Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton and Kurt Russell in Tombstone (1993)

Russell and Kilmer are Coming to Tombstone

With the release of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" in 1992, and a resurgence in the demand for Cowboy movies, it came as no surprise, when in 1993 "Tombstone" was released, a Hollywood take on the legendary lives of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. In true Hollywood style, they threw bucket loads of money into the big production and lined up some big names to star. The actual line up of stars that feature in "Tombstone" is indeed very impressive, even by today's standards, with appearances from stars both new and old.

"Tombstone" takes on the story of Wyatt Earp who having cleaned up Dodge City heads for Tombstone, Arizona and along with his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, as well as old friend Doc Holliday set about getting rich whilst living the quiet life. But a gang of ruthless outlaws calling themselves The Cowboys are causing problems in the region with acts of cold-blooded violence, and inevitably come into conflict with Wyatt and his brothers, which leads to the gun fight at the OK Corral.

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993)

"Tombstone" itself, although a western, is unlike your typical Spaghetti Westerns, as the big budget has allowed for an extravaganza of sights and sounds. Though it is a highly entertaining movie, and keeps your attention for its whole two hour duration, it lacks the depth and moodiness of other westerns. The storyline itself is very good and uses multiple plots to build up the complete picture.

The main element of "Tombstone" is the trouble between the Cowboys and Wyatt Earp, which is worked brilliantly with an initial build up that leads to the tension between them and of course onto numerous shoot outs. Alongside this, you have the storyline of Doc Holliday, the legendary gun fighter, who moved to Tombstone to rest in the warmth which was more amiable to his ill health caused by Tuberculosis. We get to understand the bond between Wyatt and Doc, which is as strong as that between him and his brothers. Then there is the romantic tale between Wyatt and the leading lady from the travelling players, plus the problems which he has with his wife. Last but not least, is the storyline focusing on the brotherly love of the Earp brothers as they try to make a new start in Tombstone. This amount of different storylines maybe the reason why none of them are explored to great depths, but they all entwine brilliantly and provide a thoroughly entertaining movie for both fans of westerns as well as the general film loving public.

It's no surprise that there are numerous gun fights and brawling scenes, and in typical western tradition, the film's opening sequence includes one which sets the mood and pace for the rest of the movie. All of the shootouts are brilliantly choreographed, although occasionally let down by some ridiculous posing by the leading stars. The gruesomeness of the shootouts is usually left to your imagination, but there is just the right amount of blood and guts to make the film realistic and when you do see the splatter of blood it is extremely effective. One of the best choreographed scenes, which is boiling over with tension, is in fact not a shootout scene. It involves the Cowboys chief gun man, Johnny Ringo, trying to intimidate Doc in a crowded saloon with his gun dexterity, as he spins his pistols round his hands. Doc Holliday responds by imitating him using his empty drinking mug, to the rapture of the crowd.

As I mentioned before, the line up of stars in "Tombstone" is truly staggering. In the lead role of Wyatt Earp is Kurt Russell and once you get passed his ridiculous moustache, he actually puts in an above average performance as the legendary law man. He manages to mix moodiness with occasional light heartedness to create a very good modern interpretation of the legend. Although Russell had the lead role, Val Kilmer steals the show, with his outstanding portrayal of the terminally ill Doc Holliday. Not only was Kilmer extremely effective at portraying the cold hearted killing side of Holliday's character but also was brilliant at demonstrating the ravages of Tuberculosis on his health. In my opinion, this is Val Kilmer's best performance to date, even surpassing his performance as Jim Morrison in "The Doors".

As well as Russell and Kilmer you have Sam Elliot as Virgil Earp and Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp. Both of which, put in solid performances, with Elliot looking amazingly at home as an old time law man. Then you have Powers Boothe as Curly Bill Brocious and Michael Biehn as gun slinger, Johnny Ringo. In all honesty, Boothe is not as effective as Biehn as playing the villain and at times comes across as more of a joke than evil. Also making appearances in the film in lesser roles are Charlton Heston, Jason Priestley, Jon Tenney, Dana Delany, Billy Zane, Michael Rooker, Jon Corbett and Billy Bob Thornton as well as Wyatt Earp a distant relative of the original Wyatt Earp.

"Tombstone" was directed by George P. Cosmatos who had previously directed "Rambo: First Blood Part II" and "Cobra". Amazingly, Cosmatos has taken the western theme and mixed in aspects of action movies to create a film which will appeal to modern audiences. This is the key to the general appeal of Tombstone as it is a very enjoyable action-western which doesn't overly dwell on the historical references. The film itself is actually reasonably historically accurate with its portrayal of Wyatt as a law man who had a penchant for gambling and in the illness which Doc Holliday was suffering. Where it does use poetic licence is in its portrayal of the Cowboys as purely a band of drunken killers, where in reality they were a large bunch of cattle rustlers.

What this all boils down to is that although "Tombstone" is in no way as good as the Spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastwood, it is in it's own right a very good film and has got better with age. Through it's big budget style production and it's cavalcade of popular stars, it manages to make the cowboy theme more appealing to a much wider audience. In particular, the scene stealing performance by Val Kilmer makes this film very special and although Kevin Costner went on to release his version of the Wyatt Earp story the following year, "Tombstone" remains my favourite out of the two.