Better Late than Never blog series…goes west: ‘Tombstone’ (1993)

In some ways, the Western genre is just as much about fantasy as it is about history. Classic Westerns present us with tales of noble heroes fighting outlaws and preserving the peace, set against a backdrop of sweeping, wide-open plains and brilliant blue skies.

Of course, the reality of life in the American West was not quite so idyllic. Violence, hardship, and injustice could be found just as easily as those breathtaking views of the plains.

It’s always interesting to see what view of history a Western film will take, whether it offers a more positive, idealistic portrayal, or whether it chooses to deconstruct that Western mythos.

One of the things I loved about “Tombstone” (1993) is that is actually strikes a balance between these two perspectives. It doesn’t hide the violence and grittiness of the period, but it also celebrates the spirit of freedom and adventure that can be found in so many classic Westerns.

The film is based on the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. I had previously heard of the gunfight but didn’t know a whole lot about the incident, aside from some of the famous names involved, including Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

In the film, Earp and Holliday are hoping the shootout will send a strong message to the members of the outlaw gang known as the “Cowboys,” who are terrorizing the region. However, the Cowboys retaliate by targeting Earp’s family.

Although the main character of this story is arguably Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), Val Kilmer is a scene-stealer as Doc Holliday. An old friend of Earp’s, Holliday is a gunfighter who’s trying to pretend he can gamble and drink away his problems. It’s easy to view these historical figures as larger than life, but both Russell and Kilmer give their characters enough humanity to bring them back down to earth.

I had assumed that a lot of the film was fictionalized, but it appears that the movie has more real events and people than I had guessed. Watching “Tombstone” made me want to learn more about the actual history involved.

“Tombstone” is not as deep a film as the Western I watched that led to this whole spin-off blog series: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” That isn’t meant as an insult to “Tombstone.” It’s a fun action movie, and who doesn’t want to see Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer teaming up with Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton to take on some bad guys in the Wild West?

I was a little disappointed this film didn’t dig deeper into the themes it proposed, but it’s an entertaining film to watch, and it still does raise some thought-provoking questions.

It’s fascinating how justice in the Old West sometimes looked a lot like vigilantism. Did lawmen like Wyatt Earp do what they had to in order to preserve the peace and carry out justice, or were they just continuing the cycle of violence?

I found it interesting that at the start of this film, Wyatt Earp has “retired” as a lawman and is looking for a quiet life. But he finds it’s hard to put his past behind him, and he gets pulled into the war with the Cowboys. Then, when the Cowboys seek revenge against his family, he goes on a quest for his own revenge.

Were Earp’s actions justified, and are he and Doc Holliday heroes or anti-heroes? Can an act be both justice and revenge? How could violence have been more successfully de-escalated in the West?

I suppose that the lesson Earp learns in the end is that the West does offer promise and opportunity, but it’s not a perfect paradise where anyone can achieve the “American Dream.”

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