Monday, January 27, 2014

That's A Fact

Twenty years on since TOMBSTONE, released December 25, 1993 and the film has survived as one of the most fondly remembered westerns of the past few decades. No one really saw that coming—a chaotic production which was rushed into theaters (presumably to beat the following summer’s WYATT EARP) the studio barely put any effort into selling the film beyond the formality of letting people know it was there only to find surprisingly good reviews, healthy business and talk that Val Kilmer might have gotten an Oscar nomination if they had bothered to push him for one. I enjoyed the film too when I caught up with it on New Year’s Day of that holiday season and actually have a recollection of feeling a sudden sense of ease during an early scene as I found myself realizing that this film was going to work. And it does, for the most part anyway. It kinda sorta falters at a certain point in the last stretch but enough of TOMBSTONE holds together that it’s still a rewarding one to return to. It’s a flat out western with a capital W and it’s become such a rarity to find one willing to revel in the sheer pleasure of that quite so much. In that celebration of the genre is a portrayal of family, of friendships, of myth as well as an acknowledgement that this in telling this story again on film it’s part of that myth, right from how the black & white footage in the opening prologue narrated by the legendary Robert Mitchum is capped by the famous final shot from THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. In that sense, TOMBSTONE is saying, little has changed. We still need those legends and every now and then it’s good to find one which embraces that idea the way this film does.
In 1879 former lawman Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) has decided to settle down with wife Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) in the growing mining town of Tombstone, Arizona along with brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott), Morgan (Bill Paxton) and their wives. The Earps are soon joined by Wyatt’s old friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) with his girl Big Nose Kate (Joanna Pacula) and the group begins to take charge of a local saloon as Wyatt turns down any and all offers to wear a badge again. But with troubles in his marriage even as Wyatt’s attention is distracted by traveling performer Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany) matters are soon complicated by the presence of The Cowboys, a gang that includes the likes of Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Boothe), Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) with their eye on taking charge of Tombstone. Unwilling to stand by and watch this happen to the town the Earps soon take charge, imposing a weapons ban within the city limits but even as Wyatt resists getting involved the tensions between the two sides grow leading to the legendary showdown at the O.K. Corral.
It’s that early scene when the newly arrived Wyatt Earp lines up himself and wife Mattie along with his brothers and their wives in the reflection of a nearby window, just to let them gaze upon that moment of the reunion. And as the music swells a certain sense of comfort is felt, a realization of what this film is going to care about and it all begins to click from there, whether or not these feelings have anything to do with the real Wyatt Earp and his kin. Written by Kevin Jarre and directed by George P. Cosmatos (and more on those credits in a bit), TOMBSTONE isn’t a great film but it is an extremely enjoyable one, more endearing than anything else, which counts for a lot and as a result it remains a rousing example of the genre, an unabashed piece of unpretentious entertainment. Much as there might be a tinge of updated revisionism it quickly becomes clear that it’s flat-out in love with the idea of being an old-fashioned western and is the sort of film that wants to celebrate moments like riding through the range towards the next frontier, the next town, more than any such film in the immediate post-UNFORGIVEN period. It depicts the setting of the title in a way that feels lived-in and movieish all at once as well as featuring an expansive look and feel thanks to cinematographer William Fraker with historical touches on the edges of the frame all set to Bruce Broughton’s triumphantly full-bodied score. Going along with that is group of actors who seem perfectly cast for a movie where you would just want to hang out with the people who are up onscreen and that just adds to the sense of pleasure felt right off.
Even if some of the narrative is a little too choppy at times the story holds together to an almost surprising degree with a great deal of momentum building as the tension ratchets up towards the confrontation we’re all waiting for and it’s fun to just sit back with it, to enjoy the brothers and Doc Holliday bantering, to take in the wide expanses of Wyatt and Josie getting to know each other as they ride their horses during their first real meeting. It clicks along, there’s a real energy to it. Maybe it’s not the old west of classic Hollywood old west but it gets the spirit right and feels like the right sort of update for the 90s and also beyond. Plus the O.K. Corral sequence with its Leone-like close-ups (I assume that some of the violence wants to ape Peckinpah but it doesn’t mix in quite as successfully) building to a wink from Doc Holliday that really sets off the fireworks is a nifty piece of action filmmaking that pays off what’s been built up. As much as certain elements may have been added for this telling, like the red