As is often the case with the Holy Bee, to understand the entertainment, we must start with the history…
People of Tombstone, Arizona remembered October 26, 1881 as particularly cold. A bone-chilling wind whipped off the nearby Dragoon Mountains, and many residents assumed a flurry of light, dry snow was on its way to the little silver-mining town. A storm of a different kind came instead. Two groups of men faced off against each other in a nondescript vacant lot. (The OK Corral, which would soon lend this confrontation its name, was actually on another street on the other side of the block. Its rearmost portion could be accessed by a tiny alleyway, the entrance to which was still several yards from the vacant lot. But, as author Jeff Guinn points out, “Shootout at the Vacant Lot on Fremont Street” doesn’t have much of a ring to it.)
Animosity between the larger interests each group represented had been growing for the past eighteen months. A tangled mess of politics, personality clashes, and a long series of incidents such as stolen U.S. Army mules, the semi-accidental shooting of the Tombstone city marshal, and a botched stagecoach robbery just outside of town limits all contributed to the tension that had been humming through the town since early the year before.
On one side of the lot were five men — Joseph Isaac “Ike” Clanton and his younger brother Billy, brothers Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne — who represented the “cowboys.” Small-time ranchers who openly rustled cattle from over the Mexican border less than forty miles south, they were viewed with suspicion by the town leaders and businessmen. Most were legitimate ranch hands with a rowdy streak, coming into town to drink and raise a little hell. Dealing in stolen cattle was something everyone did to keep their ranches afloat, and most people looked the other way (especially if the cattle came from Mexico.) Other cowboys were more sinister — genuine “bad men” from Texas, who fled that area when the legendary Texas Rangers started cracking down on outlawry. Politically Democratic and sympathizers to the old Confederacy, they also had many allies in the town who appreciated their free-spending business and admired their free-spirited resistance to authority.
On the other side were four men — city marshal Virgil Earp, his two brothers Wyatt (a deputy federal marshal) and Morgan (deputy city marshal), and the notorious John “Doc” Holliday (a well-educated dentist-turned-professional gambler) — who represented the order- and community-minded townspeople. The clannish, uptight Earps were never incredibly popular with the people they were charged to protect. Wyatt in particular was viewed as a dour, self-aggrandizing social climber, with a checkered past on both sides of the law, who spent most of his time running card games in a variety of saloons and investing in mines that didn’t pay off. He viewed his off-and-on career as a lawman as a means to an end (that end being authority and respectability that would lead to wealth). He had formed a close, unlikely friendship with Holliday, who was slowly dying of tuberculosis. Holliday was known to have a vicious temper when drinking (which was most of the time by 1881), and his reputation for unstable behavior and violence preceded his arrival in Tombstone. Wyatt Earp’s own reputation suffered in many people’s eyes due to his association with what many considered a degenerate. But one of Wyatt’s good qualities was loyalty to his friends. The Earps were politically Republican and staunch Unionists, perpetually on the make to enhance their status and make money. The cowboys were a threat to that goal.
The Earps and Holliday confronted those five cowboys that day to disarm them — they were carrying firearms within city limits, against the local ordinance. It was a shaky accusation to make, as the cowboys were ostensibly on their way out of town, and therefore justified in taking the weapons (which they had lawfully turned over on their arrival the day before) with them. They were just taking an awfully long time to make an exit. Lingering. Almost trying to spark a confrontation. Harsh, drunken words and threats had been spouted in the saloons the night before (mostly by the loud-mouthed Ike Clanton), and the Earps had had enough. As they approached the vacant lot, they were stopped by county sheriff John Behan — a friend and ally to the cowboys. He assured the Earps — falsely and dangerously — that the cowboys had already been disarmed. He was ignored, and wisely took cover.
