Tombstone

Starring: Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Dana Delany, John Tenney, Thomas Haden Church, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestly, Billy Bob Thornton

Director: George P. Cosmatos
Released: 1993

Mood: Every mood is the right mood for Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

When I decided to share my many opinions on Westerns with the interwebs, I knew Tombstone had to be my first. It literally WAS my first. 

Tombstone came out when I was 12. It was the first time I got emotionally invested in a movie – three of my favourite actors riding around on horses! 

  • Fact: I adored Kurt Russell in movies like Overboard, Big Trouble in Little China, and Escape from New York
  • Fact: I was fully in love with Sam Elliott in Roadhouse (even as a pre-teen I knew what I wanted in a moustache)
  • Fact: I had a massive crush on Val Kilmer from his roles as Mad Martigan in Willow and Jim Morrison in The Doors

I’d seen episodes of Rawhide as a kid, and spent much of my life on and around horses. But I’m pretty sure it was all that adolescent lust that helped Tombstone spark my obsession with Westerns – and handlebar moustaches.

Tombstone literally starts with a bang. The Cochise Cowboys (a real-life gang of troublemakers) gallop into a small Mexican community and wreak havoc at a wedding, murdering the groom. This concludes with Johnny Ringo gunning down a preacher. There’s no doubt that they’re the bad guys, but you can see different levels of bad within their group.

I liked Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) from from his first moments on film. I get that he’s basically a dickhead, but Boothe gives him this jovial bad boy charm, like you want to have drinks with him.

On the other end of the gunslinger spectrum there’s Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). This guy is sinister AF. He’s got the crazy eyes.  I recognized Biehn while watching Tarantino’s Planet Terror just by those eyes. True story.

Next we meet Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), defending a horse from a beating. This positions him as a noble, caring dude. The real Wyatt Earp did quite a few less-than-noble things (horse thievery, jailbreak, adultery, yadda yadda yadda). But apparently he was always REALLY good to his horses.

Cut to the whole point of this movie: Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer). Here you have Wyatt’s physical opposite: frail, pasty, beaded with sweat, coughing up a lung, yet somehow also oozing refined Southern charm.  

Every line out of his mouth is a LINE. He was meme-worthy and GIF-worthy before those things were invented. It’s not just that Kilmer was given a great script – he made Tombstone’s simplified alcoholic, TB-addled Doc Holliday into something so completely mesmerizing, you can’t look away.

The more times I watch Tombstone, and the more personal research I do, I seriously appreciate how much Kilmer channeled of the real John Henry Holliday: the highly educated, musically gifted, language-loving mama’s boy who spent his entire adult life dying. No other actor has come close to matching Kilmer’s version of Doc.

The town of Tombstone itself is introduced as a bustling metropolis, as far as old West towns go (especially if you’ve seen Deadwood, which you should, because MOAR POWERS BOOTHE). This Tombstone is all clean streets, cheerful saloon girls, and minimal shooting.

But we all know the film is building to the gunfight at the OK Corral (the event, not the Kirk Douglas movie). Titanic wasn’t going to end with everyone intact, and neither is Tombstone. You have a sleazy Sheriff Behan, a doomed Marshall White, and that scallywag Curly Bill running amok in the streets all doped up on opium. 

Even after Curly Bill guns a good man down, I can’t be mad at him. His addled brain had no idea what he’d done, and he seemed legit concerned. I wonder if creative choices were made to make Boothe’s Curly Bill sweeter, to shine the real villain spotlight on Ringo.

No Earp story would be complete without one of U.S. history’s most famous ‘other women’, Josephine (Dana Delany). She makes her entrance with a grand flourish, and she’s always shown in a favourable light: charming banter, talented, flirtatious. She’s courting Wyatt in front of his wife and friends, but the lighting and music tell viewers to cheer her on. 

Josephine outright asks “That blonde woman, is that your wife?” and Wyatt’s answer is “What about her?” But it’s okay, because Kurt Russell! You always root for Kurt Russell.

The first showdown between Doc and Ringo over a faro table is one of the best scenes in modern Westerns. They’re uttering Latin threats and Ringo is simmering with that crazy-eyed hatred, trying to intimidate Doc with his gunspinning flare. Bleary-eyed Doc (in his perpetual TB sweats) dazzles us once again with his boyish charm and unexpected use of a shot glass. 

I need to recognize Stephen Lang’s performance as the weaselly Ike Clanton. After almost three decades of watching Tombstone and hating Ike, I realized that this was truly awesome acting. Lang is so thoroughly detestable as a snivelling chickenshit that you’re aching for someone, ANYONE, to shoot him. He’s is a Tony-nominated actor, and you can feel his blood, sweat and tears (but mostly sweat) in this role. 

Historical inaccuracies aside (why the Earps came to Tombstone, the legal aftermath of the gunfight at the OK Corral, who killed Ringo, how Curly Bill died, Josephine’s profession…) the one big downside to Tombstone is NOT ENOUGH SAM ELLIOTT!

Here we have a Western icon in all his moustachioed glory, and his lines are few and far between. The real Virgil Earp led the brothers to Tombstone and had a glowing reputation as a lawman at that point, so there was no excuse to keep his role minimal.

Tombstone has excellent cinematography. The thunderstorm scene after the OK Corral in particular is beautifully shot, and so intense it gives me goosebumps every time. When the Earp party is hunting down the Cowboys, there’s a scene where Wyatt rifle-whacks a Cowboy in the face at a full gallop. The split-second shot of massive blood spray and a backward roll off the horse is so goddamn good. 

Oh, and Glen Wyatt Earp, fifth cousin of actual Wyatt Earp, appears as Billy Claiborne: 

My feelings about Tombstone have only gotten stronger over time. I also now have the giant movie poster, and have every intention of getting a Doc Holliday tattoo. I’m actually shocked that I don’t already have one.

It’s a great f*cking movie. Go watch it. And if you’re a Doc Holliday fan, get you a copy of Doc, because it’s a great f*cking book.

Top 10 Doc Holliday Lines from Tombstone

  1. Nonsense. I have not yet begun to defile myself.
  2. I will not be pawed at, thank you very much.
  3. I have two guns, one for each of ya’. 
  4. Why Johnny, I apologize. I forgot you were there. You may go now. 
  5. You know, Ed, if I thought you weren’t my friend, I just don’t think I could bear it.
  6. It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds.
  7. Forgive me if I don’t shake hands. 
  8. Maybe poker’s just not your game Ike. I know! Let’s have a spelling contest.
  9. You know, Frederic f*cking Chopin.
  10. I’m your huckleberry. 

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