Over the years there have been culture phenomena I’ve avoided for various reasons. It could be as fickle as my mood, the presence of Eric Robert’s Ugly Sister (or ERUS, as Justin coined), or the fact that I just missed the entry point before the culture became saturated by the book, TV, or film series. In “Better Late Than Never,” I look past my objections to see if the culture was right or wrong to embrace the phenomenon so strongly.
Release Date: December 25th, 1993
Objection: I’ll be honest. Growing up, I didn’t have much use for Westerns. As a child of the 1980s, the image of the cowboy looked more antiquated than the neolithic strongmen of sword and sorcery flicks. They rode across arid parts of the country trying to tame the land while preserving antiquated notions of race, class and gender. Theirs was a world filled with intolerance, incongruity, and self-righteousness masked as piety.
It was, quite literally, the past for me. On trips to Disneyland, I would dread the part of the day spent in the Adventureland/Frontierland half of the map as it was, to my child-mind, boring. Give me the excitement of Tomorrowland and its world on the go. The rush of the Monorail, the relentless march of the PeopleMover and the steel world of the great big beautiful tomorrow!
Then we got the future and it turned out to suck.
So now, I see the value of the Western as one of the few authentically American backdrops in which to confront both the peculiar merits and disgraces of the nation. The landscapes are more dramatic when one has a better grasp on just what people faced in those days before the future arrived. Also, that world’s not done with us, so the future is even more fucked up. I guess we really do live in a Philip K. Dick novel, just the metaphors change when your primary obsession are film and television instead of Ancient Rome and the FBI.
With that perspective, I came to love movies like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch and The Professionals. These are movies about a much tougher reality and how most of the audience would be ill-equipped to handle it on the frontier.
Despite that appreciation, I still avoided Tombstone even though it has a stellar cast. Looking back on it, I think I always associated it with Wyatt Earp, the Kevin Costner vehicle that premiered six months later. Turns out Costner was originally involved in the production, but left because he wanted the movie to focus on him. I mean Wyatt. Yeah, Wyatt. I mean, who would ever want to watch a movie that focuses on Kevin Costner?
The Film: Okay, let’s talk about that cast. Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Steven Lang, Thomas Haden Church, Michael Rooker, Terry O’Quinn, Frank Stallone, Billy Bob Thornton and Charlton Heston. Also, opening and closing narration by Robert Mitchum. How insane is that? This group of men assembled to tell a not-entirely-accurate telling of the famous thirty-second gunfight at the OK Corral. It begins with the Earp brothers and their common-law wives moving to the silver-rich boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona. (That sentence is fairly hyphen-heavy, don’t you think?) Despite encountering marshals, sheriffs, and local law enforcement, Wyatt and his older brother Virgil refuse to become peace officers in favor of earning money as … croupiers? The movie is a little unclear on this point. Wyatt appears to gain a 25% stake in the Oriental, one of the town’s many saloons, after kicking out Billy Bob’s Johnny Tyler. He also appears to work there at night dealing cards. Virgil and younger brother Morgan spend plenty of time there, but the movie is vague on just how they’re getting by.
Of course, the town has its share of problems thanks to a group of miscreants known as “The Cowboys.” They cruise in and cause trouble, only to leave unmolested thanks to their friendship with Country Sheriff Behan. When the Cowboys’ de facto leader, Curly Bill Brocius, shoots local lawman Fred White while on an opium frolic, Wyatt steps up to protect him from the town mob and helps him get cleared of charges when the country judge makes his way to Tombstone. In the aftermath, Virgil becomes town marshal and bans firearms on the city streets.
