I love the movie Tombstone. Good thing too, because it seems like it’s on just about every week. At this point, I must have seen all or part of this film a few dozen times, so clearly I’m not the only one who enjoys it.
So let’s take a brief look at why it’s so good. Why it worked so well originally and why it’s held up so well over the last few years.
If you recall, Tombstone is one of two Wyatt Earp bio-pics that were made in the early nineties. The other one you might remember was actually called Wyatt Earp. It was one of a string of Kevin Costner post-Dances with Wolves epic failures. Today that version of the Wyatt Earp story is almost forgotten (although there are rumors it’s been used in some hospitals to anesthetize patients). It’s a sprawling three-plus hours long, and it strives for a high degree of historical authenticity. It just happens to suck.
Tombstone, on the other hand, is blatantly and rather un-apologetically inaccurate. I say that because it not only plays fast and loose with the facts of Wyatt Earp’s life (and the lives of his friends and family) it even goes so far as to begin the film with faked-up black and white newsreel footage. An accompanying Robert Mitchum voice-over informs us that the movie takes place in 1879. You don’t need a degree in film studies to know that showing newsreels from the 1870’s is more than a little anachronistic.
And that’s just the beginning. The entire movie is a fantasy-version of Wyatt Earp’s life. The film omits members of his family, alters the timelines of significant events and treats actual historical figures as almost fictional characters. Two quick examples: the town Marshall Fred White killed by Curly Bill Brosius is played by an elderly man. The actual Marshall White was in his twenties. John Ringo is portrayed (brilliantly, by the way) as a well-educated sociopath regarded as the fastest gun since Wild Bill. In truth he was probably something of a coward who was no better educated than anyone else, who might not have killed anyone and who didn’t die in a gun-battle with Doc Holliday, but probably committed suicide.
Then why is it so good?
For one, because it isn’t tethered to the facts. Where Costner’s vision tried to show a complete picture of the man Wyatt Earp, Tombstone may as well be a work of complete fiction. It has little regard for the actual chronology of all but a few iron-clad details, which is great, because life doesn’t really work like the movies. It’s messy and illogical and doesn’t always make sense. By abandoning the real events to some degree then, Tombstone is free to tell an entertaining, if not totally true, story.
If you watch it closely, it actually works kind of like a stage play on film. The Cowboy Gang is introduced in a fast sequence right after the opening that establishes their brutality in about 30 seconds. Then, in short order, we meet Wyatt and his whole family at a train station where Wyatt rebukes a man for whipping a horse, showing his good-nature in even less time. A few minutes later we find ourselves in Tombstone itself, where Wyatt meets up with: Doc Holliday, the Sheriff, the Marshall, two of the men who will eventually join Wyatt’s “gang” and the entire acting troupe from which Wyatt’s love interest is drawn – all in one street scene.
Now, there’s no way all of those people would have a “meet cute” like that in real life. And we know enough about the real people that we can say for sure that it didn’t happen that way at all. But it doesn’t matter, because it works. We meet every major character and learn one or two key things about them in the time it takes to get the wrapper off of your box of Snow Caps.
A scene a few minutes later puts Curly Bill and Ringo face-to-face with Wyatt and Doc in the Earps’ casino, where Bill and Wyatt size each other up across the Faro table, as Doc and Ringo do the same in a clever display of Latin proverbs and hand-eye-coordination. Another great scene that is at once completely unrealistic and yet totally effective. From there, only a half hour into the film, every major conflict is not only well established, but is already well underway.
I could go on, but you get the point.
Most of the rest of the film plays out just like that. Every scene has a purpose and every scene moves the story along. Not like real life at all, and almost certainly not the way the real lives of the real Earps happened, but that’s fine.
The performances are excellent too. Tombstone is one of those movies where every actor is on his or her game, no matter how relatively minor their role might be.
Michael Biehn as Ringo is my personal favorite. He plays the steely-eyed villain as an almost tragic figure, a lost soul whose background suggests wealth and refinement, but who somehow lost his humanity en route to becoming a feared gunfighter. So what if it isn’t true? The acting is brilliant and the character feels authentic.
Val Kilmer puts on a show of his own as Doc Holliday, in some ways the inverse of Ringo — a refined gentleman who is also a ruthless killer, but who, is somehow a more benevolent scoundrel, and while suffering from tuberculosis, is somewhat tragic himself.
Kurt Russell in the Wyatt Earp role plays him as the reluctant lawman, drawn into a conflict despite doing everything to remain neutral. He’s the classic hero, slow to anger, but fearsome and bold when called upon. A less demanding role than some others, but Russell holds his own with just the right mix of intensity and warmth.
Again, whether Wyatt Earp was actually like that hardly seems to matter, because this isn’t a movie about the real Wyatt Earp. It’s a story about gunfighters and cowboys in a fictionalized Old West. It’s about a group of fully-realized characters who have the same names as people who were once real. It isn’t an attempt to re-create real people that results in a bunch of poorly realized characters.
And that’s why it works so well. Real events don’t tell stories. They just happen. We sometimes tell stories about real events, but those stories are easier to follow and more entertaining to watch if they follow a few basic rules of drama, of fiction in other words – set up the characters, lay out a conflict for them, let them try to figure their way out and see what resolution they arrive at.
That’s what Tombstone does, and what Wyatt Earp the film didn’t really do. That’s why it works and why it’ll probably be on again soon.