Cinergi/Hollywood Pictures / Buena Vista Home Entertainment (1993 / 2010),
single disc, 130 mins plus supplements, 1080p high-definition 2.35:1,
DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, Rated R for Strong Western Violence, $29.99
Like the concurrently released Armageddon, just as rival movies came along depicting do-gooding outlaws (Robin Hood, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves), computer animated insects (Antz, A Bug’s Life), or impending doom via global killing asteroids (Armageddon, Deep Impact), you wait a while for a movie based on the legend of Wyatt Earp to show up at the nearest multiplex…and two come along at the same time!
Hollywood itself didn’t have to wait too long before Earp was a regular in movie circles: not even that long after the real life events at the O.K. Corral – where Marshall Earp and his team were forced into a showdown opposite the feared Clanton gang – occurred in 1881, Earp had put his legendary lawman days behind him and undertook a brief nomadic existence until settling in California, where he became embroiled in the then-fledgling movie business, making friends with such silent Western stars as William S. Hart, Tom Mix and a young prop man, John Wayne, who later said he based much of his screen persona on Earp.
Although various films had based characters upon the Earp legend, it was ten years after his death that Earp was portrayed as himself onscreen by another Western hero, Randolph Scott, in Frontier Lawman, the first “official” account of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Numerous remakes and reinterpretations of those events and the life of its legendary personalities would begin a steady stream over the next 40 years, among them John Ford’s iconic My Darling Clementine (1946) where Earp was played by Henry Fonda, and Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957, with Burt Lancaster).
Over the years, Earp has also appeared as a character in various other films and television pieces as well, from the expected (The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp) to the comedic (Bob Hope’s Alias Jesse James and The Three Stooges’ The Outlaws Is Coming) and the plain outlandish, showing up in sci-fi (Doctor Who: Gunfighters, Star Trek: The Spectre Of The Gun), tinsel town pastiches (Earp solves a 1920s Hollywood murder with Tom Mix in Sunset and consults on stunts in Young Indiana Jones And The Hollywood Follies) and even animation: who else could the James Stewart voiced Wylie Burp in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West be based on?
By the 1990s, the Western genre itself was as outlawed as the many characters that these films often portrayed. Where once John Wayne was the sole proprietor of keeping the flame alive, in recent times it had fallen to The Man With No Name, otherwise known as Clint Eastwood, to almost single-handedly provide the old time thrills, though with a style that added different angles to each project. The Dollars trilogy had helped establish him, Dirty Harry (a western in all but name) made him a star, and such films as The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider and Unforgiven brought critical success.
Although the genre had never really become extinct during the 1980s, Unforgiven’s early ’90s impact was an important milestone for the Western genre, its great critical (winning Best Picture and other accolades) and commercial success suggesting that there was still gold in them thar hills.
A slate of new, contemporary westerns were rushed into production, films that contained the black and white good versus bad elements we expected, but with a modern moviemaking edge that added nuance and shades of ambiguity. Among these were to be two new biopics based on the Wyatt Earp legend, by then a myth itself: Kevin Costner would direct the epic Wyatt Earp, while an all-star cast would form for George P. Cosmatos’ focusing on the events themselves, naming his movie Tombstone.
Of the two films, Costner’s film was overlong, ponderous and lacking a gripping tension that was inherent in the real life story, even if attention to detail meant one could almost breath in the dust and Dennis Quaid’s turn as Earp’s trusted friend Doc Holliday was a tour de force performance.
But Cosmatos plays the entire thing as a broader piece, as if he was heading the words of one of the genre’s fathers, director John Ford: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. As such, Tombstone doesn’t lose the epic feel, but additionally takes on a wider, crowd-pleasing tone that at times resembles an all-star adventurous romp (that’s not to take away from the serious intention, but to also emphasize the somewhat old-fashioned plain excitement that the film offers over Costner’s “Dances With Wyatt” attempt).
Most of it is down to the stellar cast, starting with Kurt Russell as Earp, playing the Marshall with sincerity and a humanity that makes his relationship with the Val Kilmer’s terminally sick Doc Holliday all the more touching, though never emotionally overburdened, such was the peculiar nature of their friendship. There’s much to praise in the other performances as well, in a cast that includes exactly the right faces, with such veterans or rising names as Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Billy Zane, Dana Delany, Thomas Haden Church, Billy Bob Thornton and Terry O’Quinn among them, also finding room for a true legend in Charlton Heston, and even the Marshall’s own family: Wyatt Earp III stepping into Billy Claiborne’s boots for further authenticity.
Robert Mitchum was due to feature, before a riding accident rendered him incapable (though he delivers the opening narration), and Glenn Ford was another who was invited but unable to participate, leaving it to Harry Carey Jr to uphold the old-school Western movie traditions in the cast.
Cosmatos, who could arguably be called little more than a hack director on most of his other projects (Escape To Athena and Rambo II among them), but the scope of Tombstone seems to have stimulated him to up his game; the film is easily his crowning achievement and must have been quite a production to marshal himself. Based on a previously written and pre-produced screenplay, Cosmatos joined the crew some time into production, bringing a glossiness to the film that suits it well.
Although the attempt was to preserve historical accurateness, Cosmatos doesn’t let that get in the way of telling a good story with gripping characters and performers who really know their stuff, something that helps the film every now and then when it might seem in danger of just dragging ever so slightly before the final shootout (the famed O.K. Corral gunfight actually occurring soon after the midway point).
