The Savage Stack - TOMBSTONE (1993)

With this mythic, action packed Western, George Casmatos and Kurt Russell perfected legendary lawman Wyatt Earp.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The sixtieth entry into this unbroken backlog is the bombastic, brilliant '90s Western, Tombstone...

“Mac, you ever been in love?”

Coiled and nervous as if jackrabbits are jumping in his stomach, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) asks a nebbish barkeep to ponder his amorous history. The tender pauses. Thinks. Says he's never felt that way. Wyatt Earp continues to feel confused and more than a little scared. In just a matter of moments, he’s going to be showing down with Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his murderous, cattle rustling brood. Just as the bartender’s devotion to his trade has led him to a life lacking experience in love, so has Earp’s commitment to justice and duty. In the eyes of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine ('46), the famous Dodge City lawman may have been a steadfast moralist, but that virtuous streak robbed him of companionship's simple warmth. To Ford, Earp may have been a hero, but he was also something of a child, fighting lawlessness in a self-created microcosm while the rest of the world turned beyond the film’s meager frame.

“From now on I see a red sash, I kill the man wearing it. So run you cur. And tell the other curs the law is coming. You tell ’em I’m coming! And Hell’s coming with me you hear! Hell’s coming with me!”

Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) towers over Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang), a spineless canary of a man. Double barreled street-sweeper raised, the smoke from the cannon’s muzzle swirls around him as he barks about bringing the thunder of God Himself down upon any rider aligning themselves with the Cowboy gang. Ike - along with his outlaw cohorts - has taken one brother from the man in black, awakening a fury that Earp's kept buried since his days wearing a tin star in Kansas. With Tombstone ('93), B-Movie action auteur George P. Cosmatos and Kurt Russell created a cinematic manifestation of unadulterated myth. Their Earp is a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off in the titular dusty prospector town. The only doubt this walking death machine has is if he can ever contain the beast once it's let out of the cage.

Though he was a real hero and a real human being, Earp is the perfect cinematic subject through which directors and actors from various generations could explore a myriad of themes. There’s a reason that many of the form’s great stars took their turn portraying the iconic gunslinger. Errol Flynn jettisoned his Australian twang in favor of an Irish brogue in order to bring Earp to the screen in '39’s Dodge City (under the alternate moniker Wade Hatton). Joel McCrea - of Sam Peckinpah’s superlative Ride the High Country ('62) - fleshed out the lawman’s junior years in Wichita ('55). John Ford would not only cast Fonda in My Darling Clementine, but revisited the legend with Jimmy Stewart in Cheyenne Autumn ('64). Burt Lancaster had a go at donning the duster with Kirk Douglas at his side (as legendary gunslinger Doc Holliday) in Gunfight at the OK Corral ('57). Finally, Kevin Costner would inhabit the man’s boots in the bloated, overlong (but still not without merit) Wyatt Earp ('94).

However, none would own the bloody thunder of Earp’s larger than life presence quite like Kurt Russell in Cosmatos’ Tombstone ('93). Russell’s Earp is barely human, an oak of a man guided by moral principle and a need to build a better life for himself and his brothers, Virgil (Sam Elliot) and Morgan (Bill Paxton). When Earp and his posse arrive in Tombstone, they’re hoping for nothing more than to make a little money and settle down with their respective significant others. Because there’s a darkness bubbling in Earp’s belly, a thick rain cloud in the form of deadly justice. You see, Earp knows what it means to take a man’s life, and he never wants to experience that turgid manifestation of guilt again, or have his kin know what a terrible feeling it is to kill, even in the name of peace. Now, that doesn’t mean he won’t slap a blabbermouth bully (an obese Billy Bob Thornton, owning a memorable bit part) in order to secure himself a piece of the town’s liquor and gaming. But that’s the beauty of the Kevin Jarre’s script: it humanizes Earp just enough to make you connect with the lawman, but instantly keeps you at a distance (sometimes in the very next scene) by having him perform a stone cold act of brutal self-serving heroism.