Billy Claiborne fled at the sight of the approaching lawmen. After the tiniest moment’s stand-off, either Wyatt or Billy Clanton fired their weapon. The unarmed Ike Clanton fled as soon as the shooting started. Thirty seconds later, it was all over, and the remaining three cowboys were dead or dying in the lot and the adjacent street. Tom McLaury was also revealed to be unarmed, but was shot several times as he desperately grabbed at the rifle in his saddle holster. Only Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton had weapons on them. The worst of the cowboys — true outlaws and killers like Curly Bill Brocius and John Ringo — were nowhere near Fremont Street that day.
But it did not end there. Controversy and retributions continued for several months. The Earp party were tried and acquitted of murder. Virgil and Morgan were victims of fearsome ambushes orchestrated by Ike Clanton and the more violent-minded cowboys. Wyatt and Holliday led a posse of dubious legal authority to cleanse the countryside of cowboy influence. The so-called “Vendetta Ride” became almost as legendary as the shootout itself…
The story of the Shootout at the OK Corral was big news in its day. Contrary to Western myth and the fantasies of the dime novelists, shootouts in the streets of town in broad daylight were exceedingly rare. The incident faded from the headlines, but bubbled just under the surface of popular consciousness. There sprang up an entire subculture of “Western buffs” dedicated to debating who was in the right, who shot first, etc. The mythologizers portray the Earps as a force of justice and order, and the revisionists claim that the cowboys, although no angels, weren’t that bad, and that the Earps were just as morally compromised, and on top of that, genuinely unpleasant people. (The argument rages on to this day, only instead of in historical journals and Western magazines, it’s on internet sites.)
The shootout burst onto the scene again half-a-century later — this time Hollywood-style. Fictionalized and simplified. There was no doubt in the mind of Hollywood (or what passes for its mind) who was in the right. The Earps were law & order, the Good Guys. The cowboys lawless, sadistic criminals, the Bad Guys. Westerns were kings of the box-office in the mid-20th century, and the Earp-Clanton shootout was terrific story fodder. The first major film to attempt the story was 1939’s Frontier Marshal starring Randolph Scott. Then came John Ford‘s masterpiece My Darling Clementine (1946) with Henry Fonda as a serious, pensive, Henry Fonda-type Wyatt. John Sturges‘ Gunfight At The OK Corral (1957) gave the confrontation its inaccurate name once and for all, and Burt Lancaster played Wyatt in the typical, square-jawed moralistic hero mold. Hugh O’Brien also followed this pattern for The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which ran on ABC from 1955 to 1961. Enjoyable as all of these were, none of them attempted to tell the story in any realistic way. And by the time Josey Wales ambled out of movie theaters in early 1976, the Western was pretty much dead. (For more on Westerns in general, why not check out the Holy Bee essay “In Defense of the Western”?)
Then came the multiple Oscar-winning Unforgiven in 1992, and Westerns were once again in vogue. Unfortunately, that vogue was short-lived because most of the films that came in the wake of Unforgiven were pretty terrible. Everything had to be a high-concept “Western with a twist.” Posse (black cowboys — an historical reality to be sure, but it was a wretched movie) and Bad Girls (gunfighting cowgirls — the few that existed did not look like Drew Barrymore) were a couple of the more high profile ones, but a huge slew of them never made it to theaters. As a video store clerk in the early 90’s, I handled every bit of atrocious, Western-themed trash that came down the straight-to-video pike at that time, and as a fan of the genre, I even watched a few, to my regret. (If you’ve got a hankering to see Rob Lowe as Jesse James, 1994’s Frank and Jesse is streaming on Netflix. I won’t spoil any surprises as to its quality.) Which is why I was excited to learn in the fall of 1993 that there were not one but two movies taking a serious, “historically-accurate” look at the frontier lawman Wyatt Earp and his role in the “OK Corral Shootout.” The “competing Wyatt Earp projects” were big news for awhile in the movie mags. How do they measure up against each other?