The rumored three-hour original cut, which featured more subtext and other plots for minor characters, would perhaps flesh out this world even more and would undoubtedly be something of a treat, but even though a briefly extended version was released on DVD, this Blu-ray debut retains the original 1993 theatrical cut only. No other deleted scenes have been incorporated into the film or included on this disc, but despite the curbing of the material as Cosmatos came onboard (to focus specifically on the Earp and Clanton dynamic), Tombstone emerges as one of the best audience pleasing examples of the genre in recent times.
Coming to Blu-ray for the first time, Disney seems to be on a bit of a kick at the moment in just putting out basic, bare bone vanilla discs of some of their more popular catalog titles, simply mirroring their original DVD counterparts in a lack of extras or new features. To be fair, Tombstone was never graced with a plethora of supplements on LaserDisc or DVD, and even the company’s Vista Series 2-disc edition didn’t add too much, being mostly memorable for several extra minutes being spliced back into the main feature.
That alternate cut, and its commentary with Cosmatos would have been the obvious choice for any new BD release, but that’s not included on this version and I don’t believe a track was ever recorded for the theatrical cut (a loss now, since the director’s passing in 2005). However, some other features from the Vista Series release have been carried over, the most prominent being The Making Of Tombstone documentary, a grouping of three perfunctory featurettes from the film’s 1993 release. An Ensemble Cast speaks with the star line-up for twelve minutes of insights into their approaches and the personalities they portray in the film, and Making An Authentic Western delves into the lengths taken to convey the events onscreen in as genuine a way as possible.
Finally, Gunfight At The O.K. Corral shows how the ultimate coming together of the Earp and Clanton gangs – an event of only a few seconds in reality – was conceived as a dramatic sequence for film. Adding to this exploration are a pretty poor presentation of Cosmatos’ Director’s Original Storyboards corresponding to the four-minute scene, and rounding things up are series of Trailers & TV Spots, including theatrical teaser and trailer and seven spots, which all do their jobs of selling the film’s various cast and plot elements as a dramatically rousing actioner, even if it does turn out to be more than just that.
The documentary footage doesn’t go into the film’s long and sometimes tortuous production (the original director was fired and Russell himself stood in until Cosmatos showed up), but the biggest bug-bear is that all of the standard definition 4:3 material has been stretched out to fill the 16:9 frame, meaning that everyone at all times looks short and fat. I wouldn’t have thought it looked like that on the Vista Series release, so this is purely the case of someone dropping the ball big time in the remastering process, a mistake carried over to the Storyboards and Trailers as well, pretty much rendering them all technically worthless.
Since one can’t reframe a locked 16:9 frame, we’re stuck with this presentation, a poor show, and the lack of the other Vista extras (mostly interactive features focusing on the real-life Tombstone) are a shame. Also bundled on are previews for the upcoming Disney/Bruckheimer Prince Of Persia adaptation (seemingly scored in the same old Hans Zimmer style by Harry Gregson-Williams or indeed with a Pirates Of The Caribbean cue), the terminally unfunny looking When In Rome, the recent thriller Surrogates and a Blu-ray promo.
Thank-goodness the movie itself has been framed correctly, with picture and sound quality that is more than adequate, if not the very best that has been achieved on the hi-def format even given the vintage of the material. The look is sharp, and the film origins are pleasantly clear, with an intentional “rough” nature that brings an earthiness to the images. At times, William Fraker’s cinematography can seem a bit dark in the shadows, but it always contains a remarkable depth and at other times it’s blisteringly hot and you can almost feel the heat burn off the screen.
The DTS Master-HD soundtrack is as lively as they come too, with a rumbling bass and none other than Bruce Broughton’s energetic music score (he was suggested to the production by original choice Jerry Goldsmith, who was unavailable) especially pounding away during the major moments, both quiet and thunderous (subtitles and Dolby Digital 2.0 are also included in French and Spanish flavors).
The packaging is again as simple as can be: a slimline BD case holding the sleeve art that basically replicates previous releases, without any inserts or reverse sleeve printing offering chapter stops; the disc art following Disney’s usual half-blue/half-poster split down the middle design. I expect that these obviously rushed releases are being promoted more towards those that own these titles already but wish to own the movie itself in HD. If that’s the case, then the Tombstone Blu-ray does the job, but the image screw-up on the supplements is unnecessary.
Cinematic Classic or Faded Print?
Tombstone is one of the most enjoyable Westerns of recent years, and gets away from the po-faced nature of Costner’s film by going for a broader audience appeal and injecting plenty of action and an intensity that, even when one knows the outcome, suggests you can never be too sure how events will play out. Indeed, even those that are not so inclined to the genre may find they can get into this one, since it’s economic with its plot and vague enough with the facts to work things into something more accessible than some films that have come before.
The lack of care and attention given to the supplements is lamentable, suggesting that $19.99 would have been a more reasonable price for the results, and be aware that the film’s R-rating is there for good meaning if you’re watching this in the family room, but if you do end up rooting for Earp, Holliday and his posse, then I also recommend the recent remake of 3:10 To Yuma with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale; another Western that, like Tombstone, breaks the mold to deliver authentic but highly visceral excitement.