Kevin: Since making his transition from Disney child star to respected grown up actor, Kurt Russell has played cops, criminals, CIA agents, firefighters, reporters, Elvis, an Elvis impersonator, and a captain named Ron. But for an athletic actor who seemed born to ride a horse and wield a six-shooter on screen, Russell strangely has only starred in one traditional Western over the course of his adult career (I consider “Bone Tomahawk” to be more of a horror film and “The Hateful Eight” more of a “Tarantino movie,” which is a genre all its own). So as part of our ongoing Kurt & Sly week ahead of the release of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” today we are paying tribute to Russell’s time in the saddle – as well as in possibly his best film, period – as legendary lawman Wyatt Earp in “Tombstone”:
For a movie that has become such a beloved cable TV mainstay, “Tombstone” faced an uphill battle even before it started filming. “Glory” screenwriter Kevin Jarre had written what he believed to be the definitive account of Earp, his friend Doc Holliday, and the events leading up to the famous “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” But right when it was time to start pre-production, “Tombstone” nearly found itself mowed down by a rival Wyatt Earp project starring Kevin Costner – then at the height of his popularity – and established director Lawrence (“Big Chill” “Grand Canyon”) Kasdan. The biggest trump card Jarre had was that his script was ready to film, so once Kurt Russell came on board – helping attract a Western dream team including Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, the late Bill Paxton, Powers Booth, Michael Biehn, and even Charlton Heston – the race began to get to theaters ahead of the competition.
Unfortunately while Jarre’s script for “Tombstone” is a classic, as a first-time director he was totally out of his element, as this Entertainment Weekly article ahead of the film’s 1993 release makes clear. When it was obvious it wasn’t working out, Jarre was replaced by George P. Cosmatos, who had previously directed Sylvester Stallone in “Rambo: First Blood Part 2” and “Cobra.” At the time it was known that Russell had taken over a lot of behind-the-scenes duties even with Cosmatos on set in order to get the film back on track, but in a 2006 interview with True West magazine he revealed that for all intents and purposes “Tombstone” is a Kurt Russell-directed film:
“I said to George [Cosmatos], ‘I’m going to give you a shot list every night, and that’s what’s going to be.’ I’d go to George’s room, give him the shot list for the next day, that was the deal. ‘George I don’t want any arguments. This is what it is. This is what the job is.’”
And in a way we can thank Russell’s “Tango & Cash” and “Guardians” co-star Stallone for the idea, as Russell said Sly told him he had done the same thing on the set of “First Blood Part 2;” i.e. essentially calling the shots on set, with Cosmatos serving as a “ghost director.” (Perhaps Russell got the idea to reach out to Sly from Frank Stallone, who makes his second-straight appearance in a movie covered this week after “Staying Alive,” this time as an unfortunate card shark who is on the receiving end of Holliday’s blade after calling him a cheat).
Even after getting the director issue under control, Russell and the producers also had to work on cutting down Jarre’s script, which apparently necessitated excising substantial scenes for co-stars like Elliott and Paxton. But while it’s possible the original script could have been an even better version of “Tombstone” if filmed as originally written, it’s just as likely that the final product benefitted from cutting out the fat and focusing on the most interesting aspect of Wyatt Earp, his unlikely friendship with alcoholic gambler Doc Holliday.
(As a counterpoint, just look at Costner’s 3-hour-plus flop “Wyatt Earp,” which is a perfectly good film in its own right but gets so bogged down showing every aspect of Earp’s life before we actually get to the story of “Tombstone” that we forget why the hell this guy was supposed to be so interesting. It’s like if they did a movie about Robin Hood but barely focused on the aspects that make him an appealing character. Oh wait I forgot, Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe actually did make that version.)
But while some of the actors may have gotten short shrift in the final product, the fact is that the film is perfectly cast and that just having Sam Elliott or Powers Booth in a role does most of the heavy lifting in establishing who that character is (for instance I like the weirdly self-conscious way Booth’s Curly Bill always laughs at his own jokes, as if even he knows he’s not as charming as he thinks he is). Plus the film is chock full of some of the most memorable dialogue ever captured on celluloid:
“I’m your huckleberry.”
“Maybe poker’s just not your game Ike. I know! Let’s have a spelling contest!”
“You’re so drunk, you can’t hit nothing. In fact, you’re probably seeing double.” “Now I have two guns, one for each of ya’.”
“You gonna do something or just stand there and bleed?” (Said to a younger and fatter Billy Bob Thornton)
“Your friends might get me in a rush, but not before I make your head into a canoe.”
“I have not yet begun to defile myself.”
“This is a nocturne.” “A what?” “You know, Frederic fucking Chopin.”
“You tell ‘em I’m coming, and Hell’s coming with me you hear, Hell’s coming with me!”
That last line, yelled by Earp before he and his men begin their war of retribution against Curly Bill’s gang, also indicates why “Tombstone” has endured among fans of the Western genre. It’s not out to reinvent the wheel or deconstruct the Western like the previous year’s “Unforgiven;” it’s a classic good vs. evil in the Wild West tale, along with more Biblical allusions than a Mel Gibson film.
For instance, Biehn’s Johnny Ringo figuratively invites the wrath of God on him and his gang after gunning down a Mexican priest – a moment that even briefly shocks Curly Bill – who was in the process of quoting a Bible verse about the pale horse, its rider Death, and Hell following with him:
It’s no coincidence that the film immediately cuts to Wyatt arriving to clean up the modern-day Gomorrah known as Tombstone, before wiping Curly Bill and his gang from the earth, including a scene where Earp stands right out in the open in the middle of a creek and guns several of them down without getting hit once (tellingly, one of the bad guys – played by John Corbett – yells “Jesus Christ!” at this seemingly divine intervention). Later Holliday tells one of their crew that Earp is down by the creek, “walking on water.”
So basically what I’m saying is that “Tombstone” is the story of Jesus but with more gunfights and Billy Zane.
But probably the biggest reason why people keep coming back to “Tombstone” after more than two decades is because at the end of the day it’s about friendship, specifically the kind of unexplainable friendship we’ve all had with that one person we normally wouldn’t be friends with. Earp is a stoic lawman and Holliday is a degenerate gambler, and the only thing they have in common is loyalty to each other, but that’s enough. When Texas Jack tells a gravely sick Holliday he should be resting rather than helping them take down the rest of the gang, Holliday simply says, “Wyatt Earp is my friend.” When Jack says he has lots of friends, Holliday responds, “I don’t.”
We never get as good of an idea of why Earp is so loyal to Holliday, except near the beginning when Elliott’s Virgil Earp – who is clearly not a fan of Doc’s – says he doesn’t miss seeing him, to which Wyatt responds, “He makes me laugh.”
What could be more universal than that?
Post Script: Although it is not exactly a traditional Western, I’m still amazed at the number of people who love “Tombstone” but haven’t even heard of Russell’s “Bone Tomahawk.” CJ and I were fortunate to catch it in the theaters in 2015 and it was one of the best movies I saw that year: original, scary, funny, well-cast, and with as many witty and colorful lines of dialogue as “Tombstone.” It’s a slow burn but if you give it a chance you’ll at least appreciate that there aren’t a lot of other movies like it out there.