I love me some westerns.
I enjoy the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns (think 60’s, or Clint Eastwood) more than the more classic 50’s and before ones. I think it’s because I can’t see the west as just ‘Americans triumphant over the empty frontier’ because the frontier wasn’t empty, it was full of indigenous people wondering who the hell all these new, violent people were. Nevertheless, I love a Western where the hero throws down and then has a belt of whiskey after.
Since Clint Eastwood’s Ultimate in Postmodern Westernness, Unforgiven, Westerns have been few and far between, and they’ve largely been dour affairs about unforgiving landscapes, Native American genocide, and miserable people. The only exceptions to this would be the last ten minutes of 3:10 to Yuma (seriously, that last segment getting whatsisname to the train should have been the whole frigging movie), and Deadwood, which barely counts because it’s about the end of the cowboy era.
1993’s Tombstone, directed largely by Kurt Russell but credited to some other guy, is a sort of last hurrah for those classic Westerns. Although Russell’s Wyatt Earp is certainly conflicted about killing people and violence and whatnot, he and his brothers still seem like fun guys to hang with.
The Earp brothers–being Wyatt, Virgil (Elliot) and Morgan (Paxton) head for Tombstone in an attempt to give up their careers as lawmen and make an honest living working in casinos. Their attempts are complicated by the presence of a huge gang– headed by Mustache King Powers Boothe– who have moved into the town and use it like their personal playground.
Also complicating matters is Doc Holliday, played by Kilmer so awesomely that if the movie was a little better he probably would have won an Oscar.
If you’ve already seen Tombstone, than Kilmer’s ingenious performance has probably stuck with you. Effeminate, drawling, moist with flopsweat, Kilmer presents Holliday as a man cheerfully shambling down the road to his own destruction; the real Holliday was a practicing dentist who moved out west in an attempt to lessen the affects of his tuberculosis, and there found a penchant for gunfighting and gambling, despite his very frail frame. The real man is described as being possessed of a blend of cheerful despair, probably hoping that a gunfight would kill him before the tb did. It’s a a great character: a man who goes around picking fights with strangers in an attempt to get himself killed, but who doesn’t quite have the nerve to let himself lose, either. He’s also an easy target–incredibly fey, a snappy dresser, and prone to calling people ‘hucklberries’ or ‘daisies,’ he couldn’t have drawn more attention to himself by dressing like a chicken and pinning a giant paper bullseye to his back. Like iron filings to a magnet, crazy, gun-waving scumbags are drawn to him, unable to help themselves.
It’s a testament to Kilmer’s performance that he is still attractive even while gaunt, pale, sweaty and with red circles around his eyes. He’s also the most fun thing about the movie; when he’s not onscreen, the movie is still excellent, but his presence just makes things more interesting.
With Holliday’s presence and the already belligerent troublemaking cowboys hanging about, Wyatt Earp struggles to be the man he thinks he should be, an honest faro dealer, and the man he is, a dude who’ll beat the shit out of a bad guy and can’t seem to avoid trouble. As the cowboys step up their efforts, his brothers take up the silver stars of lawmen, and he finds himself drawn in. Also complicating matters is his laudanum-addicted wife and his attraction to an actress.
Tombstone is a virtual parade of who’s who–besides the four principles, there’s also Powers Boothe, Billy Zane, Dana Delany, Thomas Haden Church, Michael Rooker, Paula Malcolmson (Trixie from Deadwood!) and even a young, pudgy Billy Bob Thornton.
Tombstone is also a weird movie. As I said, it’s one of the last remnants of the spaghetti Western, before things got all post-modern and angsty. It’s a movie where the good guys are still allowed to have fun–it seems today like the only people having fun in Westerns are the bad guys, and this might seem like an odd thing to say, but that’s just not American. We fucking well CREATED the Western, and our behatted, gunslinging heroes now are miserable, conflicted, and hate violence. No wonder Clint Eastwood hung up his spurs.
It’s not impossible to write a character who is engaging and still conflicted about his use of violence–Wolverine in the first Xmen movie comes to mind.
I hope to God that the upcoming Preacher movie understands that and gets it right. If I see Jesse Custer whining about how he has to use violence to uphold the law, I just might give up on Hollywood completely.