If Earp is the towering badass nexus of Tombstone, Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) is its superhero. Kilmer’s Holliday sweats and coughs into a rag, tuberculosis eating away at whatever lung tissue he has left inside of his chest. Still the liquor flows and his marital duties to Kate (Joanna Pacula) are met, night in and out. Holliday knows he’s going to die, yet he’s going to do so on his feet, more than likely via a bullet to the chest. Kilmer - in easily the best performance of a somewhat spotty career - manifests Holliday’s cocky swagger to such an absolute extent that it actually feels as if the rest of the movie is happening around him. While Earp is no doubt the central focus of this cinematic TNT blast, Kilmer manages to steal every single scene away from Russell, transforming minor beats into seismic emotional tremors. He’s our huckleberry, the walking ghost who’s game for anything, especially if we’re playing for blood. Unlike Victor Mature’s stoic take on the notorious killer in My Darling Clementine, Kilmer transforms Holliday into a transcendent being who is one with death, floating amongst mere mortals as he drifts toward the darkness at the end of his nihilistic tunnel.

Despite its heavy action beats, Tombstone is very much an “actor’s picture,” not too unlike the cinema of Sam Peckinpah. There’s a brusk masculinity represented with this cast of cowboys, each grizzled personality given distinct moments to ensorcell the audience. Powers Boothe is so bronze it almost looks like he’s in brown-face - slyly connecting the movie to the opaque racism of many '40s Westerns as he cackles with pearly white teeth as Curly Bill. Stephen Lang’s Ike is a whiskey-soaked weasel, almost unrecognizable. Michael Biehn - no longer playing a Marine from the future - is only short one mustache to twirl as the Latin-slinging merchant of death, Johnny Ringo. Yet no matter how overwhelming the ensemble may become, each character feels complete, their actions defining them instead of their words. It's the Walter Hill school of elemental storytelling at play: show, and don't you fucking tell. 

One can’t help but wonder if this focus on character comes from the fact that an actor helmed the majority of the movie. After firing Kevin Jarre as director, it seemed as if Tombstone was going to be shut down by the studio. Kurt Russell, knowing the movie was going be canned if production didn’t resume ASAP, rallied the crew and directed a great deal of scenes while producers hired Cosmatos. Talking with True West Magazine, Russell admitted that he helmed a great portion of the picture, and that Cosmatos was hired merely to help “calm everyone down”. This authorial control presumably eased each actor into playing with their individual characters, letting them make these legends their own. The structure of the movie may have toppled - it was stripped down from Jarre’s epic original draft into more of an Earp-centric action picture - but the narrow focus allowed Russell and the other actors to bring this bloody no man’s land to life.

No matter how absolutely stunning the supporting cast may be, Tombstone is still a romance between two killers. Earp is refused a wife in Ford’s version, but here he’s saddled with a laudanum-guzzling hooplehead of a wife (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) while a big-eyed, free spirit of an actress (Dana Delany) beckons from afar. However, neither of these relationships hold a candle to the bond that develops between Wyatt and Doc. The two may have differing opinions on how the law should be (dis)regarded, but their respect for one another creates kin. Kilmer has worked tirelessly to earn himself a reputation of being near-impossible to work with (just look at what he helped do to Richard Stanley on The Island of Dr. Moreau ['96]), but there’s a magnetic energy he and Russell share every time they’re on screen together. Both of these actors are going BIG with their characters; a reach for enigmatic heights that they actually manage to achieve. It’s a real treat to behold, and when combined, the mythic tone Cosmatos and Russell are able to strike (aided by Bruce Broughton’s rumbling score, no doubt) works like gangbusters.

The very next year, Lawrence Kasdan and Kevin Costner would team on Wyatt Earp, which is basically the antithesis of both Tombstone and My Darling Clementine. Kasdan is fascinated by the man’s epic journey through life, guided by the words and lessons of his father (Gene Hackman). It’s a sprawling, old time epic in the most fundamental sense, yet due to adding such a massive scope, completely loses sight of the man at its center. By honing in and concentrating on what Earp represents to each director, Cosmatos and Russell are able to warp the legend of Wyatt Earp for their own distinct purposes. Nevertheless, one thing that all of these films share is a unified sense that the gunslinger, like all human beings, eventually dies.

Whether he’s riding off into the sunset or dancing with the new love of his love, mortality is the coda we’re left with in both Tombstone and My Darling Clementine. But the simple fact that death is an afterthought to these motion pictures shows that the end isn’t what matters, but how a man reaches it on his own terms. In that regard, Earp is the perfect cinematic subject, a prism through which we can view our collective flaws as human beings. He’s a cipher, not because he was undefined, but because we knew we could never be him. Instead, we project our own shortcomings onto a man who, according to myth, didn’t have any. At the end, we’re all standing by his grave, mourning a life lived, as Tom Mix weeps by our side.

Tombstone is available now on Blu-ray from Hollywood Pictures Home Entertainment.