Tombstone, released in December 1993, was what is commonly referred to as a “troubled production.” In an interview with True West magazine, lead actor Kurt Russell estimated around 100 crew members quit or were fired during the course of production. It all started so promisingly: Oscar-winning screenwriter Kevin Jarre (Glory) crafted an enormous, multi-character, multi-subplot story giving equal time to the Earps and the cowboys. The finished film as written would have stretched well past the three-hour mark, and it was an actor’s dream, with page after page of chewy dialogue. Jarre would also be making his directorial debut.
So with financial backing secured from Hollywood Pictures, eighty-five actors and hundreds of extras hired, costumes from 100% authentic materials stitched up, and extensive sets built on location in Arizona, production got underway. But then ugly truth occurred to the cast and crew — brilliant writer Kevin Jarre couldn’t direct his way out of a paper bag. After four weeks of shooting, he managed to complete only a single scene (the one at Henry Hooker’s ranch), along with hours of unusable footage and botched shots. The producers stepped in and relieved him of his directing duties. They were considering pulling the plug on the whole affair, but core members of the cast and crew pulled together amidst the chaos, and continued production. Russell, who had fallen in love with the project, began directing until a replacement for Jarre could be found. The eventual choice — George P. Cosmatos, director of a couple of Stallone flicks — was no one’s idea of an innovative filmmaker, but he could handle basic action scenes and could stick to a schedule.
What wasn’t revealed until after Cosmatos’ death a few years back was that Russell continued directing the film until the very end. He would secretly slip Cosmatos a shot list each night, and during shooting he would indicate what he wanted through the use of hand signals. (It has been reported that Stallone directed Cobra and Rambo in a similar fashion, using the amenable Cosmatos as a front.) Russell also began paring down the script to focus more on the Earps and get the shooting back on schedule. The other actors may have grumbled at the (sometimes drastic) reduction of their parts, but they went along with it, sometimes slipping cut dialogue back into their scenes as the cameras rolled. (Russell claimed he cut many of his own scenes, too.)
Tombstone is an action movie, no doubt about that, fudging facts or making stuff up out of whole cloth (the red sash worn by all the cowboys was a fictitious but handy bit of visual shorthand — the equivalent of the “black hat” in the old B-Westerns). There is lots of “real” history in there, but its shuffled and compressed in order to amp up the story. (A prominent location in the film, The Birdcage Theater, was not built until after the shootout. Veteran Western actor Harry Carey, Jr., age 72, plays Marshal Fred White, who was 31 at the time. Just nitpicky stuff that non-history nerds would never notice.)
Wyatt Earp, which started production at the same time but was not released until April 1994, was supposed to be everything Tombstone could no longer be — a true epic, with a measured pace and a majestic sweep that Tombstone was originally supposed to have, if its first draft is any indication. Jarre originally developed the Tombstone script with Costner, and when Costner decided to tell his own, more Wyatt-centric version with writer-director Lawrence Kasdan instead, he attempted to block the production of Jarre’s film. Even as Tombstone finally got underway, the Costner-Kasdan movie was considered the “prestige” project, and everyone anticipated it would outperform the comparatively low-rent Tombstone artistically and commercially. Unfortunately, the whole reason Costner chose another Earp project is what works against the film the most: It focuses to the point of claustrophobia on a single person, rather than taking advantage of a cast of dozens — and that single person is an unlikeable character played by a dull actor.
(POINTLESS SWIPE AT LAWRENCE KASDAN WHICH MAKES THIS BLOG POST EVEN LONGER: Kasdan is a truly gifted writer who can and should be revered and respected as the primary screenwriter of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the writer whose final draft of Empire Strikes Back made it the best of the Star Wars movies. His work then began taking a turn toward the pretentious, culminating in 1991’s Grand Canyon, one of the most self-serious, smug, faux-sophisticated, Baby Boomer-worshipping piles of “message movie” diarrhea ever squirted onto celluloid.)