sashes of The Cowboys which feel like they’re meant to blatantly resemble gang colors, the straight-forward nature of the story being told feels flat-out refreshing looking at it again now, maybe even more than it was then. If the same script were made today I’d imagine the whole thing would be grunged up—the primary colors of the red sashes and certain costumes wouldn’t be quite so prominent, the period appropriate moustaches would probably be done away with in favor of a more grimey unshaven look (Sam Elliott’s moustache here has to be the Sam Elliott Moustache to end all Sam Elliott Moustaches), Tombstone probably wouldn’t appear as welcoming. Plus I’d imagine that it wouldn’t be allowed to be nearly as much fun. And that pure enjoyment is so much of what causes TOMBSTONE to work. In some ways it feels like a movie about fun actors playing cowboy as much as anything and those good feelings bring an epic feel to this retelling of the famous story almost more than anything else about it.
Keeping in mind the troubled shoot, the pacing is at times a touch haphazard with some scenes that could remain just as easily as being left out, which makes it easy to believe that there are also such moments missing. With some of the actors on the edges of those crowd shots seemingly doing their business whether the camera takes notice or not there seems to be enough lurking on the outskirts of the plot to make us wonder what we’re missing, like whatever’s going on between Billy Zane and Jason Priestly (even though he’s fourth billed in at least one trailer Priestly doesn’t have much presence at all in the final film) or how Dana Delaney’s relationship with Jon Tenney’s County Sheriff Johnny Behan seems to both start and end out of nowhere. Dialogue refers to the town being terrorized by the Cowboys but outside of one crucial murder it feels like we don’t see enough of that. But to its credit the movie does know how to compensate by keeping characters alive within scenes when they don’t even have dialogue like a tight close-up on Joanna Pacula’s Big Nose Kate while Doc Holliday receives news from a doctor and it keeps certain minor players active in the narrative even when they’re not doing anything so they aren’t forgotten about—that it knows how to juggle so many faces feels like a triumph in itself. It’s not perfect and as much as certain scenes feel like they’re given a chance to play out in a relaxed way between the chararcters, like when Morgan Earp talks about a book he read on spiritualism, just as many feel like they’re slamming through to the basic expository plot points as fast as possible, giving the impression that lots was cut down to get the film to a reasonable length—Cecil Hoffman, recognizable from L.A. LAW around this period, gets decent billing (and even a name for her character) for what appears to be a single reaction shot while an important court hearing is only discussed after the fact making me wonder if the scene was cut during shooting.
The post-Tombstone section of the last half hour is the weakest section containing a few fast montages of rapid action and not a lot of plot since much of the interesting stuff has happened already--I saw the film once when it played theaters but not again for years afterward and I remember that I checked out of the film for a few minutes at the exact same time on both viewings. Maybe it’s because when Wyatt & friends set off on a roaring rampage of revenge it feels like a new movie is starting—it’s like we’re getting to see cool stuff that it didn’t know how to fit in otherwise but the style seems all wrong and even though this is just a few minutes of the running time it still causes the movie to stumble at this point with way too much repetition. The story strands do come together near the very end with two scenes that resolve both Wyatt’s relationship with Doc and with Josephine in ways that feel appropriate for what the film is so even the final narration by Robert Mitchum (who was set to play Old Man Clanton before sidelined by an injury suffered on set; the part was simply omitted) which races through multiple important events that we never got to see has the right spirit.
Ultimately TOMBSTONE pays off in a way that feels satisfying, like a meal at a roadside diner which you never imagined could be so good. And it’s all anchored by Kurt Russell, bringing all his onscreen confidence to the role with every bit of likeability and power associated with him, turning this version of Wyatt Earp into an earthbound legend that deserves to be followed. Ultimately, the film is about Wyatt Earp embracing the destiny of the lawman that he is and leading a charge into hell against the evil of The Cowboys while at the same time looking for his own idea of heaven in the form of Josie, the woman he winds up dancing in the snow with right before ordering room service. Whether that’s really legend or fact, it seems correct for this particular film.
Production began with screenwriter Kevin Jarre making his directorial debut but after falling behind and apparent dissatisfaction with his footage he was replaced several weeks into shooting by George P. Cosmatos (some of what Jarre shot, including Charlton Heston’s entire role, remains in the film). While reports of the troubled production made it out there at the time—including an Entertainment Weekly article which is surprisingly frank—it wasn’t until a 2006 interview in True West magazine that Kurt Russell basically admitted to essentially ghost-directing the movie himself when Cosmatos was brought in after Jarre was fired. Many scenes were lost in the rush to keep the shoot on schedule and Russell, who claims he made substantial cuts to his own role to get the other actors to trust him, says just enough in the interview to leave me with even more questions—I also wonder about a claim in the Entertainment Weekly article that those revenge montages were a Cosmatos addition, considering they’re my least favorite stuff in the film. Not to mention what Kevin Jarre, let alone anyone else on set, would say about it all.
