Thursday, May 30, 2013

Film Files: Tombstone

Tombstone, a historical drama based on the life of Wyatt Earp, showcases great characterization, authentic direction, and a solid attempt at staying historically accurate. Originally directed by Kevin Jarre, it was envisioned as an epic retelling of the Earp brothers and their times in the rough mining town of Tombstone, Arizona. George P. Cosmatos was later brought in to trim the story down to its basics: the social unrest in Tombstone, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the love story between Wyatt and Josephine, and the camaraderie of Doc Holiday.

Westerns have proved a staple story for America since the age of the Wild West. Over the past few decades, the story lines rapidly surpassed the formulaic plots and characters of the generic western. Tombstone places itself right back among the classics with its vibrant throng of characters and language. The characterization in the general western tends to be very stark; there is the good guy and the bad guy. One may even wear black and the other white to further distance themselves in moral stance. This is one aspect done away with in Tombstone. Doc Holiday, as a rampant, violent gambler and troublemaker, fits into an anti-hero archetype purely because of his relationship to Wyatt. Had he not been associated with a lawman, his moral ambiguity could have been bought either way. However, even Wyatt Earp himself seems a gray character in what "should" be a black and white world. Even after his brothers become disturbed by the uncontrolled violence around them, Wyatt is insistent on staying out of everyone's business. He came to Tombstone to make money and settle down, not to re-open his life as a peacemaker. It's not even until his younger brother dies at the hand of the Cowboy gang until he decides to leave neutrality behind.
Several aspects of Tombstone make it memorable among other classics in the western genre. Val Kilmer's portrayal of the sickly and smooth Doc Holiday is incredible. In one scene, Doc has stayed up for over two days straight playing poker. He can barely sit up from the combination of his progressive tuberculosis and sheer exhaustion. Yet, when he wins another hand, he manages enough sarcasm to suggest Ike Clanton might be better suited in a "spelling contest" before laughing in hysteria when Ike lunges at him. Kilmer's excellent delivery of actual quotations of his character, coupled with his moments of levity even in the most dire of situations make him one of the best Doc Holidays.

Another point of characterization in this film is that of Mattie Blaylock, Wyatt's common-law wife. Her direct portrayal of a laudanum-addicted former prostitute seems far too stark and one-dimensional. Incidentally, all of the Earp brothers' wives were former Dodge City prostitutes, but the wives of Virgil and Morgan seem far more sophisticated and loving than Mattie could ever hope to be. When not lying in bed from over-medication of her frequent "headaches", she is often tempestuous and cold to Wyatt to the point of demanding he stay home with her rather than go to work. Mattie doesn't have any redeemable qualities and even her rather obvious drug addiction can garner no sympathy. It seems that her character was made to be particularly harsh in order to give Wyatt a sort of permission to flirt with the actress Josephine without moral repercussions. By having a caustic and drug-addled pseudo-wife at home, the hero of the story is off the hook to pursue other relationships as he is being pushed out of his current one.

The direction of Tombstone, by Jarre, Kurt Russell himself, and Cosmatos manages to bring together a large amount of story with the simplicity of a classic western archetype. The small though fatal gun fight at the O.K. Corral plays out almost exactly as it had in real life. What few historical inaccuracies the film incurred usually arose from dramatic purpose, such as the Birdcage Theater existing several months before the famous gun fight when it was built afterward. The theater scene was needed to provide composition of the rowdy Cowboy gang as well as further introduce Josephine Marcus as the unlady-like lady actress and love interest.
One of the best scenes, orchestrated in a Mexican village, is the first scene. A small, simple Mexican wedding is interrupted by vengeance-seeking cowboys. Even the colors, the muted oranges and browns of the church and the ivory of the wedding dress, are contrasted with the red of the Cowboys' signature sashes and the blood that follows, so great is the disturbance. The conflict goes from soft to harsh, quiet to loud, musical to atonal. After the groom is shot and the bride taken away for insidious purposes, the Cowboys have the audacity to sit down to take the wedding feast themselves. Further unrest occurs when the gunman Ringo point-blank shoots the Mexican priest in mid-sermon. The action is so startling, yet Ringo slides away his gun as though he barely did anything. The translation of the priest's hurried warnings gives a chill to the entire movie: "Beware the man on the pale horse, for he is death, and Hell rides with him." Wyatt, enraged at his brother's death later in the film, yells a warning at Ike Clanton. Determined to hunt down the Cowboys, he yells,"Tell them I'm coming! I'm coming, and Hell's coming with me!" The Revelations quote gives epic meaning to a movie of revenge, love, and legend.

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