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Tombstone (1993)

by on 2011/06/26

“It suits me right down to the ground. In fact, it’s my idea of heaven.”

* * * * *

Recently, I was struck by two obituaries which I fear went unnoticed by most audiences. The deaths of George Pan Cosmatos and Kevin Jarre attracted interest, though largely at niche sites. Cosmatos was probably best known for the First Blood sequel, Rambo. As for Jarre, my mind immediately goes to his musical family: half-brother Jean-Michel (Gallipoli), and father Maurice (Lawrence of Arabia).

More to the point, they were both involved in one of my favourite-ever westerns, Tombstone.

To be sure, their involvement is somewhat shadowed by controversy. Upon the death of Cosmatos, long-standing rumours were confirmed he had directed the picture in name only, and that star Kurt Russell had, in fact, been responsible for the result we have today. (Incidentally, Sylvester Stallone is said to have worked out a similar arrangement on Rambo: First Blood Part 2.)

As for Jarre, the revision of his script is the stuff of legend in Hollywood. Every successful writer has experienced as much action behind the scenes as they might chronicle on the page, and this situation was hardly any different. His sprawling, original epic was cut down considerably in transit. Fortunately, for any revision, the end result feels less reduced than distilled.

His story concerns the celebrated Earp brothers — Morgan (Aliens’ Bill Paxton), Virgil (The Golden Compass’ Sam Elliott), and Wyatt (Russell) — trying to settle down in the town of Tombstone. Inevitably, they bump up against the disruptive antics of a gang of cowboys made up of the Clanton and McLowry families, led by Curly Bill (Powers Boothe of Sin City and Superman: Brainiac Attacks) and Johnny Ringo (The Terminator’s Michael Biehn), each unstable in their own unnerving way.

The tale is both longer and more intricate than my overview suggests, and draws in dozens of related characters. Players include: Dana Delaney (Superman the Animated Series), Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes and Touch of Evil), Stephen Lang (Avatar), Robert Mitchum (Out of the Past), Terry O’Quinn (The X-Files: Fight the Future), Jason Priestley (Beverly Hills 90210), Michael Rooker (Jumper), Billy Zane (CQ and Titanic) and — in a career-best performance — Val Kilmer (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) as tubercular deadeye Doc Holliday.

The film is packed. This complex-yet-uncomplicated epic remains fluid despite its many roles and relationships, plots and subplots, dynamics, and nuances. Fortunately, its fluidity doesn’t come at the expense of detail. The touches I love to discover are happily present throughout. Personalities go well beyond black and white hats. Substance abuse and early feminism are appropriately acknowledged. Sashes identify allegiance. Stephen Foster and Frederic Chopin share an uneasy coexistence. Bottles of amber are held before spotlights to add a theatrical ambiance.

Particularly effective is the framing, a device which doesn’t always work, but does so extremely well here. Vintage footage opens the feature, bringing us up to speed on the organization of cowboys, and adding to the comparative grandeur of the spectacle to follow. In one of his final roles, Mitchum’s voiceover lends weight, authority, and a connection to the past. This bracketing works in a way that the text summaries of A Fish Called Wanda do not. We are reminded of the movie’s historical basis, and given closure on characters who seem to have escaped justice in a narrative which doesn’t completely falsify facts in the interest of fiction.

Whether such nods to authenticity — taking its lead from history, including period detail — were present in Jarre’s original script, or were added along the way, I don’t know. I do know, however, that Tombstone restores my faith in the western’s potential to remain relevant, effective, and entertaining, long after its supposed Golden Age has passed. Whoever really wrote and directed it, it’s an admirable achievement.

* * * * *

Rated R

134 minutes

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