Tombstone - Vista Series
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // R // $29.99 // January 15, 2002
Review by DVD Savant | posted January 18, 2002
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Graphical Version

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

"Have you no kind words to say .... before I ride away?"
as sung by Frankie Laine, 1956

The various Doc Holidays have been saying those words to the various Kate Fishers since the silent days, and the oft-repeated line still works in this '90s version of the saga of the O.K. Corral. With a solid cast of character actors and a creative team that shows no sign of having been responsible for Rambo Part II, this is an unpretentious if somewhat unambitious movie that's unusually easy on the eyes. It brings back the feeling of older, un-selfconscious Western filmmaking.


The Earp brothers, Wyatt (Kurt Russell), Morgan (Bill Paxton) and Virgil (Sam Elliott) come to Tombstone to make their fortune running a Faro table. Wyatt's given up town-taming, and has a strained relationship with his laudnum-tippling wife Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). His brothers have wives as well, and all would work out if it were not for the notorious, red-sash wearing 'Cowboy' gang led by the onerous Curly Bill Brocious (Powers Boothe) and the snakelike Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). Massacring innocents and basically running a reign of terror, they have the dapper County Sheriff (Jon Tenney) under their sway, even after they murder the aged Town Marshall (Harry Carey Jr). Reluctantly, the Earps step in to fill the gap between law'n order and outright chaos. Wyatt's disturbed by the interruption in business, and his own defection of affections from his wife to the new actress in town, Josephine Marcus (Dana Delaney). As Tombstone erupts in gunfights and vindictive murders, Wyatt can depend on little else beyond his best friend Doc Holiday (Val Kilmer), a consumptive classics-quoting cardsharp with an acute sense of loyalty.

The Western as a genre simply fell apart during the '70s, with crime and science fiction films turning more action-oriented to compensate. Westerns provide structure and context, but American filmmakers were no longer concerned with the issues the genre had developed and repeated for 70 years. There were of course exceptions, but when Lawrence Kasdan tackled Silverado in 1985, it was like a puppet show trying to reintroduce the graces of a lost art form. Only Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven looked like possible new chapters in Western genre history, but even they were really reprises of older ideas (Run of the Arrow, Man of the West). Tombstone is so old-fashioned it's almost generic. But it happily goes against the grain of would-be 'innovators', like the Young Guns films that injected music video sensibilities into the genre, to no positive effect whatsoever.

The story of Wyatt Earp and his brothers and their political machine, versus Ike Clanton and his 'marshalls' and their political machine, for control of an Arizona territory in the 1880s has been filmed so much that the complexity of the original conflict was almost lost to the public consciousness.

The most famous version is the John Ford fantasy My Darling Clementine, that makes Earp a simple decent man who takes on injustice the same way he personally kicks a drunken Indian out of Tombstone: "What kinda town is this - sellin' liquor to Indians?" Ford's whitewash made the struggle in Tombstone out to be a noble resistance against a simple family of rustling killers led by Walter Brennan. Ford's biographers like to repeat the story (possibly quite true) that the elderly Earp, who moved to Pasadena at the turn of the century, was actually an on-set consultant for Ford's Westerns in the '20s.

Television and Hugh O'Brien turned Wyatt into a spotless hero, another Matt Dillon clone. John Sturges' Gunfight at the OK Corral, which featured the song lyrics above, retained the basic fib of making the Tombstone quarrel a simple spat between a lawless rancher and the saintly Earp Marshalls. It was Sturges' return to the story in 1967's Hour of the Gun that redefined the Wild West as a real place instead of a cowboy fairyland. A lot of facts were introduced to the movies for the first time, basically that the OK Corral wasn't a climax, but just one skirmish in a violent competition to control a huge Arizona territory. The Earps and the Clantons had conflicting interests, and both aligned overlapping legal jurisdictions behind their causes: whenever a fight occurred, the participants all wore legitimate badges and had their pockets stuffed full of legal warrants for the arrest of their opposite numbers. After the OK Corral fight, Earp's brothers were indeed murdered and wounded, and Wyatt and his friend Holiday tracked the rest of the Clanton gang down as a vendetta, even going into Mexico to find Ike Clanton. Hour of the Gun charts Wyatt's tranformation from righteousness, into an almost psychotic killer. The violence in Tombstone renders both sides unsuitable to become the political lords of Arizona; it's like Democrats vs. Republicans.

