Wednesday, July 3, 2019

"Tombstone" - 'Tom Mix wept' and other reasons why I love this western.

As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS. But if you haven’t seen Tombstone, how have you ended up on this page?

The birth of my second child put a bit of a delay on my monthly output for the site. I originally planned on getting this movie, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, and one more random selection before the end of June as part of my plan for a Van Damme, a western, a comedy, and a grab bag selection each month. Hopefully I get back into some form of a routine (not sure that’s possible with an infant and a toddler in the house) and accomplish that for the rest of July. As for now, enjoy my ramblings on Tombstone, and then I’ll move on to one of my favorite Van Damme movies: Double Impact

A western more concerned with characters than shootouts...but there are still plenty of shootouts.

Tombstone is beloved among pretty much all my friends and most men and women I've ever brought this movie up to, and that's rare for a western. Westerns have their base audience, of course, but it's typically a niche audience these days. I think this is because filmmakers of westerns in the last two to three decades have been hellbent on not being traditional. This has made for some very interesting, entertaining films in the genre (which I will be writing about in the coming months), but it has also shrunk the audience for the genre. Perhaps that's why people love Tombstone so much. It didn't shy away from early westerns; it wanted to be like them.

(That above paragraph was not supposed to be in bold, but this is blogger, and nearly every article I write has one paragraph that stays bold no matter what I do.)

This isn’t to say Tombstone isn’t interesting, far from it. I do think of it as a very traditional western, which is still something audiences want to see. But more than that, audiences want to see great characters portrayed by great actors, and Tombstone has a ton of both. 

My love of the characters and actors of this film stuck out to me this viewing primarily because I found the biggest action sequence, the “hunting of the Cowboys” montage, to be the least interesting portion of the movie. Normally, you think of westerns and shootouts come to mind, especially for a western based around one of the most famous shootouts in Wild West history. But I didn’t care about the action. It’s not that it’s bad action; I just think it pales in comparison to the character work done earlier in the film.

So I just want to break down what I love about every character in this movie. Before I do that, I have to point out that this movie is so beloved because it is one of the most quotable movies of all time. I single out most of my favorites in the Random Thoughts section, but this is one of those movies I think I could recite verbatim. Anyway, on to the characters:

Wyatt Earp - This is basically his movie, of course, but I think Kurt Russell’s performance makes the character here. His presence is just so powerful. I mean, he just looks like he belongs in a western. And yeah, he gets some pretty awesome tough guy moments (“Are you going to do something or just stand there and bleed?”). Overall, a classic western character.

Virgil Earp - It’s Sam Elliott! For a western like this, it’s a necessity to cast him. My favorite moments are right after he defies Wyatt and takes the law enforcement job. Not only does he have a couple great arguments with Wyatt, but he also gets to have it out with Ike Clanton. One of my favorite moments is when Virgil finally snaps when Ike keeps calling the Earps “pimps.” The rage in his Elliott’s face looks legitimate when goes after Ike.

Morgan Earp - Man, I miss Bill Paxton. Perfectly cast as the fun-loving Earp brother, Paxton is just a guy you want to hang out with. He eventually joins the fight, too, but for the most part Morgan is just there to have a good time and help out his brothers. He reminds me of Cal from Talladega Nights, and I sincerely believe John C. Reilly used this character as inspiration for his performance.

Ike Clanton - According to director George P. Cosmatos, Stephen Lang was drunk the whole shoot, and I found an interview in which Lang basically admits he didn’t drink any water during this shoot. That alone makes me love his performance. He is so effectively skeezy throughout. And I just like the way he says things, especially “law dog” and “you goddamned pimps!” 

Doc Holliday - Everybody loves Val Kilmer in this movie and rightfully so. It’s arguably his best performance (I’m a big fan of his Jim Morrison, too), and he’s one of the most quotable characters ever. Kilmer’s performance is what sells it all. His southern aristocratic accent is perfect for Holliday’s constant sarcasm.

Curly Bill - Powers Boothe is what started me down this current western path, and this performance is one of my favorites. His maniacal laughter throughout is great. I only wish he was the true villain of the film. I feel like he deserved a bit more screentime, but what we get is gold. Plus, he produced the best meme from the movie with his delivery of “well...bye.”

Johnny Ringo - I’m a bit lukewarm on Ringo these days. As a kid, I thought of him as a bad ass villain. Now, his whole existential angst gets on my nerves a bit. I guess I just wanted to see more Curly Bill than Ringo. I do like Michael Biehn in the role, however.

Johnny Tyler - Sure, this is basically just a cameo for Billy Bob Thornton, but it’s so enjoyable. I could watch that scene over and over.

Jane - Let’s face it, Tombstone is a man’s movie right down to the cast. The women are there only as significant others. That said, Jane was interesting, and it’s unfortunate that she’s not given a bit more to do. Doc obviously loved her, and she was definitely into their lifestyle, but we only get glimpses of it.

Josephine - She’s kind of a manic pixie dream girl of the Wild West. So many scenes involve her simply smiling brightly until Wyatt notices. That said, she is a progressive female character who speaks her mind, which is refreshing.

Mattie - Poor Mattie, on the other hand, is woefully mistreated by Wyatt. Yes, she has a laudanum problem, but Wyatt is too busy trying to milk every dime he can out of Tombstone or start a relationship with an actress to meaningfully help her with her problem. I feel like the movie set her up as an addict, which was supposed to make us not care when Wyatt cheated on her. As I see it, Wyatt needed to devote himself more to her then than ever before, and he chose money and an easier relationship instead.

How was this a mess behind the scenes?

