Tombstone ★★★½

Tombstone is a movie I watched back in the day when I was pretty young, and it’s always just been one of my assumed favourite westerns, despite not having seen it for ages now. So, nothing has surprised me more during the course of this year’s rewatches than how far this movie has fallen in my regard.

Don’t get me wrong – I still like it a lot. It’s a fun movie and a really entertaining western. It really revels in its own sense of old-fashionedness. This is supposed to be the classic western redux for modern audiences – with a 90’s sheen and a cast of great character actors of the day, and it totally succeeds on that level. But having now extended my own western education so much, I now realise I find it a bit too bombastic and obvious. It suddenly feels very much like what it actually literally is: a Disney movie not for kids (although older kids will probably enjoy this a lot). A live-action cartoon for grown-ups.

Maybe I should say a live-action cartoon for men. Look, nothing has caused me more exasperation in the recent world of film criticism than some of the woke revisionist “dismantling” of movies I love. Where very clever people point out how some highly regarded movie is actually misogynistic, it’s just that no one had been incisive enough to notice it before. I find a lot of this rhetoric woefully unconvincing. But this rewatch of Tombstone made me conscious of some stuff in the film which, once I noticed it, really got my goat. So I hate to pull the same act on this movie, but it’s so egregious I think it needs to be mentioned.

I’m going to talk about a number of characters and performances I still love from this movie in a minute, but first, can we focus on Mattie Earp (played by Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) – the wife of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp? Has there been a more mean-spirited, unsympathetic, conveniently sanctimonious character ever persecuted by its own script in history? Look, Tombstone is a very butch film, and I’m the last person to complain about that. The whole Bechdel-type criticism of individual films – where a film is considered bad simply because it has few or no female characters – I find totally useless and unfair (although it works well as a critique of a film industry’s total output). And as a butch movie, it’s not surprising or necessarily a problem that the female characters are thinly drawn and largely pointless as far as the plot goes. But Mattie is different, because she is demonized so incessantly as an unworthy woman that it really ended up pissing me off.

As soon as we see her, the subject of her laudanum addiction is raised and frowned upon. This is her key sin in the eyes of the script – the one that is used as the basis for a multitude of other character flaws. She’s not suffering – she’s weak. She doesn’t have needs – but she’s clearly selfish and uncaring of Wyatt’s needs. This movie doesn’t waste a single opportunity to cut away to her frowning, unhelpful face every time she is present in a scene. When the Earps are under siege from The Cowboys, and everyone else is scurrying to help defend the homestead, she sits snivelling in a corner – and the edit makes sure we see that. In a moment where Wyatt is suffering intense grief, and there’s simply no reason for her not to comfort her husband, the script has her huffily turn her back on him.

It's all very convenient, of course, because for some reason the writers wanted Wyatt Earp to fall in love with Dana Delaney (one of the few miscasts in this film, in my opinion – tellingly in another female role). So, we couldn’t treat his character honestly enough to just have that human flaw. It can’t be OK for him to realise he’s in love with another woman. No, he has to be justified in his infidelity. Mattie doesn’t deserve him. It’s a cowardly and callous treatment of her character – and although it’s only a sidenote it would be easy to not even notice, once I did, I couldn’t help find that it diminished the film in my eyes just a bit. Tombstone aka The Character Assassination of Mattie Earp by the Coward Kevin Jarre (I should add at this point, I know nothing about the real life Mattie Earp – she might have been an evil scumbag for all I know – but I doubt this movie has gone for historical accuracy on any level).

It feels strange to now celebrate the great things about this film after ragging on it so heavily, but putting that to one side: this must be the greatest gathering of my favourite Hollywood character actors ever assembled. A lot of them shine in their roles (Sam Elliott, Michael Biehn, Powers Boothe, Stephen Lang, Billy Bob Thornton, Billy Zane, even John Corbett). Some of them are a little underused (Bill Paxton is basically the loyal puppy dog, Michael Rooker does fuck-all – even Kurt Russell has to cope with a bit of a lifeless role thanks mainly to the issues I mentioned above). But for me, the film really belongs to Val Kilmer whose lauded Doc Holliday is undeniably pretty hammy but, as far as I’m concerned, in the most magnificent way possible. To be honest, the Holliday character here is written almost as a superhero, so it’s all a bit silly – but who cares when you’ve got Val burning so bright. God, movies miss the Kilmer we all knew and loved in the 90’s.

This is always the bummer with revisiting old faves – sometimes they don’t age well. I hate to act the smug, superior asshole – part of me wonders if that’s what I’m doing. But I can still appreciate a lot about Tombstone - it’s just not the unassailable slam dunk I always thought it was.

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