the Earps have done comes on a dark and stormy night (there’s one thing you can say about this film is that it’s not subtle). By the end of it, one Earp is dead and one seriously wounded, all at the hands of the Cowboys. As the cliché goes, “this time its personal,” and the once reserved Wyatt becomes a vessel of vengeance with those immortal words, “You called down the thunder, well now you got it!” With Doc by his side and a few ex-Cowboys backing them up, Wyatt systematically decimates the outlaws’ ranks, working his way up to the food chain to the inevitable showdown with Curly Bill and Johnny Rico. Russell was drawn to this film because it took a look at what happened to Earp after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and showed a darker side of the man. Russell was fascinated in exploring the aftermath of this famous fight: “Wyatt Earp went on a serious binge of killing. There is no way to determine now how many people he actually did kill, but it was a lot. He was a man who tilted over the edge. He went nuts. Something inside him finally broke.”
How great is Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday? He plays the man as a genteel southern gentleman armed with dry wit and a lightning fast quick draw. He gets the lion’s share of the film’s most memorable lines and they are often little asides, like when he beats a clearly frustrated man at poker and says upon revealing his cards, “Isn’t that a daisy?” And then, when the man insults him, Doc, in a mock-hurt tone, wonders if they’re still friends and says, “You know Ed, if I thought you weren’t my friend, I just don’t think I could bear it.” It’s the way Kilmer says these words that makes the scene so much fun to watch. You can just tell that he’s having a blast with this role as evident by how deeply immersed he is in Doc on every level, like the way he carries himself in a given scene, his languid body language, his sickly pallor, and his cultured accent. The combination of all these elements results in one of the most memorable takes on Doc Holliday ever committed to film.
Faced with playing off such a flamboyant character, Kurt Russell wisely plays straight man to Kilmer. Initially, he plays Wyatt as a genial enough fellow, interested in making money and avoiding any trouble that might lead to him putting on a lawman’s badge again. However, that doesn’t mean he’s a pushover either as evident in the scene where he bitch slaps an arrogant gambler (an obnoxious Billy Bob Thornton) at a down-on-its-luck saloon and then browbeats him: “You gonna do something or just stand there and bleed?” Russell has that fantastic no-nonsense stare that lets you know right away that Wyatt means business. However, as he gets dragged into a feud with the Cowboys his demeanor changes and he becomes a more stoic figure until going into full killing mode, transforming into a frightening force of nature. It is refreshing to see that Russell is not afraid to show the darker aspects of Wyatt and was able to do so thanks to the success of Clint Eastwood’s dark, complicated western, Unforgiven.
It’s something of an understatement to say that Tombstone’s cast is an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove for fans of character actors. Where else do you get to see Stephen (Manhunter) Lang threaten Sam (The Big Lebowski) Elliott? Or see Jason Priestley swoon over Billy (Titanic) Zane? Or have Michael (Aliens) Biehn sparring verbally in Latin with Val (Heat) Kilmer? Powers Boothe, one of the great, under-appreciated character actors, plays Curly Bill with gusto and bravado which is in sharp contrast to Biehn’s quiet intensity as Johnny Rico who is no crazed, one-dimensional baddie – he quotes from the Bible and speaks Spanish and Latin fluently.
The screenplay by Kevin Jarre pushes all the right buttons as we quickly identify with the Earps and want to see the Cowboys get their much-deserved comeuppance. It is also full of colorful period lingo: “Skin that smoke wagon and see what happens,” or “I’m getting tired of your gas. Now jerk that pistol and go to work.” The dialogue absolutely crackles with energy and it has the perfect cast to bring it vividly to life so that it leaps off the page. Tombstone is one of those rare films where you can see the actors enjoying their roles because they finally have juicy parts that they can sink their teeth into.
In 1989, first-time writer/director Kevin Jarre was going to make Tombstone with Kevin Costner but then the actor decided that he wanted to do a film about Wyatt Earp and not Tombstone. Producer James Jacks championed Jarre’s screenplay for the production company he formed in partnership with Sean Daniel, former production chief at Universal Pictures. Jacks originally approached Universal but they deemed the project too risky and rejected it. In January 1992, Jarre’s script about Earp was on verge of being made into a film but it was almost shelved when Costner announced his own Earp film to be written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan for Warner Brothers. At the time, Jarre claimed that Costner’s move was “an attempt to crush my picture.” Perhaps not so coincidentally, Brad Pitt, who was excited about starring in Tombstone, backed off once Costner’s project was announced.
Jarre’s script was ready to shoot, all he needed was a cast. However, Michael Ovitz’s powerful Creative Artists Agency was backing Costner and Tombstone’s producers, Jacks and Daniel, could not attract a movie star big enough to get a Hollywood studio interested in backing the film. Pitt was represented by Ovitz’s agency and at the time Jacks said, “CAA is telling people our movie won’t happen.” Fortunately, they caught a break when Kurt Russell’s old agent at William Morris slipped a copy of the script to the actor who was now at CAA. He agreed to play Earp and this attracted the likes of Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Michael Biehn, and Powers Boothe. Russell then took the project to financier Andrew Vajna’s Cinergi Productions, which had a distribution deal with Disney. Vajna agreed to make the film for $25 million. Originally, Jarre and Russell wanted Willem Dafoe to play Doc Holliday but Disney refused to release it with him in the role because of portrayal of Jesus Christ in the controversial Martin Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and told the film’s producers to cast Kilmer instead.
