Right, let’s not mess around here, I love Gunfight at the OK Corral. Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, great. But this film is something else altogether.
It’s not so much a remake as an improvement and, yes, I dare say an improvement, because it’s just a better looking, directed, scripted, acted, produced and presented film. Hands down, it wins on all fronts.
The story is the greatest of Westerns, and one of the most iconic of real stories about the emergence of the Old West from a lawless bloodbath to a managed democracy for families. It also totally kicks ass, by the way.
Wyatt Earp is played by Kurt Russell, an almost comic bit of casting at the time, what with Russell’s comedy/drama, comedy/action, comedy/shit films around the time. As it turns out it was inspired casting and he forms the core of an excellent quartet of wrought-iron lawmen.
At the core of Tombstone is, of course, the story of the Clanton’s family’s wrong-doings and the decision by the town (of Tombstone itself) to ask Wyatt Earp, to help sort out the Clantons and their Cowboys. Virgil, his elder brother, becomes infuriated with the lawlessness of the town and signs up to be Marshall. The resultant showdown leaves most of the Cowboys dead, whereas the following gunfight, a revenge attack, leaves the youngest Earp dead and Virgil with a crippled arm. Wyatt eventually kills everyone, with help from his old friend Doc Holliday.
In truth that’s it, but the film is more than that. It’s a story of family, honour and decency. It’s about good vs evil, strength vs cowardice, truth vs shame and deceit.
More importantly this is an excellent film with great performances from a slew of B-actors. Russell stars and directs, Bill Paxton is his younger brother and Sam Elliot as his older brother Virgil. Michael Biehn and Jason Priestly, Billy Bob Thornton, Thomas Haden Church, Powers Boothe. It’s got something like 85 separate speaking roles, including Robert Mitchum narrating the damn thing. Charlton Heston even shuffles in. The main man though, shoulder to shoulder with Russell, is Val Kilmer.
Kilmer as Doc Holliday is perfect casting. The Louisiana man with the slow delivery, the constant drink on the go and the lightening gunslinging. He’s inspired foil for Wyatt, who is played straight by Russell, but always with a sense of surety. Holliday is the only one who accepts that Wyatt is a killer, revelling in it in fact, although mainly because it feeds his respect for the man.
The casting is great. Virgil is stoical and as western as a man could be in Elliot. Morgan is played simply by Paxton as a keen but inexperienced brother. Russell and Kilmer are frankly better than Lancaster and Douglas. But, what really makes this film are the fight scenes.
From the beginning to the end it doesn’t disappoint. Gunslinging has never been so brief, noisy and effective. No long range, long distance shootouts. This is fast, dirty and painful looking. Doc is in agony the whole way through the film and people get shot in the hands, arms, legs and shoulders. Not straight in the torso as you’d expect. The OK Corral shootout takes about 35 seconds, it’s tremendous.
Only the exchanges supersede the bullets for their devastating effect. The pithy asides, snide comments and direct challenges are all foreplay for the six-shooters, but essential foreplay. Wyatt’s determination to be the man he wants to be, and Doc’s determination to wind everyone up, make them as responsible for the bloodshed as the Clantons, but that’s the way of the West to be sure.
Final note on Doc. He’s got two of the best lines in the film, for two different reasons each. One is where Wyatt agrees to go with Virgil to the OK Corral and Doc steps up. Obviously ill, from tuberculosis, Wyatt tells him it’s not his fight. “Well, that’s a hell of a thing for you to say to me” Doc replies, half mockingly and half seriously hurt and offended. Confronting Ringo (Michael Biehn) at the end of the film, his nemesis since half-way through, he simply says “I’m here Huckleberry”. Ringo has told everyone what they already know, that he’s the fastest draw in town, and wants Doc. The viewer expects Doc to at least take a fatal bullet but, he simply shoots Ringo in the head before he’s drawn his gun. It’s so fast. The derision in Doc’s comment is the icing before the cake as it turns out.
Massively successful and, unfortunately for Costner, beating his own Wyatt Earp to the box-office, Tombstone is a solid and re-watchable film. The ensemble deliver faultlessly and Russell became a leading man to respect. It was Kilmer who delivered the goods ultimately and, HEAT aside, I doubt he’s done, or will do better.