Westerns in the 1990s were largely dead as a genre. Clint Eastwood was doing what he could to bring them back and his 1992 Unforgiven helped put a new spin on some of the old tropes, but while it was an excellent Clint Eastwood movie it had people wondering what he would do next rather than clamoring for more westerns. 1990 saw the other big western - not Quigley Down Under, unfortunately, even though that one has aged better, but Kevin Costner's Dancing with Wolves. Both Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven got Oscar wins, so the main takeaway was that if one was going to indulge in the genre it helped to already have industry cred and to do them as epic vanity productions.
Although neither movie managed to bring the genre back something strange happened in 1993 and 1994. Two movies based on Wyatt Earp popped up, with the one originally most anticipated being Lawrence Kasdan's three-hour plus epic biopic with Kevin Costner in the title roll. Another vanity project, it was supposed to be as historically accurate as possible, at least as far as everyone who believes Earp's self-mythologizing would be concerned. The other was Tombstone, a movie that didn't even pretend to be historical accurate, but instead managed to tell a good story about the Earp brothers' arrival in Tombstone and the aftermath of the famous shootout at the OK Corral.
Tombstone itself, written by Kevin Jarre and originally meant to be directed by him, was also supposed to be a long epic, examining the lives of everyone involved with the famous gun battle. It was a lot, and Jarre, despite writing it, soon found himself sitting on the sidelines as George P. Cosmatos, known for such films as Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra, took over. Cosmatos still kept the core conceit - that the shootout was a turning point, rather than the climax of the movie - but trimmed the movie down to its action elements while making it his own tribute to Sergio Leone, John Ford and others responsible for the classic westerns that he loved. He was known largely as a b-movie director and, either despite or because of this, he ended up making Tombstone much better than it would have been.
Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) has decided to resettle in the Arizona silver mining town of Tombstone after retiring from law enforcement. With his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) he finds a way to make money by buying into a gambling establishment called the Oriental and taking a cut of the profits. His friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) is also in town, as are a band of outlaws called the Cowboys, led by Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Boothe) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). At first the Earps refuse to get involved, even after the town marshal Fred White (Harry Carey Jr.) is killed by Brocius. However, as the Cowboys get bolder, Virgil and Morgan feel duty-bound to do something and return to keeping the peace.
The decision leads to the confrontation at the OK Corral, after which county sheriff Behan (Jon Tenney) first tries to arrest the Earps and Holliday, but then formally joins the Cowboys. Meanwhile Earp's attention is drawn to actress Josephine Marcus (Dana Delaney), but he is then forced to do family duty once Virgil is wounded and Morgan killed. Putting his surviving brother and their wives on a train out of town Earp and Holliday join with former members of the Cowboys on a ride of vengeance to wipe the organization out once and for all.
There are other places that go over the inaccuracies, and what the movie did get right, in detail, so I am going to ignore all that. When I first saw this on a press pass, and saw this was directed by the guy who did Rambo, I had no illusion that I was going to be watching a history lesson. I was just hoping that the movie would be halfway decent as I was never a fan of those movies beyond First Blood. I was quite surprised, especially by Val Kilmer's performance, as this was able to click all the usual western boxes but also present it like a modern-day action film. They also, at Cosmatos's insistence, wore period wool clothing while filming in Arizona in the middle of the summer monsoon season. That presents itself in the form of some spectacular lightning shows (rather than using special effects, except for the indoor scenes) but also meant that shooting in the actual Birdcage Theater, with a full house, got up into the 130s inside. I'm surprised there are not stories from the set that match those of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. They were just lucky they were in a part of the state that is usually about 10 degrees cooler than it is in Phoenix or Tucson.
Speaking of Val Kilmer, his portrayal of Doc Holliday as a catchphrase spouting wreck of a human being steals the movie. This is no mean feat when already up against Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott and the rest of the cast bringing everything they have to their roles as well. Powers Boothe and Michael Biehn chew enough scenery on their own. This movie has about everything, down to a cameo from Charlton Heston as rancher Henry Hooker and narration by Robert Mitchum, who was supposed to have a major role in the movie until he got thrown from a horse.
The one part that doesn't work is the romance between Wyatt and Josephine. There is too much effort, particularly cutting out a love scene between the two of them after their horse ride, to make Earp seem a lot more of a good guy than he was. There is little chemistry between Russell and Delaney, probably because many of their scenes seem to have been cut, and not much to go on to believe that these two were supposed to be fated lovers of some sort.
Of course no one came watching this movie for a romance story any more than they did wanting a history lesson. Tombstone, rather than being the polished and overlong biopic that Wyatt Earp was, is pure entertainment with a wonderful cast and my home state providing a beautiful background to the action. There is a reason that Costner's movie is pretty much forgotten while Tombstone is still considered one of the top action films of the 1990s.
Time: 130 minutes
Starring: Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Dana Delaney, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn
Director: George P. Cosmatos