“I don’t think I’ll let you arrest me today.”
Wyatt Earp has been the inspiration for numerous films over the past century. Most focused their stories on the events at the O.K. Corral, but a few also dealt with the aftermath — Wyatt’s campaign to wipe out the Clanton gang after his brother Morgan is killed and other brother Virgil wounded. Law and Order (1932, Universal, Walter Huston as a character based on Earp), Frontier Marshal (1939, Fox, Randolph Scott as Earp), and My Darling Clementine (1946, Fox, Henry Fonda as Earp) were the best of the earlier efforts. 1967’s Hour of the Gun (UA) was the first Earp film to really deal with the O.K. Corral aftermath and quite successfully with James Garner as a forceful Earp.
With the western’s brief renaissance in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Earp saga was dusted off for two major productions. One was Lawrence Kasdan’s lengthy Earp biography Wyatt Earp (1994, WB), which has its rewards although Kevin Costner as Earp is not one of them. The other, and much the best of the two was 1993’s Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell at the head of a large and fine ensemble cast.
Buena Vista (Disney) has now released Tombstone for the second time on DVD. After its original DVD version that didn’t measure up to the previous laserdisc release, Disney has now done this fine film justice with a full-fledged two-disc DVD treatment as part of its Vista Series.
Wyatt Earp joins his brothers Virgil and Morgan in Arizona where they travel to Tombstone hoping to become successful businessmen and leave their peace-officer days behind them. Tombstone is effectively a lawless town controlled by a group of gunmen who call themselves the Cowboys. The Cowboys are led by Curly Bill Brocious, Johnny Ringo, and Ike Clanton. The Earps meet up with a long-time friend Doc Holliday and soon establish themselves as operators of a game of chance at the Oriental Saloon, but the lawlessness in the town begins to affect Virgil and he agrees to become sheriff. His brother Morgan joins him as a deputy and eventually Wyatt reluctantly does too. Minor confrontations between the Earps and the Cowboys escalate and a showdown results at the O.K. Corral where the Earps and Holliday kill a number of the Cowboys. The Cowboys respond on a stormy night soon after. Morgan is killed and Virgil is shot and loses his left arm. The Earps leave Tombstone, but swearing vengeance, Wyatt gets himself appointed a federal marshal and sets out to track down Curly Bill, Ringo, and the rest of their gang.
“They don’t make ’em like they used to” isn’t always true and it’s a pleasure to report that Tombstone is one of those films that belies the phrase. This old-fashioned western provides rousing entertainment. As we get further and further from the actual period, the western becomes a more difficult film to make, at least with an authentic feel to it, because the intervening years mean we’ve lost the people who had direct experience with the period or at least knew others who did. Now, like other period pieces, filmmakers have to rely on secondary sources to provide the necessary detail. Even when they do get the details right, they sometimes just don’t manage to have their film convey an atmosphere of authenticity and viewers never manage to believe that what they’re seeing is other than a collection of contrived set-pieces. It doesn’t help either when the casting and dialogue is done with more of an eye to the viewer demographics than to ensuring what’s best for the film itself. Feeble efforts like Young Guns (1988), Young Guns II (1990), and last year’s American Outlaws certainly demonstrate that. Tombstone manages to avoid all this admirably.
Director George Cosmatos is not one who comes to mind at all when one thinks of westerns. Previously known for several outings with Sylvester Stallone (Cobra  and Rambo: First Blood Part II ), he would seem to have been a curious choice for Tombstone. He readily accepted the job because of a love for westerns stretching back to his childhood growing up in Italy. The element he seems to have been most interested in ensuring was the film’s look of authenticity and believability, and in this, he has been very successful. This film is packed with people and props. There are almost 90 speaking parts in the film, but there are numerous extras (in many cases they’re re-enactors from all over the United States) that make Tombstone look like a real, functioning town at all times. All the characters look and act like one imagines westerners did. And every scene is full of detail both in the foreground and background. Colour is used extensively and artistically (in costumes and in props) to create numerous pleasing screen compositions. (Take a look at the scenes when Earp first enters the Oriental and has his confrontation with the gambler played by Billy Bob Thornton, for a good example.) Otherwise, Cosmatos does a good job of moving the film along. Panoramic and establishing shots are nicely composed but not drawn out unnecessarily. The action sequences are handled with style and clarity.
