The Best Movies Ever – Tombstone

Doc Holliday

Why, Johnny Ringo… You look like somebody just walked over your grave. 

Westerns are such a precisely niche genre of film. How many other movie genres are defined by a specific time period and place? There’s film noir, and “sword and sandals” epics, and merchant ivory, but Westerns are just so particular. The American West – 1800’s or early 1900’s (as always, there are exceptions).

Speaking generally, I wouldn’t count myself a fan of Westerns. I haven’t seen a number of the truly legendary examples of the genre, although my Top 50 films of all time list would probably include a few. Right at the top of those would be Tombstone.

Tombstone is a traditional Western in almost every sense. Setting – Tombstone, Arizona, turn of the 20th century. Horses, cowboy hats, moustaches, outlaws, lawmen, gunfighting, gambling, whiskey drinking, and Wyatt Earp. Plus two of the Earp brothers played by Bill Paxton and Sam Elliot. Also, some other guy…

Even if you’re not terribly familiar with Tombstone the movie, you’re probably aware of Val Kilmer’s performance as Doc Holliday. He’s this movie’s Heath Ledger Joker. Meaning, when he’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him, and the entertainment level is noticeably elevated in every scene he’s in. He’s the most wry, acerbic, sarcastic character I’ve ever seen in a Western. Every line he utters is quotable.

“Hey Doc, been hittin’ it awful hard haven’t you?”

“Nonsense. I have not yet begun to defile myself.”

Continuing the Dark Knight/Joker analogy, his character is so good that you may be tempted to think of him as a crutch for an otherwise sub-par movie, and you’d be wrong. There’s so much more to love about Tombstone.

Kurt Russel is at the top of his game here. He just plays the bad ass so effortlessly. The first time we see him in the movie, he’s giving an abusive horse wrangler a taste of his own medicine, adding, “Hurts, don’t it? Now let go of that stud and go on about your business.” He also has the second greatest moustache in a movie chock full of them – but no one can compete with Sam Elliot in moustachosity. That man was born with a thick, luxurious moustache.

There’s a deep cast beyond just the four male leads. Michael Biehn, Powers Boothe, Stephen Lang, Jason Priestly, Billy Zane (Billy Zane!), Thomas Haden Church, and Charlton Heston in a cameo.

The plot is pretty much your typical Western fare. The Earp brothers come to Tombstone looking to retire from lawmanning and live a quiet life, but immediately get sucked into an ongoing battle with a gang of outlaws. But the 3rd act is when things kick into high gear. A certain character’s murder sets Wyatt Earp on a “fuck peace” revenge spree that’s ridiculously cathartic, and unexpectedly brutal.

You wouldn’t think there’d be such a thing as Western snobs, but there are, and they don’t generally care for Tombstone. It’s unabashedly mainstream and accessible, the historical accuracy is, to say the least, questionable, and there are moments such as the scene above that read as exploitative. But I can’t get enough of it. It’s absurdly entertaining, completely re-watchable, and the Doc Holliday character alone is enough to recommend it to anyone who doesn’t take their Western movies too seriously.

I’ll end with my favorite Doc Holliday exchange of the film:

Billy, to Doc playing the piano: “What’s that? Is that Old Dog Trey? That sounds like Old Dog Trey to me.”

Doc: “Pardon?”

Billy: “Stephen Foster. You know, Old Dog Trey… Camptown Races… Stephen stinkin’ Foster!”

Doc: “Well, this happens to be a nocturne.”

Billy: “A wha-?”

Doc: “You know. Frederick Fucking Chopin?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *