Illness, ill-preparedness and, well, indolence, sees us pushing our main topic episode back to the 10th this month, and instead we’re beginning June with a Compare and Contrast episode. As usual, there’s no real rhyme or reason as to why we’ve picked this particular pairing from our topic list, other than that this is the one that happened to seem appealing to us at the time.
There’s an inherent danger in that, though, and we may not have selected these two films had I, at least, realised that between the two there are at least four actors whose abilities and charms, or lack thereof, we have variously lambasted and lamented in previous episodes. Two of these are actors that Craig is particularly not fond of, and he’s not here tonight and I’ve no idea how he’s dodged this particular bullet.
Someone else who, miraculously, also dodged not just one but many bullets is the subject of our pairing, the legendary Wild West lawman, Wyatt Earp, who, having made his name in Dodge City in Kansas entered the realms of legend after his time in Tombstone, his participation in the Gunfight at the OK Corral, and his hunting down of members of the Cochise County Cowboys after they murdered one of his brothers.
Those two films are 1993’s Tombstone and 1994’s Wyatt Earp. Rather than the usual reasons for two films on the same subject being released so close together, one film actually directly led to the other, though they do take somewhat different approaches to their subjects: for example, one chooses to make its central character an irredeemable prick, which is a bold choice to be sure.
Both, naturally, claim to be based on true stories so, while they’re different, they’re both from Hollywood and, additionally, both about someone whose history is massively mythologised anyway, and we can, I think, safely assume both are deep in the realms of bullshit. That leaves us looking at different takes on some key elements of the mythos, some differing styles and a number of roles played by very different actors, such as Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner as Earp; Sam Elliott and Michael Madsen as his brother, Virgil; and, as the infamous Doc Holliday, Val Kilmer in one film and a hat, coat and fake beard in the other.
In contrast to Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp, George P. Cosmatos’s Tombstone dispenses with the need to show the Wyatt Earp origin story, rather dropping us, after a brief, newsreel-like, introduction informing us of the general lawlessness of the American West in the late 19th century, into that time and place with the Earp legend well and truly established.
Well, actually there’s one other sequence before Kurt Russell’s magnificently-moustached lawman appears onscreen, in which we are introduced to the villains and shown quite how villainous they are, and given a pretty good idea of what type of a Western we’re in for. Chief amongst these villains is a wonderful (and, sadly, woefully underused) Powers Boothe as “Curly” Bill Brocius, seemingly only ever moments away from twiddling his own, less splendiferous, moustache as he mercilessly slaughters a group of Mexican police officers at the wedding of one of their number for having had the temerity to kill two members of his gang.
There is nothing here, from the action to the clothing to Boothe’s performance that is in any way subtle, and we know how to set our expectations going forward. Going forward, then, we meet Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Virgil (Sam Elliott), and Morgan (Bill Paxton), as they arrive in the booming Arizona town of Tombstone with their wives and a desire to make a fortune. Around the same time arrives Wyatt’s old friend, the former dentist turned gambler and gunman, Doc Holliday (played here by the excellent Val Kilmer and not, as in the next film, by a coat and hat).
Earp’s actions soon get him noticed around town, first by Terry O’Quinn’s Mayor John Clum and Jon Tenney’s Sheriff Johnny Behan, but he and his brothers, also retired lawmen, repeatedly rebuff the attempts of these two characters to enlist them as marshals and/or sheriffs (apparently there is a difference, but I don’t know what it is). Also noticing Wyatt Earp is Dana Delaney’s dancer, Josephine Marcus, whose attentions are not, amazingly, similarly rebuffed (though she’s not asking the same things, in case that was unclear).
The lawlessness of Tombstone, though, and particularly the actions of Boothe’s gang (“The Cowboys”), nags at the conscience of the Brothers Earp, and first two, then all three, pin a pointy badge to their waistcoats and begin to lay down the law, setting the stage for the gunfight at the OK Corral and its bloody aftermath.
I have developed a particular, retroactive soft spot for Tombstone over the years, it being one of the earliest films that I can remember seeing at the cinema with Craig (and also first introducing me to Sam Elliott’s wonderful voice and facial hair), but such affection, of course, leaves one open to disappointment. Happily, then, I can say that, while no masterpiece, Tombstone remains a thoroughly enjoyable popcorn flick with an engaging central cast.
Kurt Russell has charm and swagger and even, for better or worse, tries to bring a little of his cut-rate Clint Eastwood back from Escape from New York, while Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton are solid here as “people I can readily identify and name”, setting them apart from every single person in the other film we’re talking about today, with the exception of its protagonist. While, as I mentioned earlier, I would like to see more of Powers Boothe, showing here some of the just-the-right-side-of-knowing fun villainy we talked about in Sudden Death last year, Stephen Lang’s Ike Clanton and Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo are a consistent and present danger as his lieutenants (Ringo in particular is a very distinctive character in Tombstone: the character apparently is in Wyatt Earp, but I only know this because of IMDb).
Josephine Marcus and the other women in general are who really suffer in Tombstone, in comparison to Wyatt Earp, their presence being largely inconsequential, with Marcus in particular feeling like she is here because she was famously Earp’s common-law wife until the end of his life, rather than because she actually has any part to play in the plot.
I’ve seen Tombstone described as a “pop Western”, which is not inaccurate, and probably explains things like the fact that everybody’s clothes are way too nice and, often, way too colourful, to ring true, and the rather enthusiastic and pointed score from Bruce Broughton, replete with a ludicrous “Da-da-daah!” moment when Earp goes to get his gun from its case.
On this viewing the final third dragged somewhat, but as that’s the section most similar to the other film, and as I watched both films on the same day, this being second, I’m happy to attribute that to the repetition and proximity. Assuming you’re not doing that yourself (which seems a pretty safe assumption), then I’d recommend Tombstone.
Released six months after Tombstone, Wyatt Earp sees Kevin Costner step into the boots of the titular lawman after jumping ship from the production of Tombstone. It says here that he was looking for something more interested in the wider context or Earp’s life, not just the headline event, so he and the production team moulded what was to be a six hour mini-series into this three hour wannabe epic, to, well, spoilers, not brilliant results, this proving to be something of a box-office bomb. Let’s see if its financial failure is mirrored in its artistic side. Further spoilers: yes.
At any rate, we’re introduced to a young Earp, played by Ian Bohen, stopped from running off to join the war by his father, Gene Hackman, who reinforces the importance of family bonds. Before long, a slightly naive Earp is off West to make his fortune as a wagon driver, before returning home to Missouri and settling down with Annabeth Gish’s Urilla. Sadly she’s not long for this world, typhoid fever claiming her and their unborn child. This understandably starts a downward spiral of grief and drunkenness for Wyatt, soon finding himself an outlaw.
He heads back out West, and after a stint as a buffalo hunter he becomes a lawman in Kansas, hooking up with prostitute, Mare Winningham’s Mattie Blaylock, who becomes his common law wife as he builds a career. After a period of tootling about various Western locales we eventually reach Tombstone, where he relocates with his brothers and their wives, and after failing to set up a business they return to bringing the law to the lawless, namely the Clanton gang, doing all that O.K. Corral stuff of which you will no-doubt have heard.
The problems with Wyatt Earp don’t end with casting Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday, in fact of said problems that’s perhaps the least of it. And before getting too negative it should be noted that on at least some levels there are things to appreciate here, particularly the production design, and with the exception of a few honking day for night shots, the cinematography, which is often quite beautiful indeed.
Sadly they are saddled to such an overwhelmingly dull film it is simply impossible to care. It seems that for large swathes of the film, they’ve sought to get an epic feel to things by giving it so much space to breathe between moments of drama that they’ve cut out the actual moments of drama, so it’s less of a breath and more of an endless sigh. Strangely, given the life the man led, the dullest part of it all is Costner’s Earp.
I wouldn’t necessarily have disagreed with Costner’s position that there should be a film focussed on Earp and his character, but, well, this ain’t it, Chief. Watching this, without really knowing all that much about Earp, I had figured that if Tombstone was leaning heavily into the legend of Earp, this must be pushing for a more realistic portrayal of the man and his life. And maybe that is why Costner is playing him with the all the verve, charm and Joie de vivre of a bag of cement, although it doesn’t explain why, faced with choosing between the accepted reality of Earp’s life and actions and the legends, Dan Gordon and Lawrence Kasdan just made up a bunch of new stuff, particularly early on. Normally that invention alone would be enough to have me firing up the vitriol cannon – if you think a subject is interesting enough to warrant a biopic, you shouldn’t be embellishing to this degree – but here I would have offered a pass based on the man straddling the line between legend and reality. At least, I would have, if what you’d made up was actually interesting.
It seems at least to hew closer to reality after the first hour, albeit still leaning towards a sympathetic view of someone who was as often on the wrong side of the law as he was enforcing it, but again that somehow translates into him being not flawed and complex, but a complete blank slate. I think they were trying to portray someone left cold and somewhat heartless after the death of his first wife, leading to his questionable treatment of Mattie Blaylock, before being redeemed by his love for Joanna Going’s Josie Marcus, but these relationships might as well have been Zoom calls for all of the warmth and realism they show.
Anyway, to cut this short, something the film very much ought to have also done, I think a slightly less charitable interpretation of Costner’s issues with the direction of Tombstone was that he wanted more screen-time. Mission achieved for Costner, but it’s very much not to our benefit with this interpretation of the character. Some critics put this on their worst of 1994 lists, which is surely a touch hyperbolic, but it’s also not a hill I would choose to die on. Choose to watch Open Range again over this.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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