Although the scope of the film is hamstrung by limiting itself to a lone central character, Costner’s typical blankness actually works in making Wyatt Earp the character a more historically accurate portrayal. I believe Russell’s enthusiasm and skill as secret director and uncredited script doctor are big parts of what made Tombstone a success. But his breezy performance did not really capture the true essence of the cold, taciturn man the historical Earp was. Russell can be a fine actor (check him out in Dark Blue), but he tries far too hard to make Earp a sympathetic, traditional Western hero. For someone described by another character as a “frowner” (Jarre was clearly familiar with the real Earp), Russell spends an awful lot of time grinning. I suppose it worked for the lightweight popcorn-y crowd-pleaser that Tombstone ultimately became. But I would love to have seen a darker Tombstone made a decade or so later, with a more grizzled Russell bringing the sense of menace he brought to his character of Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. The wooden, charisma-free Costner, one of my least favorite “major” actors of the 80s-90s era (his mega-stardom was a perpetual mystery to me), actually does a much better job of capturing Wyatt as he was — kind of an asshole.
The buzz-generating performance of both films came from the actors playing the eccentric wild-card Doc Holliday. Tombstone‘s Val Kilmer is a little too chubby-cheeked to look like someone dying of consumption, and visibly weighs in at a hefty two bills, but a pallid complexion and permanently sweaty shirt-front are enough to convey his condition. Dennis Quaid, on the other had, looks suitably haggard thanks to a sixty-pound weight loss and a painfully hoarse croak of a voice. Both actors are superb. Kilmer’s Holliday has the edge thanks to the actor’s twisted charm and the many witty quips provided by Jarre’s screenplay. Quaid’s Holliday retains the insouciance of the southern gentleman gambler, but remains firmly grounded in reality. (Quaid received a well-deserved Supporting Actor nomination.) Kilmer’s Holliday transcends reality. Indeed, he is likely a creature of pure cinema fantasy — but he’s riveting to watch. (Kilmer shockingly did not receive a Supporting Actor nomination, but had to settle for an MTV Movie Awards “Most Desirable Male” nomination. That a character who spouts geysers of sweat and coughs up blood through the final third of the film could be considered in any way “desirable” shows just what MTV thought of its audience, even back then.)
Veteran character actor Sam Elliott brings some old-school Western authenticity to Tombstone‘s Virgil Earp, but Michael Madsen is severely miscast and wasted as Wyatt Earp‘s Virgil. Sporting ridiculous gingerish hair and retaining his Chicago tough-guy cadence in the few lines the script sees fit to give him, Madsen is also clearly younger than the actor meant to be his younger brother. Tombstone‘s Bill Paxton brings his usual performance style (mildly annoying lunkhead) to the role of the youngest brother involved in the shootout, Morgan. The poor soul who plays Morgan in Wyatt Earp came off as a total non-entity with even less screen time than Madsen’s Virgil. Dana Delaney is quite fetching and spunky as love interest Josie Marcus, and — as is repeatedly the case — the soap opera actress who plays Josie in Wyatt Earp is totally non-memorable. (And for those who love a Bill Paxton/Bill Pullman mix-up, Pullman appears briefly in Wyatt Earp.)
So in terms of filling out supporting parts with actors who are at least on some level colorful and interesting, give the edge to Tombstone‘s rep company. It’s a crazy-quilt mishmash that runs the gamut from the ridiculous to the ludicrous but is eminently watchable and includes the likes of Charlton Heston, Michael Rooker, Frank Stallone, Billy Zane, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jason Priestly. The real standouts are the chief trio of villains — Broadway veteran Stephen Lang as the boozy braggart Ike Clanton, the great Powers Boothe as head cowboy Curly Bill, and Michael Biehn as the psychotic, brooding John Ringo (sharp-eyed viewers will recognize him from similarly intense turns in The Terminator and The Abyss.) Robert Mitchum was slated to play Old Man Clanton, but was injured in a fall and had to withdraw. He provides the film’s opening and closing narration.
