Ah, the Western. I think this review of Tombstone (1993) might be the first of its kind in the nearly 300 movies The Legionnaire has covered. Some of the more classic films in cinematic history have been Cowboy Dramas, and if that is not a typical way of referring to Westerns remember that you read it here first. Hollywood used to pump out these movies like they were going out of style back in the 1950s, owing to the nearness of the studios to locations that looked like this part of America’s mythic past. But since then, somewhere along the line, we stopped believing in the moral weight of such tales, which simply means that they became more violent. It is a tried and true formula for getting people to go to the cinema, unfortunately. Tombstone is not different in this regard. I had not seen it in, gosh, probably almost two decades, but I remembered the prodigious amount of gun battles and bloodshed. One thing I did not recall is how goofy were other aspects of it.
Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), as Tombstone rightly points out from the start, was a legend in his own day. He earned his fame as a “lawman” in Kansas, facing down mobs of criminals single handedly. Having seemingly done his duty to his community, he decides to relocate to Southern Arizona’s booming silver mining towns and go into business for himself. The one potential pitfall to a happy retirement of fleecing miners is the presence of a gang of ruffians who call themselves the Cowboys, noticeable by their distinctive red sashes. They are led by Curly Bill Brocious (Powers Boothe) and they have their run of Tombstone and other nearby locales. There are officers of the peace in town like county Sheriff Johnny Behan (Jon Tenney), but he is in the Cowboy’s pocket, and the aged local representative Marshall Fred White (Harry Carey Jr.). In short, they are ineffective to do anything to stem the chaos wrought by the Cowboys. That is until Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), along with their friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), ride in. Initially they set themselves up in one the saloons, inserting themselves rather arbitrarily in the gambling that went on in that establishment. Because they are Earps no one really questions it, and it will not be the last time they trade on their family name. They are aided by Holliday, who is an inveterate gambler, along with being familiar with other less savory characters in society. It does not take long, though, for the Cowboys to come around and start causing trouble. At first, Wyatt attempts to turn the other cheek, caring more for the money he is making than doing anything about the dangerous antics he sees. It is actually Virgil who is the first to act, particularly when Marshall White is gunned down in the middle of the street by Curly Bill and the Cowboy gets away with it. Virgil then takes up the old family business of being a “lawman,” along with Morgan, and when there are further disruptions to Wyatt’s games he decides to take up with them as well. Their first test comes when a group of Cowboys gathers at the OK Corral and refuse to relinquish their firearms, and when they go to confront them they are joined by Doc Holliday. The ensuing gunfight is the stuff of Western lore, but the Cowboys look upon the event as murder and seek to avenge their fallen comrades. In the process, they manage to gravely wound Virgil and kill Morgan. This act enrages Wyatt, and he and Doc Holliday embark on a crusade to take down (which really means slay) every last Cowboy they can find. Once their path of apparently legal destruction is complete, Doc Holliday dies of tuberculosis and Wyatt runs off with the actress Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany).
If you are unfamiliar with Tombstone, and read that last sentence and said to yourself, “So what?” know that Josephine is not Wyatt’s wife. His actual spouse is Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), but she is addicted to laudanum and Wyatt unceremoniously leaves her when he decides to get revenge on the Cowboys. I do not necessarily wish to impugn the good name of an American hero, but he does not necessarily come off as such in this movie. Let us recap. First, he gives up a life of law and order to dabble in the gambling trade. As he states, he only cares about making money. I seem to recall a recent Gospel reading that warns of placing too much value on material wealth for true riches are found in Heaven. Secondly, he is seemingly determined to ignore all manner of crimes going on around him. Even Jesus crafted a chord and drove the money changers from the Temple. Next, he does not do his Christian duty as a husband for Mattie. The majority of the words Wyatt speaks to her are him saying in a bored voice that she should ease off on taking the laudanum. Christian husbands, as it says in the Bible, are told to love their wives as themselves. Finally, when things do not go Wyatt’s way, he basically takes the law into his own hands and murders the people he feels are responsible, using the badge as an excuse for his own crimes. Oh, and he seems wishy-washy on the existence of God, not to mention the his other less-than-noble acts mentioned earlier. Sheesh. At least Doc Holliday has no illusions about his sinfulness.
To add insult to injury for this Catholic film reviewer, there is a scene early on in Tombstone where a priest is gunned down in front of a church. But at least Doc Holliday is given an anointing as he lay dying at the end. At any rate, there are some memorable lines in this film, primarily when the Cowboy with the fastest gun, Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), attempts to pick a fight and Doc Holliday casually drawls, “I’m your huckleberry.” If you are watching this movie for nostalgia purposes, just know that there are some cringe-worthy moments that show its age. This is the silliness I referenced at the outset. I don’t know. It is not the worst movie of all time, but it definitely is not as good as you might remember.