A friend at work recently watched a film and since doing so has been repeating the phrase “I have two guns, one for each of you” over, and over again in a terrible American accent. The film in question is Tombstone, a 1993 Western starring Kurt Russell and office favourite Val ‘the chameleon’ Kilmer. It was lent to me recently by my quoting friend and I watched it this evening. I’ll be honest early on. I’ve never had much time for Westerns and rarely seek them out but I do enjoy a really good one. I also don’t particularly enjoy Val Kilmer on screen (though don’t tell my colleagues). With these facts in mind I wasn’t expecting to get much from Tombstone but I really enjoyed it, thanks largely to a fun, if slightly formulaic script and a fantastic, over the top performance from Val Kilmer.
Tombstone feels very much like a classic Western and looks older than Unforgiven, the Oscar winning movie which is younger by eighteen months. The premature aging doesn’t work against the film but merely gives it a gravitas that I’d associate with a classic Western of the late forties to mid sixties period. Even the plot feels well trodden. Three brothers, one of whom is a former lawman (Kurt Russell) relocate to Tombstone, Arizona with their families in the hope of earning their fortune. It soon becomes clear that the local law is defenceless against a large gang of outlaws who call themselves The Cowboys. Slowly the brothers and their friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) begin to rid Tombstone of the gang but at a high cost of human life.
The plot mirrors many Westerns and takes thematic aspects from all over the genre. There is a retired peace officer who has to step up for one more fight, a drunken gunslinger and gambler, a town under siege and a violent gang. There are also themes of self sacrifice, redemption and new beginnings and even a love story thrown in for good measure. Tombstone knows its history and even incorporates the famous ending to Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 Western The Great Train Robbery in its opening sequence. Even though there is little that is new here, I was only occasionally bored by the film. I would have been happy with ten to fifteen minutes being trimmed here and there and the romance felt shoe horned in but overall the film is a lot of fun.
There are some great action sequences, most of which take place in the form of montages. These are exciting and violent and help to keep the run time down. Other scenes are more drawn out and a shootout at the O.K. Coral is a particular highlight. A tense stand off is followed by a great gunfight which contains a realistic mixture of expert shooting and wild misses. A scene late on in which Wyatt Earp (Russell) walks into a river, with bullets whizzing past him, shouting “No! No! No!” is another fantastic scene which has elements of fantasy about it. Much of the film is based on true events and many of the characters and situations are in part factually accurate. The famous O.K Coral gunfight is one of the most famous in the Old West and the Wikipedia page for the thirty second fight runs about as long as that of Portugal’s. The realism extends further than merely basing the story on real events and weaves itself into the film making.
The Direction is classical but noticeably more modern than the classics which the film closely resembles. There is much more movement and added psychological plotting that you’re average Western. As much as I enjoyed Tombstone, it isn’t without its problems. As I’ve already mentioned, it is too long and there are also far too many characters that are given far too little screen time. It appears that Kurt Russell himself noticed this in the edit and asked that some of his scenes were edited or removed to give others more screen time. The romantic plot feels half forgotten and is wasted until the very final scene and it sometimes feels as though the script is trying to cram in a complete history of The West into one film. One of the highlights of Tombstone is Val Kilmer’s performance. He is larger than life and over the top but it works along side Kurt Russell’s droll machismo and half closed eyes. Kilmer generally steals all of his scenes and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him better. Besides the leads, there are some great actors and not a poor performance to be found. Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton are superb as the other Earp brothers and Powers Boothe stands out as one of the villains.
Overall Tombstone is a lot of fun but it has many faults. It features a conventional but slightly modernised Western story and some really good performances. It looks good and the town of Tombstone looks exactly as you’d want it to but there are problems with the script which can’t be ignored and they spoil what could have been a classic.
- The film's original Director Kevin Jarre was fired early on in the production and it is rumoured that Kurt Russell ghost Directed.
- Willem Defoe was wanted for the role of Doc Holliday but Buena Vista refused to distribute the film if he was cast due to the controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ.
- The Director went on record to say that all of the moustaches and lightening were real.