Wyatt Earp‘s supporting cast does have some good actors: James Caviezel, JoBeth Williams, Adam Baldwin, Tom Sizemore, and…uh, Jeff Fahey? Really? (Fahey starred in so many straight-to-video abominations he was a punchline around the video store.) But the film is intent on focusing entirely on its titular character, and the supporting cast has next to nothing to do, with a few exceptions. I did like David Andrews‘ performance as laid-back eldest brother James Earp, a full-time bartender who did not take part in any gunfights, but observes his younger brothers’ swaggering antics with a wry twinkle. (His character was left out of Tombstone.) Comedic actress Catherine O’Hara shows off her dramatic chops as Virgil’s firey wife Allie (who despises Wyatt.) And the one spot where Wyatt Earp‘s casting totally outshines its predecessor was Mark Harmon, who deftly captures the smooth-talking, gregarious essence of Earp foe Sheriff Johnny Behan, without turning him into the hissable, unctious bowler-hatted dandy fop that Tomsbtone chooses to go with.
Wyatt Earp pulled a dirty trick beloved by movie marketing teams where they take an actor in the film who’s on a recent hot streak and boosting his billing way beyond the scope of his performance. Gene Hackman — hot off his Oscar-winning performance in Unforgiven — has about ten minutes of screen time as Wyatt’s strong-willed father, but gets third billing on the poster and in the credits. Yes, Virgil and Morgan ended up as blank ciphers, but at least they were a ways down the cast list. Tombstone did something similar, but only in the TV commercials. The announcer would intone “Kurt Russell…Val Kilmer…and Jason Priestly in…TOMBSTONE.” Priestly is officially listed eighth in the cast, but he must have had a great agent, because even that is far, far too generous for his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part as Deputy Sheriff Billy Breakenridge. If you recall, he was riding high as a cast member on the hottest show on TV at the time, Beverly Hills 90210, and playing up his appearance in commercials that ran heavily on Fox in prime time probably sold a lot of tickets. Hills fans who were duped into going to the movie thinking they’d see their idol in a large role were surely surprised by his almost cameo-sized appearance, and the fact that the filmmakers decided to portray Breckinridge as quite obviously gay. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say, it’s just that there was no historical or narrative reason for doing so.)
There are script-related weaknesses in both films — usually where some purple-prose dialogue clunks on the ear. For every great line (such as Russell’s “You gonna do something, or just stand there and bleed?”, or Quaid’s taunt to a group of snooty townspeople “Y’all can jes’ kiss my rebel dick”), there’s a cheesy howler. But it was the 19th century after all, before the birth of irony, and a lot of people really spoke in those super-earnest pronouncements that sound hokey to the modern ear. Costner’s introduction of himself as “I’m WAH-ATT EARP!” as he cocks a shotgun is apt to inspire giggles, and Tombstone goes for the painfully cliched slow-motion “Noooooo!” not once, but twice. Some of Tombstone‘s weaknesses relate to the chopped-up nature of the shooting script, and a lot of Wyatt Earp’s have to do with the air of self-importance slathered onto it by Kasdan.
THE WINNER? Tombstone. Its lesser regard for history is offset by its faster pace, more memorable supporting performances, and overall fun factor. The shootout is the centerpiece of film, coming about halfway through, with the Vendetta Ride being the true climax. Wyatt Earp is more realistic, with some great sequences from periods in Earp’s life that Tombstone didn’t cover. His ill-fated early marriage is used to explain his grim personality, his time on the buffalo-hunting circuit is well-staged, and his early days as a lawman in Dodge City are a major part of his legend, but the film has a somewhat ponderous air and lags severely in its final act. The shootout is placed awkwardly about 3/4 of the way through, and the Vendetta Ride seems like a limp afterthought. The film has a sense of over-inflated pompousness common to epics (especially epics associated with Kevin Costner.) And Wyatt Earp‘s resounding box office implosion almost single-handedly killed the “Western revival” less than two years after it began.
So, after spewing 3700 words on this topic, I can conclude no better than quoting Tombstone‘s Curly Bill Brocius: