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Film Review: Tombstone

Tombstone (1993; Directed by George P. Cosmatos)

Tombstone is an ungainly Western with plenty of spurting blood, flashing machismo, slick one-liners, and exactly one character who transcends the frothy generic interplay. It also engages many active themes in the modern discourse of American public masculinity but then so do most Hollywood films of the 1980s and 1990s of its broad, firearm-action-centric type.

Set in and around Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880s, the film lays out the violent narrative of the Earp Brothers and their struggle against an outlaw gang called the Cowboys. Wyatt (Kurt Russell) and his brother Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) arrive in Tombstone with their wives looking for a change of scenery and an honest, profitable life free of the sort of tense entanglements that characterized Wyatt’s past. That past, particular a stint as a peace officer in Dodge City, has made Wyatt Earp famous in the town before he can even step off the train. Before the three couples can even take off their boots in a lodging house, Wyatt has run off the petty tyrant dealer (a young Billy Bob Thornton) of a local saloon and gambling house and earned a stake in the house’s earnings, evidently by virtue of his innate badassery.

While Wyatt carries out a hesitating courtship with intriguing actress (and future wife) Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany) and fails to connect with his laundanum-addicted spouse Mattie Blaylock (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), the Cowboys’ lawlessness and degradation increasingly threatens the Earps’ hopes of undisturbed pecuniary prosperity. Their leader Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) “accidentally” shoots and kills Marshal Fred White (Harry Carey, Jr.) in the main street while drunk, is arrested by the Earps, but walks due to a lack of witnesses and threats of retribution from the gang. Virgil takes up the marshal mantle with Morgan and eventually the reluctant Wyatt as deputies, and with the help of gunslinger, gambler, drunk, and tuberculosis sufferer Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) take their escalating conflict with the outlaws to the OK Corral and well beyond.

The thematic and moral lesson here is clear enough, with Russell’s stiff-jawed Wyatt Earp as its main actor and exemplar. Initially following that most American muse of individual economic success, Wyatt and his allies obey the clarion call of moral law and social order, marshalling violence with steely dedication to rid the wild frontier of anti-social criminal rapine and make it safe for socially-sanctioned capitalist enterprise (itself not indisposed to rapine of a distinct sort). Their enemies are immoral multitudes to be righteously killed, marked off convieniently by red sashes. There is little doubt about their implacable evil, as Tombstone opens (after a curiously perfunctory Robert Mitchum narration) with the Cowboys slaughtering the entire wedding party of a Mexican lawman who tried to shut them down; there’s a dramatic slow-motion shooting of the priest, and an evident imminent rape of the bride that is very quickly shunted to the background of the scene in favour of sharpshooter Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) quoting Revelations. As much violence as the Earps and their allies muster, it is always already justified in dispensing with the existential threat of the Cowboys, the inherent enemies of property-owning, law-abiding Americans. It’s the common conception of right-wing justice emblazoned on Wild West myth, or more likely vice versa.

Like most patriarchal power-fantasies, Tombstone renders these male-centric events in homosocial terms. Yes, Wyatt is married, but his activities with his brothers – running gambling houses, playing billiards, busting up outlaw gangs – are much more key to his sense of self than his hopeless relationship with Mattie. Yes, Wyatt romances Josephine, but his friendship with Doc Holliday is much more important; Russell has concluding scenes with each in the denouement, and his profession of devotion to the sickly Doc Holliday is much more deeply felt than his profession of devotion to Josephine. It’s hard to blame him for the latter: Kilmer’s sweat-drenched, sashaying, degenerated Southern gentleman rogue is by far the most intriguing presence in a movie overfull of grim men’s men, and he’s usually given the best lines, too (“I have not yet begun to defile myself.”)

Also like most patriarchal power-fantasies (or at least the dumber ones), Tombstone experiences serious pitfalls of storytelling, emotional engagement, and aesthetic quality. It couldn’t help that it had a troubled production, with writer Kevin Jarre canned as director with the film overbudget and behind schedule when he refused to cut down his extended, unwieldy script. Replacement George P. Cosmatos was apparently a mere front behind the camera for leading man Russell, who later claimed that he ghost-directed the rest of the shoot using elaborate secret hand signals. Tombstone still presents as a film whose numerous subplots were chopped down and whose main plot had some of its nuance and detail compressed in favour of shootouts and flinty tough-guy quips. Those quips are sometimes championship-quality (“You can tell them I’m comin’, and Hell’s coming with me!”), but they don’t complete the picture and don’t quite make for a true classic of the Western genre.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. December 20, 2014 at 7:38 am

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