Easily one of the greatest western dramas ever committed to film and arguably one of the greatest movies of all time, Tombstone (1993) touches on many of the central themes that have justly been made famous and legendary in other westerns movies throughout the decades; including 1957's Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and 1946's My Darling Clementine. Yet, for this reviewer's taste, as great as those classic movies are, they always seemed to lack the intimate association between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday; somehow more intent on preserving the grandeur and mystique of the old west rather than exploring this essential and, at often complex, social camaraderie.
Tombstone rectifies that absence brilliantly with superb character studies that provide a glowing back story to the action that is to follow. Although the directorial credit on this film went to George P. Cosmatos at the time of its theatrical release, star Kurt Russell actually directed from a magnificent script written by Kevin Jarre.
The film is loosely based on that much revered and largely fabled western iconography surrounding Wyatt Earp's (Kurt Russell) arrival in Tombstone Arizona, along with brothers Virgil (Sam Elliot) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) and gambler/outlaw Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) to face down a band of notorious criminals. Quietly eschewing a major historical fact - that the Earps were tried but acquitted of a botched Wells Fargo robbery – Jarre's screenplay instead chooses to tread the more familiar tumbleweed of clearly delineated good vs. unmitigated evil.
After cleaning up the rambunctious Dodge City, the Earp clan is anxious to start anew and let their reputations as law men quietly fade into the sunset. Doc Holliday is also in tow, already afflicted with the tuberculosis that will eventually claim his life. Unfortunately for all, shortly after arriving in Tombstone Wyatt’s respect for the law is tested, this time after Curly Bill Broscius (Powers Boothe) accuses the Earps and Doc Holliday of interfering with his illegal gambling operations.
Although an early crisis is narrowly avoided when Wyatt informs Broscius that he is retired, and therefore is disinterested in Broscius's affairs, Broscius's henchman, Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) takes an immediate dislike to Doc; thereby setting up a disquieting and growing tension that will ultimately erupt in violence.
Encouraged by the townsfolk to help rid the town of Broscius and his men, Wyatt at first refuses until Tombstone's Marshal, Fred White (Harry Carey Jr.) is shot in cold blood by Broscius. Taken into custody by Wyatt - but acquitted during trial because no witnesses to the crime can be found - Broscius is released from jail and quickly sets his sights on getting even with the Earps.
Virgil becomes Tombstone's Marshal, escalating to the showdown between the Earps and Broscius at the O.K. Corral. During that legendary gunfight, three of Broscius's men are killed and Virgil and Morgan wounded. Law and order are temporarily restored, but very shortly the Earps are ambushed by Broscius loyalist, Frank McLaury (Robert John Burke). Morgan is killed and Virgil's arm is maimed for life.
A despondent Wyatt packs up to leave Tombstone. However, realizing that he will never be rid of Broscius, Wyatt announces that he has become the new U.S. Marshal and intends to kill any man wearing a red sash - the signature fashion accessory of Broscius' cowboys. Wyatt is ambushed by Broscius but manages to kill his would-be assassin, leaving Johnny Ringo in charge of the cowboys.
As Doc's health deteriorates, Wyatt is forced to leave him behind at the home of a close friend, Henry Hooker (Charlton Heston). There, Wyatt is reunited with Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany); a saloon performer he first flirted with during his early arrival in Tombstone. Ringo sends a messenger to Hooker's ranch, telling Wyatt that he wants a showdown. Not realizing that Doc has already left for that rendezvous, Wyatt sets off to confront Ringo. Doc kills Ringo before collapsing to his knees. He is rushed to a sanitarium where he succumbs to his tuberculosis, but not before he pledges that Wyatt commit himself to Josephine. Thus ends Tombstone, with great sweep and a beautifully scripted postscript narrated by actor Robert Mitchum.
At the time this reviewer first experienced Tombstone on the big screen I was not an ardent fan of the big Hollywood western. That assessment has since changed with a more steady diet of westerns to wet my appetite. It is, however, saying much that I was instantly bowled over by this movie's innately human and profoundly tragic tale from the first. My admiration for Tombstone, has only matured with time.
Performances throughout are finely wrought and expertly performed. The romantic chemistry between Russell and Delany is palpably engaging, while the arch of friendship between Holliday and Earp has never been more stirringly realized. With so much stirring entertainment to behold, it is perhaps noteworthy to recall that Tombstone had a rather awkward gestation. Buena Vista refused to distribute the film if Willem Dafoe was cast as Doc Holliday, leaving the door open for Val Kilmer to give the greatest performance of his career.
On set, Russell clashed with Jarre over a script he felt was at least 20 pages too long. In the end, the back stories of many secondary characters were trimmed or excised altogether. But the final blow came when Cosmatos - who ghost directed the film for Russell under the actor's specific scene direction - claimed in subsequent interviews that he was actually the director of the film; leaving screen credit open for interpretation and all but locking Russell out of contention for even an Oscar nomination. In the final analysis, Tombstone earned a little more than double its $25 million production costs during its theatrical engagement.
Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray easily bests its rather lack lustre 2-disc Vista Series offering from 2001. Yet, all is not ideal in this offering either. The anamorphic image exhibits bold, rich and vibrant colors. Contrast levels seem a tad too low. Blacks are generally deep, rich and velvety. Whites are pristine. Film grain that had often registered as a patina of digital grit on the DVD is superbly realized on the Blu-Ray.
Regrettably, there is still edge enhancement present. Although nothing to the levels experienced on the DVD, the enhancement is excessively distracting during two key sequences in the film; the opening assassination of a newlywed couple and a priest and the scene in the saloon where Doc uses his shot glass as though it were a pistol to upstage Johnny Ringo's expert marksmanship. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite powerful. Extras include a ‘making of’ featurette, theatrical trailer, audio commentary and other press and promotional junket materials.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)