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Tombstone
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Tombstone

The legendary American lawman Wyatt Earp (1848-1929) spent the twilight of his life in Hollywood as a consultant to those filmmakers and actors involved in the nascent years of the Western film. As a seeming function of this, the entertainment industry fanned a fascination with his legend and exploits that would span generations. From My Darling Clementine (1946) to Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) to Hour of the Gun (1967), the studios have never tired of revisiting the Earp brothers' defining 1881 confrontation with the Clanton gang; two separate major studio productions were mounted in the early '90s. The first to arrive, Tombstone (1993), benefited from an impressive array of performers in the major and minor roles and an earnest attempt to give the principals dimension.

The story opens in the titular silver-rich Arizona boom town of 1979 with the arrival of Earp (Kurt Russell) and his brothers Morgan (Bill Paxton) and Virgil (Sam Elliott), all weary of the demands of keeping the civil peace and ready to try their luck at private enterprise. Wyatt isn't in town long before he muscles his way into the faro concession at one of the local watering holes, or before the siblings renew acquaintances with their old friend, the cultivated dentist-turned-gunfighter Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), and his ladyfriend Kate (Joanna Pacula).

While the Earps' repute gives them a wide berth from the town authorities, it also gains the attention of the ruthless gang of toughs declaring themselves the "Cowboys," who've essentially terrorized the locals with impunity. These red-scarf-adorned proto-gangstas include among their number the vicious Curly Bill Brosius (Powers Boothe), the literate if lethal Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), and the cutthroat Clanton brothers, Ike (Stephen Lang) and Billy (Thomas Haden Church). While the Earps are initially determined that law and order should be someone else's headache, they're pushed to the limit by the Cowboys until their celebrated showdown, and the less-celebrated blood vendetta that followed in its wake.

It's all told with fairly painstaking period detail--the cast sweated through wool costuming in the location heat--and by a fairly remarkable roster of players. Besides the aforementioned, significant attention was given to Dana Wheeler-Nicholson as Wyatt's laudanum-addicted second wife Mattie, and Dana Delaney as Josephine Marcus, the free-spirited Jewish actress who would become his companion for the rest of his days. Prominent roles were ably executed by Terry O'Quinn, Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Rooker, Jason Priestley, Billy Zane and Robert Burke, and genre stalwarts like Charlton Heston, Harry Carey, Jr., Pedro Armendariz, Jr., Buck Taylor and Tomas Arana offering their familiar presence. Playing Billy Claiborne was Wyatt Earp, the lawman's namesake fifth cousin.

Tombstone's production was a rocky road. The project was intended as the directing debut for its scripter Kevin Jarre, whose most noted credit at that time was the screenplay for Glory (1989). Jarre, however, was dismissed one month into the shoot and replaced by the journeyman George P. Cosmatos (Rambo: First Blood Part II [1985]). Russell would state in a 2006 interview with True West magazine that he took the reins for most of the production, with Cosmatos serving in a supervisory capacity. Robert Mitchum, whose voice-overs at the film's opening and close served to hide some of the continuity problems from the on-the-fly changes, had originally signed to appear on-screen as Old Man Clanton. However, the venerable star threw his back out while riding during the first day of filming, and Jarre wrote out the role.

Much as Dennis Quaid would do the following year in the Lawrence Kasdan-Kevin Costner production of Wyatt Earp (1994), Kilmer nearly walked away with the picture with his flavorful take on the tubercular gunslinger Holliday. "He was actually a dentist, so he had a mean streak even before he started killing people," Kilmer stated in a 1994 interview with Britain's Film Review. "But he was also an aristocrat, the son of a Georgia mayor--apparently a very witty man, extremely shy unless you insulted him. He knew Latin, and he played classical piano. He's never been portrayed as three-dimensional before. Kevin Jarre did a great job."

Producer: Sean Daniel, John Fasano, Buzz Feitshans, William A. Fraker, James Jacks, Bob Misiorowski, Michael R. Sloan, Andrew G. Vajna
Director: George P. Cosmatos
Screenplay: Kevin Jarre
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Film Editing: Harvey Rosenstock, Roberto Silvi, Frank J. Urioste
Art Direction: Chris Gorak, Kim Hix, Mark Worthington
Music: Bruce Broughton
Cast: Kurt Russell (Wyatt Earp), Val Kilmer (Doc Holliday), Sam Elliott (Virgil Earp), Bill Paxton (Morgan Earp), Powers Boothe (Curly Bill Brocious), Michael Biehn (Johnny Ringo).
C-130m. Letterboxed.

by Jay S. Steinberg

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