Sadly both the credited writer and director have since passed away—Jarre in 2011, Cosmatos in 2005—so there are some answers we’re never going to get but it’s still hard not to hope for some sort of expanded version featuring scenes that are only glimpsed in the trailers and that didn’t even turn up in the 2002 “director’s cut” released on DVD (In 2006 Russell answered, “Because I got a life. Someday I may do it,” when asked why he hadn’t reconstructed the film). Whatever is the truth about Russell’s involvement, and I can believe that it’s a complicated truth, it’s sometimes a miracle that a film is ever made, let alone good, so however good this one is has to be this confluence of events where several people just determined to get something done and they pulled it off. Or maybe it was just in the stars, although I don't know if something that becomes remembered as fondly as TOMBSTONE ultimately is happens without some work getting done. Maybe that’s partly what the film is about as well.
The cast, filled with people who I imagine in ’93 often weren’t even the third or fourth choices for big movies, is a large part of what makes the movie work and you can feel their excitement for playing these characters—Kurt Russell is the sturdy rock that holds much of it together, while Val Kilmer who clearly has the best roll (and best dialogue of anyone) feels almost like he’s doing Captain Jack Sparrow ten years before Johnny Depp yet never feels like he’s in a different movie than everyone else. He’s always adding to his character by playing off those around him and when he chastises Wyatt for insisting that this isn’t Doc’s fight the feelings in his voice are genuine even through the flamboyance. Sam Elliott’s serious determination and Bill Paxton’s youthful enthusiasm play well off of Russell as well. The movie is willing to give the actors the chance to do things with their moments, like the Latin-off between Kilmer and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo. Biehn with his nasty intelligence is particularly good but Powers Boothe and his slimy canniness, Stephen Lang’s filthy cowardice, Thomas Haden Church’s slow-witted callowness and Billy Bob Thornton’s hollow bluster in a small role all stick out in their own ways. As Mattie, Dana-Wheeler Nicholson does something with what might come off as a one-note role in lesser hands, while though Dana Delaney doesn’t quite seem period appropriate she still manages to be completely disarming making you believe that Wyatt is totally stopped in his tracks by this modern woman and Joanna Pacula as Big Nose Kate has such an effective, smoldering presence that it makes me wonder why there aren’t whole tumblr pages devoted to her in this film. Harry Carey, Jr., veteran of Ford and Hawks plays Marshal Fred White while Charlton Heston turns up in the final section as real-life rancher Henry Hooker--I particularly like the way the full breadth of his character seems to be revealed in the way he offers his hand to Wyatt right before he rides off. Maybe the scenes don’t really add up to very much beyond giving Heston a chance to make an appearance but it still has resonance as if he’s reprising a role he played in a western long ago and is helping out the leads in this film because, well, that’s what heroes do.
Twenty years on TOMBSTONE is now its own legend, a film with an old fashioned approach that still succeeds in being something new. Six months later it was clear that WYATT EARP wanted to be the David Lean western. This one wants to be a good time, one that still has the shadings needed in the story of Wyatt Earp, while still respecting that legend. I’m not saying one automatically makes it better than the other, they’re just two approaches, but somehow it succeeded. Maybe TOMBSTONE is a case where part of the intent makes me overlook certain flaws and overblown elements but its best moments work so well that they get me to dream of a world where westerns like this still get made. Thinking about this, when the end circles back to Robert Mitchum’s narration the very last line that details what Tom Mix did at Wyatt Earp’s funeral feels absolutely correct. I could imagine that most people seeing TOMBSTONE don’t even know who Tom Mix is, but the point is clear. Those legends matter. It’s why we love westerns to begin with.


Unknown said...

Fantastic look at one of my all-time fave westerns. This is one of those rare films that is just flat-out entertaining and makes no excuses for it. As you pointed out, the casting is spot-on - populated by character actors who were so hungry for a meaty role to sink their teeths into and you can tell in so many scenes where the actors just seem so happy to be able breathe life into their respective roles. And that joy translates into our enjoyment of watching the film.

Samuel Wilson said...

When I saw Tombstone at the theater they played a trailer for the Costner Wyatt Earp first. The trailer, at least, looked like a tough act to follow until the feature attraction played. As you say, it stumbles toward the end but by then it was clear that Costner had a tough act to follow, and his film only looked even worse than it really was by comparison when it finally appeared. It was no daisy, that's for sure.