Tombstone returns to the older idea that the Clantons and their cronies are just a pack of no-gooders greatly in need of exterminating, and that the law the Earps respect is more a hindrance than a help. In a very poorly conceived opening, the red-sashed Cowboy gang murder half the members of a Mexican wedding party, as if they were the original gangstas in the hood. With the ambivalent attitude toward right and wrong in movies, it now takes an atrocity to establish Baddies as 'bad': in My Darling Clementine, all it took was one baleful look from Walter Brennan to do the job.

Things pick up as the Earps interestingly appear as rapacious businessmen, eager to get their piece of the gambling corruption in Tombstone. Wyatt's noble town-taming has previously made profits secure for other businessmen, and the Earps try to stay neutral to Law issues, until Virgil pulls them all back into Sheriff mode. Remaining a level-headed if slightly thick hero, Kurt Russell's Wyatt is tempted away from his marriage by a beautiful actress, and prevails against his enemies mostly through the actions of the charmingly fatalistic Doc Holiday. Friendship and loyalty are what count, not the Law or social ideals. Although the sixgun confrontations eventually dissolve into awkward montages of shoot-'em up action, the show is consistent and well-paced. It reaches the same climax as Hour of the Gun, in a Glenwood Springs sanitarium, but opts to leapfrog back to the simple buddy love ending of earlier versions of the story. That the show doesn't come off as hopelessly retro is a very good sign for the Western.

The casting in Tombstone has resulted in an excellent set of performances, mostly because all the major roles are played by people who've tried to be star leads and didn't make the grade. Kurt Russell's always been able to carry a lead role, so he's the exception. But one-note journeymen like Sam Elliott, Powers Boothe and Michael Biehn got lost trying to be leading men, when they're perfect in masculine ensembles such as this. Even Biehn, who comes off as particularly amateurish in leading roles in cheap action movies, makes a solid professional impression here. Howard Hawks would have no quarrel with this casting.

Pretty-boy Val Kilmer was the buzz in 1993 for his oddball depiction of Doc Holiday. What initially comes off as a skit-like spin (strange speech, odd mannerisms) links up nicely with the good, archaeic dialogue in Kevin Jarre's script 1 to keep him interesting. His preening is a nice counterpoint to the almost deadpan performance of Kurt Russell.

The peripheral roles do more than their share of the work. The women have barely any screen time, but Dana Delaney (late of the China Beach TV show) gets some depth into her depiction of an 'anti-Clementine' - a darkhaired looker from the East who is anything but virginal, but a prize catch nonetheless. In what would seem a suicidal casting choice, Charlton Heston has a glorified bit as a rancher with only a handful of lines. But Heston (a fine screen actor, for sure) scales down his overpowering presence so as not to hog his scenes, proving that he has his ego under control and can contribute on any scale.

Tombstone looks great with Bill Fraker's clear-eyed camerawork, and a nice design that doesn't overdo the mud or dust trying to be original (as with the awful Wild Bill). George Cosmatos' direction is equally unfussy and unaffected, which immediately puts him in good stead against all the '90s punks who've foisted personal styles upon us in an attempt to be the next Cameron or Tarantino. Neither revisionist nor particularly original, Tombstone nevertheless is solidly entertaining, much like the older Westerns we so dearly loved.

Hollywood Pictures' DVD of Tombstone is a fancy Vista Series two disc set in yet another attractive folding card-stock package that's too easily damaged. It looks so good that the audacious quote on the back, "One of the 5 greatest Westerns ever made," doesn't seem as offensive as it should. Disc one contains the movie in a flawless transfer with both 5.1 and DTS sound, and a commentary from director Cosmatos. He's been around a long time and is no fool, yet his insistence that this version of the Earp story/legend is the authentic truth, just doesn't wash in the long run.

A second disc contains just a few items, plus a complete DVD-ROM computer game called Faro at the Oriental. Maybe it took up all the space, because the quantity of extras here isn't that much. The three documentaries appear to be individual featurette promo chapters from 1993. As featurettes go, they are excellent, but they're still promotional in nature and not docus. An Interactive Tombstone Timeline is just a series of dates with copy about the real Tombstone events, that a voice reads for you when you click the appropriate box. Perhaps I'm too dumb to make it do anything else, but the Tombstone Epitaph actual newspaper account was just an animated sweep over the newspaper. I tried clicking here and there to see if I could read the article, without success. Let me stress that Savant has no patience for extras that require a hunt & peck foray to be uncovered ... for all I know, the right trick will reveal a great added value item.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tombstone Vista Series rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 3 featurettes, audio commentary, interactive timeline, newspaper, DVD Rom Game
Packaging: Folding card case, with map insert
Reviewed: January 17, 2002


1. One movie, one screenwriter. Who ever heard of such a thing? Or are there 20 uncredited script doctors behind the scenes?

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