Welcome to Retro Time. In this blog, I’ll be covering topics related to film and television from past decades. These won’t be reviews, but rather a selection of memories, thoughts, and ideas designed to spark a little nostalgia and maybe inspire a conversation or two. Spoilers will likely come up, so please keep that in mind. Thanks for stopping by, and if you have any thoughts or ideas, feel free to chime in. I’d love to get your feedback. Now, let’s get ready to take a look back…
LSG Media’s recent coverage of historical drams such at 310 to Yuma and The Last of the Mohicans inspired me to take my own look at another period-based film that I consider to be one of the greatest ever made.
Tombstone, released in 1993 and directed by the late George P. Cosmatos, was a watershed moment in movie fandom for me. I’d grown up on a steady diet of westerns, so I was no stranger to the genre. But this film captured my imagination in that special way that only a perfect piece of work can. In the near quarter of a century since its release, its mystique and grandeur continues to have a hold of me. To this day, I still believe that it’s one of the best movies ever made, and here’s why.
First off, I’d like to say a quick word about the genre itself. The American western is a form of mythology first and foremost. Often depicting actual historical figures and incidents – which is the case here – it is viewed through the prism of a different century for the purpose of entertainment. Westerns aren’t a true representation of history but rather a vision of history as if filtered through a dream. John Ford said it best. “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.” That’s what we have here. The life and times of Wyatt Earp mythologized, and it is with this idea in mind that we are taken on one hell of a cinematic ride.
Let’s start at the beginning. The use of footage from the 1903 silent film The Great Train Robbery is brilliant. It sets the tone and helps get your mind fully rooted in the past. And the voiceover by legendary tough guy Robert Mitchum is pure gold. The mood and the feel of the story to come is on full display, and right away we’re hooked.
From there, we jump right into the action. The film takes the bold choice of introducing us to the villains first. The Cowboys, led by the awesome Powers Boothe and the equally awesome Michael Biehn are the perfect heavies. They don’t waste any time getting down and dirty. Not ten minutes in and we know we hate them and can’t wait to see them get their comeuppance.
At this point, we shift over to the Earps and are offered a complete contrast from the previous scene. The chemistry between them is apparent immediately. I mean, come on. Kurt Russel. Same Elliot. Bill Paxton. How can you not love these guys? They seem perfectly natural as brothers and you buy right away that they will do anything for each other. You can’t help but love them and want to root for them. And the movie hasn’t even hardly started yet!
Then we meet Doc Holiday. Ah, Doc Holiday. Words can’t begin to express how much I love this character. All I can say is that Val Kilmer absolutely nails this career-defining role. You could tell that he was born to play this guy and it shows in every mannerism he makes and every line he utters. The way he walks, talks, and carries himself is done with such charisma that I can hardly think of any other movie cowboy that can even hold a candle to him. That’s saying a lot coming from a genre that’s given us such heavy hitters as John Wayne, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood. But for my money, Kilmer’s Doc Holiday is in a class all by himself. Somehow, he makes a skinny, tuberculosis-riddled drunk look like the coolest dude to ever draw iron.
The rest of the cast is no joke either. I can’t think of another movie that provides such a rich and interesting list of character actors as this one. Michael Rooker. Thomas Haden Church. Stephen Lang, among many others. Hell, they even tossed Charlton Heston in there! Each of them fits into the puzzle perfectly. There’s not one weak link in the chain.
In addition to the tone, the cast, and the performances, the music is also top notch. Bruce Broughton’s score is epic and rousing. He brings a heart and soul to the story that fits the world perfectly. Interesting enough, he was also the composer for Silverado, another great western from a few years before that’s worth checking out. Bottom line. He definitely had the chops for this job.
So to recap, Tombstone provides an epic story, a well-set tone, a stellar cast, and a monumental score. It was masterfully handed with skilled direction, editing, and visual design to craft what was not only one of best westerns ever made, but one of the best movies ever made. Period.
As much as I’d love to do a scene by scene breakdown, I’ll restrain myself. That’s a job for another medium. Like say, a discussion show where a group of insightful movie-buffs review the film in question to offer witty and entertaining observations to an audience of captive listeners. cough – hint – cough (Hey, if Doc can make the grating sounds of lung distress work to his advantage, why can’t I?)
Instead, I’ll offer up what I call George’s highlights reel. Ready? Here we go. Wyatt slapping Billy Bob Thornton around. Bad ass. Johnny Ringo spinning his six shooter in the bar scene. Bad ass. Doc schooling him a second later by spinning his booze cup to spite him. Bad ass. Virgil knocking Ike Clanton upside the head after he’d threatened him. Bad ass. The OK Corral gun fight scene. BAD ASS! Wyatt’s “Hell’s coming with me!” line after blowing away Stillwell at the train station. Bad ass. The Cowboy annihilation montage that followed. Bad ass. And finally, Doc’s take down of Johnny Ringo at the end. SO FRIGGIN BAD ASS.
And there we have it. Tombstone is one of those rare masterpieces of cinematic storytelling that brings all of the best elements of film together in all the right ways, reminding us why we love this art form in the first place. I’ll stop there. Like I said before, words can’t really express how good this film is. You’ll just have to watch it again and experience it for yourself.
Unless, of course, those words are spoken in the context of a film discussion forum. Perhaps one that can be downloaded onto a portable listening device and enjoyed during long commutes or while performing various household chores.
Then, and only then, will it get the proper analysis it deserves.
cough – really guys, this would be an awesome episode – cough
George Ebey is the author of the recently released sci-fi novella DEBBI as well as a contributor to the anthology Brave New Girls. He is currently working on a full-length series of adventure tales set on Mars. You can connect with him on Facebook at George Ebey-Author and on Twitter @Ebeybooks. Or visit his website at www.gerogeebey.com.