Tales of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral have been staples of the big and small screen for as long as there have been big and small screens. In keeping with the Old West from whence the stories came, Hollywood has always worked overtime stretching and kneading fresh mythologies using plenty of dough and grains of truth. But of all the Wyatt Earp movies, 1993's Tombstone is the one that has developed a large and loyal cult audience, with even many Western history experts conceding that it comes closer to the facts than most screen treatments.
Ironically, Tombstone's closest competition for historical accuracy was Wyatt Earp, released only seven months after Tombstone. The two films constituted a classic case of the "race for the screen." Kevin Costner had been planning on starring as Earp in the film to be made from a screenplay by Kevin Jarre (Glory). When Costner clashed with Jarre, he cut the screenwriter loose and teamed with Lawrence Kasdan to develop Wyatt Earp. Meanwhile, Jarre's script found its way to Kurt Russell and Buena Vista, who eagerly determined to beat the Costner version into theaters.
Adding to the Hollywood lore around Tombstone is its bizarre directorial provenance. Jarre was to direct, but the studio dropped him due to script battles and a general lack of confidence. According to Russell, he secretly arranged for credited director George P. Cosmatos to "ghost direct" the film according to the star's express instructions (including a daily shot list). Russell has said that his one-time co-star Sylvester Stallone recommended Cosmatos, as he had allegedly "ghost directed" Rambo: First Blood Part II for the actually in-charge Stallone.
Despite the film's many tangles in pre-production and production, the results hold up well. Of course, there are many historical inaccuracies in the script, particularly in the conflation of time, but in the broad strokes, Tombstone does a pretty good job of covering the period in which the Earp brothers rode into Tombstone, Arizona looking to thrive financially but winding up in trouble with a variety of outlaws. Along with old friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), Wyatt (Russell), Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan Earp (Bill Paxton) find themselves—ostensibly upholding Virgil's newly decreed weapons ban—in a shootout with a bunch of loose cannons at the O.K. Corral.
The story doesn't end there, but goes on to incorporate the consequences of that fateful day, and the eventual fates of all of the characters involved. Tombstone benefited from the renewed interest in Westerns following the previous year's Oscar-winning Clint Eastwood picture Unforgiven, but in hindsight, it also seems like a precursor to HBO's Deadwood series in its ambition and sprawling cast of characters. Future Deadwood star Powers Boothe commands the screen as "Curly Bill" Brocius, portrayed as the lightning-rod leader of a de facto gang referred to as "The Cowboys."
Among the tough guys are Michael Biehn (in one of his best turns, as Johnny Ringo), Stephen Lang (Avatar), Thomas Haden Church, and Billy Bob Thornton. Also on hand are Charlton Heston, Jon Tenney, Jason Priestley, Terry O'Quinn (Lost), Billy Zane, Michael Rooker, and Harry Carey, Jr. (plus narration by Robert Mitchum, who had to drop out of filming). Despite the presence of Dana Wheeler-Nicholson and Joanna Pacula, the true "girl in the picture" is Dana Delany as the married Earp's single love interest Josephine Marcus. Though Delany is, as always, a likeable presence, she cuts an anachronistic figure here, her scenes with Wyatt being among the film's least convincing.
All in all, Tombstone sports pretty much everything one would want in a Western, and though it's not always eminently artful, it is rarely anything less than entertaining. The film's cult has largely sprung up around the depiction of Doc Holliday, which—though sentimentalized and painted in broad dramatic flourishes—gives Kilmer what's easily one of his juiciest screen roles. Kilmer's laconic take on the TB-ridden Holliday turned the non sequitur "I'm your huckleberry" into a strangely enduring catch phrase for the genre.
Disney gives Tombstone its Blu debut in a conspicuously weak hi-def transfer. Black crush too often washes out shadow detail, and inconsistent contrast wreaks havoc on color tone and definition. Some shots look quite good, but hi-def aficionados will find regular distractions here, including edge enhancement and other digital noise. It's a shame, but hopefully this title will get an "Ultimate Director's Cut" re-release sometime down the line that can correct the picture deficiencies here while also expanding the film. (The version of the film on this disc is the original theatrical cut.)
On the other hand, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is outstanding, and can be considered a definitive rendering of the original soundtrack. Dialogue, effects and music are nicely balanced, and the action comes through with plenty of punch. If anything, the mix is too good, clarifying some minor deficiencies in the source material, but that's par for the course for a seventeen-year-old film.
The three-part featurette "The Making of Tombstone" (27:18, SD) comprises "An Ensemble Cast," "Making an Authentic Western" and "The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." Though this is the official making of the movie, EPK style, it's of historical interest and includes on-set interviews with director George P. Cosmatos, Kurt Russell, Wyatt Earp III, Powers Boothe, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Stephen Lang, Bill Paxton, Dana Delany, Jason Priestley, Michael Biehn, production designer Catherine Hardwicke, Peter Sherayko, Charlton Heston, armorer Thell Reed, Thomas Haden Church, and Michael Rooker.
Also included are "Director's Original Storyboards" (4:00, SD) of the O.K. Corral sequence and a suite of "Trailers & TV Spots" with a "Play All" option: "Theatrical Trailer" (2:35, SD), "Theatrical Teaser" (1:26, SD) and seven "TV Spots" (3:28, SD).
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