Along the way, Wyatt, his brothers, and Doc Holiday run afoul of various members of the Cowboys, leading to a planned ambush by Ike Clanton and some of his pals. The Earps get wind of this and plan to answer the challenge. Virgil deputizes Wyatt and Doc comes along for shits and giggles. In a fairly kick-ass sequence, the boys take out Clanton’s troop … leaving him to flee back to the Cowboy camp. During a violent (and dopey-looking) thunderstorm, they exact their revenge on the Earps, killing Morgan and wounding Virgil. The family leaves town, but Curly Bill decides to finish them all off at the train station in Prescott. (At least, I think it’s Prescott.)
When Curly Bill’s men arrive at the station, Wyatt, now a U.S. Marshal, Doc, and a few ex-Cowboys shoot them down. He lets Ike Clanton go (again!) while delivering this classic line: “You called down the thunder, well now you’ve got it!” He follows that with, “So run, you cur… RUN! Tell all the other curs the law’s comin’! You tell ’em I’M coming… and hell’s coming with me, you hear?… Hell’s coming with me!” Bad. Ass.
After a few more gunfights that see the end of random Cowboys and Curly Bill, the Earp posse hole up at the farm of Charlton Heston’s character. Doc, now suffering something fierce from his tuberculosis, plans to sit the final fight out … but shows up anyway and puts one in the forehead of Johnny Ringo, the seemingly last of the Tombstone Cowboys.
Oh, but wait, Ike Clanton gets away one more time. In the ending narration, Mitchum assures us he got his comeuppance in the end.
Now, there may be some things I didn’t mention in detail or other elements of the plot that I glossed over, but that’s quite alright because so does the film. Plenty of the details, like the Earps arriving en masse, are incorrect. Some I blame on dramatic license. Others have their origins in the realities of production. Mitchum was cast as the older Clanton brother, the true leader of the Cowboys, but he suffered an injury and could not play the role. Director George P. Cosmatos deleted the role entirely and gave much of the character’s line of Boothe’s Curly Bill. While some of these deviations from history can easily be forgiven, others rob the characters of their motivation. Ike Clayton’s reason for the ambush that leads to the Gunfight isn’t exactly clear. It seems to stem front an altercation with Wyatt at the Oriental, but the scenes between that and the OK Corral are a little dopey and lean on connective tissue.
Unfortunately, this lack of attention extends to interesting ideas like Wyatt’s wife getting hooked on laudanum, Jason Priestley’s apparently gay deputy, and Michael Rooker’s disdain for the Cowboys’ methods. It also extends to anything having to do with women. Dana Delany appears in the film as Josephine Marcus (Wyatt Earp’s long-term woman in real life), but every scene in which she appears tends to the dopey side; particularly when she and Kurt Russell appear in a scene together. She comes off as a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl and he never seems to respond to her in any sort of human fashion. Cosmatos also directed Cobra with Brigitte Nielsen and Rambo: First Blood Part II with a brief appearance by a female-type person, which leads me to believe he never actually met a woman up to that point.
In 2006, Kurt Russell claimed he directed much of the film with Cosmatos as a proxy. I find this hard to believe as Kurt Russell has met women and tends to be successful with them, so maybe he just directed all the shootouts? Also, there was another director who shot the scenes with Heston. His script had far more material about the other characters with the intention of making a three-hour epic. At that length, I think all the goodwill from the cast would’ve evaporated and only provided more opportunity for dopey scenes.
The dopey factor also reaches to any scene where people are expected to relate to each other in a fashion besides the stand-off. Despite the fantastic performances of Russell and Kilmer, their last scene together — Kilmer’s death scene — feels more like one of Russell’s ill-conceived moments with Delany. Which I suppose would mean Cosmastos is also uncomfortable with illness. Or, really, anything that doesn’t involve metaphorical dick-measuring and gunfire. But, again, that’s okay because those parts of the movie work so well.
Verdict: Oh, without a doubt, I was wrong to miss this one. It has a rogue’s gallery of great actors, an entertaining pace and a favorable awesome/dopeyness quotient. It may have some problems on the directorial side, but the presence of this cast tends to save the proceedings. While not the best the Western has to offer, it’s certainly a worthwhile couple of hours.