The large, ensemble cast features a number of excellent performances. Kurt Russell is splendid as Wyatt Earp; in fact, it’s just about his best screen work. He’s forceful and intimidating when necessary, but also convincingly conveys the character’s inner turmoils and uncertainties. Val Kilmer gives an interpretation of Doc Holliday that has to be seen to be appreciated. He affects a southern accent with an aristocratic tone that somehow just seems right coming out of the mouth of a man who looks closer to death than anything else for most of the film. Michael Biehn gives us a Johnny Ringo (a gunman who knows that the days of men of his type are numbered) who is an educated man but also a scary individual, clearly one that only a very fine line separates from being a complete madman. Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton are fine as Virgil and Morgan Earp, and Dana Delany makes her portrayal of Wyatt’s love interest a little more interesting than the usual such character. Powers Boothe (playing Curly Bill) reminded me very much of Lee Marvin, which is probably praise enough for his efforts. The casting of the film also has nice touches in its inclusion of veteran John Ford player Harry Carey Jr. as the town’s sheriff who is killed by Curly Bill; Pedro Armendáriz Jr. (son of the well-known Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz) as the Mexican village priest; and Wyatt Earp (a distant relative of the real Wyatt Earp) playing Billy Claiborne, one of the Cowboys.
George Cosmatos’s first cut of Tombstone was apparently about three hours long. The film was then reduced to the 128-minute version that eventually was released to theatres. On the previous laserdisc release, five of the deleted scenes were included with introductions by Cosmatos. For the new Vista Series DVD release that is billed as the Director’s Cut, four of the deleted scenes have been restored, adding about six minutes to the film’s running time. They include a scene between Wyatt Earp and Mattie in which Earp comes across Mattie’s stock of laudanum; Doc Holliday’s farewell to his companion Kate; Doc in his hotel room reciting poetry while Virgil and Morgan are attacked during the stormy night; and McMasters’s encounter with the Cowboys that leads to his death. Curiously, the fifth scene (which involves Billy Breckenridge bringing in two of the Cowboys he’s killed because they murdered the actor Fabian) is nowhere to be seen, neither in the film nor as a deleted scene included with the disc supplements.
I believe viewers will be very pleased with Buena Vista’s efforts on the image transfer for this new Vista Series edition of Tombstone. Aside from some edge enhancement that does not prove to be a significant factor, the results are great. This is a THX-certified 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that appears to have been made from a new print for it is essentially free of other than the very occasional speckle. The wonderful cinematography by William Fraker is done full justice. The image is bright and crisp with fully saturated colours. Skin tones are very good. Both day- and night-time scenes are well handled with shadow detail excellent.
The old laserdisc sported a Dolby Surround audio track that was very dynamic, but the new DVD’s 5.1 tracks (both Dolby Digital and DTS) are significantly better. Both are potent mixes that really get a workout from the numerous action sequences and they deliver in spades. The surrounds are well-utilized and there’s excellent movement across the sound stage during both the night-time thunderstorm and several passages of men on horseback across the screen. LFE are engaged quite noticeably in several instances. Dialogue is rich and clear. English closed captions and French and Spanish subtitles are included.
This is a two-disc set that looks great before you even open it. The style is similar to Warners’s efforts on Citizen Kane — a two-disc fold-out case enclosed in a cardboard jacket. The jacket is a classy-looking sepia-toned effort with a semi-circular piece in the shape of a bullet hole cut out of the front and back edges, which makes it easy to pull out the inner case.
The first platter contains the film and an audio commentary by director Cosmatos. Cosmatos is obviously enthusiastic about Tombstone and he provides quite a bit of information about the production details, choice of shots, casting, and the film’s authenticity and attention to detail. He can be a little repetitive at times, but overall he gives an entertaining talk.
The second disc provides the rest of the supplements. First we have a “making of ” documentary in the form of three featurettes that deal with casting, authenticity, and the shooting of the O.K. Corral sequence. These were obviously filmed at the time of the film’s original shooting, but are informative nonetheless. They rely greatly on interviews with Cosmatos and the half-dozen principal actors. Next up is an interactive timeline that indicates the actual sequence of events in Cochise County as and when they occurred during the period 1880 to 1882. Then there are the director’s storyboards for the O.K. Corral sequence which are scanned over while set to music from the film. Most fascinating is a reproduction of the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper accounts of the O.K. Corral events. Four pages of material that focus on eyewitness accounts of what went on are provided and these can be accessed by the direction keys on your remote. A theatrical trailer and a teaser are included along with seven TV spots. An easily-found Easter egg reveals a nice collection of poster reproductions and production artwork.
The package is rounded off with a DVD-ROM feature — Faro at the Oriental: a game of chance. This can be off-loaded to your hard drive and played at your leisure. Finally, the fold-out case contains a reproduction of a map illustrating in Wyatt Earp’s own hand the beginning of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
If you’re looking for a film that’s a complete package of entertainment — well-acted, good script, finely-staged action sequences, Tombstone fits the bill. Buena Vista’s new Vista Series DVD edition of the film is a worthy treatment in all respects. Highly recommended.