I somehow never came across any behind the scenes stories about this movie until I decided to write this article. Apparently screenwriter Kevin Jarre was given this as his directorial debut, but was fired a month in because it was just too much for a first time director. George P. Cosmatos was brought it with almost no prep whatsoever to finish the job. He immediately had the script cut down to focus more on the Earps and went from there. 

That alone is very interesting as such problems usually lead to messy, uneven films. Added to this is Kurt Russell’s later claim that he basically directed the movie and Cosmatos was simply there to supervise. And then Kilmer came out and said that wasn’t entirely true, but Russell did go above and beyond to keep the film going. I listened to a bit of Cosmatos’s commentary, and I’m more inclined to believe Kilmer here. He gives way too much detail about mundane aspects of the film to have merely been a supervisor. And he does mention that the whole project was very collaborative, and that the actors went beyond their required duties to make sure the film was good. 

No matter who really directed it, Tombstone is an anomaly in that it turned out so great despite the chaos behind the scenes. Perhaps Russell does deserve most of the credit. He seemed destined to play Earp, so maybe he saw the potential for greatness in the role and the overall film and made sure it worked out. Either way, all involved should be proud that they produced such an enjoyable, quotable, and awesome western.

Why do I own this?

I think every dude of the ‘90s is required to own this movie. Plus, the special edition is pretty awesome.

Random Thoughts

I'm sorry, but I want to be in the gang that has Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, an impossibly dirty Stephen Lang, Thomas Haden Church, and Michael Rooker.

I like how Curly Bill's threat at the beginning ends with, "I ain't kiddin', neither." You just killed half the village, Bill, we know you're not bluffin'.

One of the roles Kurt Russell was meant to play, along with Snake Plissken, MacReady, John Ruth, Jack Burton, and, uh...Captain Ron.

And of course Sam Elliott is meant to be in this movie. 

Maddie asking for laudanum is quite a bit of foreshadowing. It's also an example of Wild West ridiculousness that always cracks me up: the rampant use of laudanum. 

This is Frank Stallone's shining moment.

This movie is endlessly quotable, but Billy Bob's line, "Christ almighty! It's like I'm sittin' here playin' cards with my brother's kids or something. You nerve-wrackin' sons-a-bitches!" is possibly my favorite. 

Speaking of Billy Bob, he's nearly unrecognizable in this.

How was Kilmer not nominated for this?

"Johnny, I apologize. I forgot you were there. You may go now."

Wyatt Earp is a greedy dick for the first half of this movie, what with his obsession with money and his presumptuous turning down of law enforcement jobs before they're offered. 

Bill Paxton's "aw shucks" portrayal of Morgan is great.

"Prettiest man I ever saw." 

The camera stays on Jason Priestly watching Billy Zane for a full six seconds, which doesn't sound long but is actually an eternity. 

The Holliday/Ringo interaction gets most of the love, but I'm partial to Ike Clanton's "law dog" threats to Wyatt at the saloon. 

This movie was the first time I heard "in vino veritas," which I totally said all the time when I first started drinking. 

"I don't laugh all day long like an idiot."

Curly Bill has quite the reaction to opium: shooting randomly, literally howling at the moon, and shooting a marshal. 

"I swear to God, law dog, let him go."

"Talk to him, will you? Or hit him?"

I love how Ike calls the Earps “pimps.” I think Ike Clanton might be my favorite character in this movie.

"What's wrong with him?"
Gesturing towards Holliday's exit. "Well, I hope you die!"

“I don’t take no mouth from no bartenders, neither. There, you see? Give somebody a rap on the beard, get some respect around here.” Is immediately pistol-whipped.

I’ve always thought Virgil’s pistol-whipping of Ike was pretty weak.

“I ain’t easy, and I ain’t your kid. You take sorry and shove it up your ass!” That would be a pretty badass moment if that dude wasn’t immediately pistol-whipped to the ground with his own gun.

Thomas Haden Church cracks me up in this, too. He’s always just adding to what others say. Like adding, “Bastards. It’s comin’!” as they ride off from jail. Good one, Lowell!

I think this is the first time I noticed the wagon of women going by with the sign “Equal pay for equal work. No matter the gender.” 

The fire before the famous shootout is apparently accurate. I just like how all the guys just look at it with no concern at all as they keep walking.

I love how Wyatt tells Ike, “The fight’s commenced. Get to fightin’ or get out of the way!” It’s like, “Hey, Ike, you know the rules of gunfights, damn it!”

“I’m not going to fight you, Ringo. There’s no money in it.” Greedy Earp at it again.

I love how Ringo pronounces “lunger,” emphasizing the “g.”

“Somebody get that goddamn dog outta here!” Seriously, why is Morgan’s wife and a dog still in there while they’re trying to dig a bullet out of his back?

“Well...bye.” This is why I love Powers Boothe.

I guess I forgot about Doc’s deathbed confession about being in love with his 15-year-old cousin, who became a nun after their affair…

I love all the abrupt info in the ending narration. Ike Clanton was killed two years later. Mattie died of an overdose soon after leaving Tombstone. Good to know they didn’t forget about these characters.

Possibly my favorite ending line of a movie ever because of its randomness: “Tom Mix wept.”



  1. I just watched Tombstone last night for the 10th or so time and found this blogspot by googling “Tom Mix wept.” So first of all thank you for writing this and going down the rabbit hole of Tombstone nerdery.

    I disagree about the end. I think it should have been executed similar to the beginning, with the small inner frame of black and white footage accompanying the voiceover facts.

    I hate Josephine as a character and Dana Delaney is always infuriating as the weakest link in a tremendously stellar cast. The women in the film play second fiddle to the male cast members anyway so why not let ONE good dynamic actress play this role? Her lines are terrible and her scenes are terrible. “Let’s run it out of them”.... ew. Just ew. And the end is them DANCING IN THE SNOW‽ at this point after Doc does I just turn off the film.