Filming began in May 1992 on location in Mescal, Arizona. First-time director Jarre got into trouble early on. Reportedly, he wouldn’t think visually and refused advice from the film’s veteran cinematographer and six-time Academy Award nominee William Fraker. Sam Elliott remembers, “I knew from the third day Kevin couldn’t direct. He wasn’t getting the shots he needed.” According to Jacks, Jarre was “shooting in an unconventional old-fashioned, John Ford style, with very few close-ups.” Some cast and crew members felt that the tight shooting schedule didn’t help, especially for an inexperienced director like Jarre. Jacks realized that Jarre wasn’t very well-prepared when the filmmaker would disappear for hours to ride his horse. This left the cast and crew feeling abandoned. In retrospect, Jacks regretted not insisting that Jarre direct a couple of smaller films before “attempting something as demanding and complicated as a big western.”
Actor Michael Rooker felt that “from the beginning they allotted too little time to do this movie.” In August 1992, after four weeks and with Russell and Fraker ready to quit, Vajna fired Jarre. Still committed to the film, the cast and crew stuck together and were determined to finish what they started. Russell called Sylvester Stallone (they had worked together on Tango and Cash) and told him he needed a director to come in on short notice. Stallone recommended George P. Cosmatos who he had worked with on Rambo: First Blood, Part 2 (1985). Cosmatos arrived on location with only three days of preparation and Russell told him, “I’m going to give you a shot list every night, and that’s what’s going to be.” Russell and Val Kilmer met with Cosmatos and came to an understanding: Cosmatos would focus on finishing the film on schedule while Russell trimmed the unwieldy script and oversee the 85 cast members.
Russell and Jacks cut down the script’s scenes on a daily basis, eliminating 30 pages so that the focus was on the relationship between Earp and Doc Holliday. From the beginning, Russell realized that these pages needed to be taken out but Jarre failed to do this and when he was fired Russell was the only one left who knew the script. In an attempt to gain the trust of the cast, Russell reduced his part in the script. Cosmatos agreed with these changes but some castmates weren’t too happy with having their parts reduced. Elliott said, “Initially, the screenplay was one of the best I’ve ever read. If I was given the screenplay as it is now, I’d have to pass on it.” He felt that Russell and Jacks, “eliminated the connective tissue, took the character development out.” According to Kilmer, Jarre’s original script had a subplot and a story told for every main character and none of them made it into the final film.
Cosmatos ended up reshooting almost the entire film with only 15 bits and pieces shot by Jarre making it into the final cut. The veteran journeyman director brightened the film’s color palette and added an opening Mexican wedding/massacre sequence as well as two action montages in the last half hour. His working methods resulted in two script supervisors and half the art department leaving for other jobs, quitting or being fired. According to production designer Catherine Hardwicke, “He was demanding. Some people freaked out.” In frustration, Fraker quit three times. At one point, he got into a screaming match with Cosmatos and Jacks intervened, persuading the cinematographer to stay.
Principal photography finished on August 29, 1992 after 88 days. After the dust settled, the film had gone $2-3 million over budget. The filmmakers had to rush through post-production in order to make the Christmas Day opening mandated by Disney. Russell said, “I don’t know if Kevin would have been able to realize the film he had in his mind. We might still be shooting his movie. I helped him by making sure we got the movie made.”
Tombstone received overwhelmingly negative reviews from critics. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote, “Tombstone is, finally, a movie that wants to have it both ways. It wants to be at once traditional and morally ambiguous. The two visions don't quite harmonize.” In his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote, “A major problem throughout the film is the opting for style over substance, whether in terms of dark visuals or stark dialogue ... But too much of Tombstone rings hollow. In retrospect, not much happens and little that does seems warranted.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “A preposterously inflated 135 minutes long, Tombstone plays like a three-hour rough cut that's been trimmed down to a slightly shorter rough cut.” USA Today gave the film one and a half stars and wrote, “Director George Cosmatos brings nothing new to this Wyatt Earp saga except leftover bullets from previous films Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part II.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Geoff Pevere wrote, “Forget shifting zeitgeists or the decline of American idealism. What's really killing westerns are bloated, free-range turkeys like Tombstone.”
Critics need to lighten up and enjoy Tombstone for what it is: a fun, popcorn movie that is all about mustaches: the Earps all sport big bushy ones that threaten to consume their faces, while the bad guys all sport thinner ones with goatees or beards. The wild card in all of this is Doc who sports a thin mustache suggesting that he’s a bad guy as he does cheat at cards, but he’s also Wyatt’s friend and is very loyal to him and his brothers, even willing to back them up at the OK Corral gunfight. Ultimately, Tombstone is about male friendship, in particular the intense and unusual bond between Doc and Wyatt. Early on, it takes on a playful tone as Doc has some fun with Wyatt’s obvious attraction to Josephine. Even though they aren’t related by blood they might as well be brothers as they’re willing to die for each other. They don’t verbalize it but it’s all in the eyes and this is nicely realized by Kilmer and Russell. It’s hard not to be moved by the final scene between their two characters.
When all was said and done, Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp cost $60 million and was unable to recoup it as Tombstone came out first and stole its thunder, grossing a respectable $55 million. To add insult to injury, Disney released Tombstone on home video right before Wyatt Earp’s theatrical release and it did strong rental business. Tombstone is an epic western that has all the right ingredients: stoic lawmen, dastardly outlaws, rousing montages, beautiful women, angry proclamations, emotional death bed speeches, and, of course, exciting shoot-outs. George P. Cosmatos’ direction is no frills – strictly meat and potatoes which is just right for this straightforward tale. While the gun battles are noisy and chaotic, you always know where everyone is and what’s going on. It may not be a brooding meditation on violence like Unforgiven or push the boundaries of the genre like Dead Man, but Tombstone is an unabashed crowd pleaser in the classic western tradition.