Tombstone (1993): OK Corral and After

I have tried repeatedly to write a review that would do this beleaguered film justice. Each time I start rapping the keyboard on my laptop I can get no further than three paragraphs.

So I sat down today and started researching the film and its subject matter again. I am not a stranger to the town of Tombstone and the disputes and daily arguments between the main factions. I have always had a fascination for the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral and the Earp’s ride of retribution afterwards.

That the gunfight and the events following are almost common knowledge is down to the feuding newspapers of the day. One paper supported the Earp’s and their ‘town’ backers of businesses and traders. The other paper supported the Clanton’s, Sheriff Johnny Behan  and their ‘cattlemen’ supporters.

The film shows this divide from the very beginning. The ‘Cowboys’ were an organised crime outfit that not only rustled cattle, they robbed and murdered and were even thought responsible for the murder of Mexican troops who were on their way to deposit gold,  bullion and Peso’s in the Tombstone banks.

That there was tension between the two factions is a matter of fact. Kurt Russell‘s portrayal of Wyatt Earp is easily the best I’ve ever seen. He hits the right notes of righteousness and weariness of the law business and his intention to settle down with his wife and family around him.

Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton (in the first role where he actually plays a good guy) played their parts equally well. Elliot as the stiff-necked and doomed Earp brother Morgan and Paxton as the eager and righteous (and most experienced of all the brothers in the world of law enforcement in real life) Virgil both help bring this strong willed family to life.

Michael Biehn, Powers Boothe, Jason Priestly, Val Kilmer and Dana Delany all provide the ambiance and backbone of the film. Kilmer (who lost so much weight to play the consumptive Doc Holliday that he made himself ill) almost stole the show as the man who could not fear death as it was already a constant companion.

Biehn as the over educated yet bestial Johnny Ringo and Boothe as the over bearing Brocius were brilliantly cast as the two ‘main men’ behind the Cowboys gang.

The film looks stunning capturing the colours and hues of a ‘boom town’ in the late 1800’s American west. The sets, the costumes and the props all look great. Overall this film shows the greatest attention to the facts leading up to and following the infamous gunfight. There are a few things that the film makers have chosen to change or gloss over, but the fact remains that this film is pretty damn accurate.

Tombstone. Allen street 1880

The actual gunfight is a perfect example of the ‘liberties’ taken by the film makers. In reality the entire gunfight at the OK Corral lasted under 30 seconds. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne both fled the area when the fighting started and Ike did tell Wyatt that he was not armed, to which Wyatt replied, “Get fighting or get out. [sic]”

No one entered a   photo  studio to be shot down.

Incredibly, most of the important details they got right. Virgil Earp did give Doc Holliday the sawn off shotgun and took his walking stick in return. The Earps entered the vacant lot behind the Corral not expecting a fight, Sheriff Behan who met the Earp’s as they were walking towards the Corral told them that the Clanton’s were not armed.

When Virgil called for the Clanton’s to turn over their weapons and guns were pulled and cocked by the gang Virgil shouted out, ” Hold! I did not mean that (or ‘Hold on! I did not mean that!) and a party from each side opened fire simultaneously.

Behan did attempt to arrest the Earps immediately following the gunfight and Wyatt did indeed say, “I won’t be arrested today. I am right here and am not going away.”

In reality there was a trial and the Earps, as well as Holliday were found innocent of any wrong doing. This was what inflamed the already bitter feud between the Cowboys and the Earps.

That Wyatt Earp and Josephine Marcus were a couple was common knowledge at the time.

Russell’s own feud with Kevin Costner about the film (which Costner was meant to be in) lead to Costner leaving the project and starting up his own version of events in the the mediocre Wyatt Earp (1994). After he left Tombstone, Costner then lead a ‘hate’ campaign against Russell’s film and attempted to prevent it from getting distributed by any major studio.

Suffice to say that history repeated itself with Russell’s Earp’s winning against the nefarious actions of the pretender (Costner). Tombstone opened well and pulled in a decent box office receipt. Costner’s film did not do as well.

I can vaguely remember as a child travelling through Arizona with my parents. We stopped at Tombstone and someone (dammed if I can remember who) took pictures of the OK Corral for our own posterity. For years the entire gunfight has been re-enacted for thousands if not millions of tourists. I have never seen one of these re-enactments. I don’t need to. I can picture the entire thing in my mind.

Of course if I’m feeling lazy, I can always watch Tombstone.

Because folks, it’s about as accurate as you can get.

*If you’d like to read more about the Earp’s and the gunfight at the OK Corral, check out Wikipedia, it’s a good starting point and will reference many different sites for more information.*

About Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, vlogger, blogger, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, YouTube shows, Books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

19 thoughts on “Tombstone (1993): OK Corral and After

  1. The first movie I went to see (with Mom) was “Gunfight at OK Corral.” I watched it from the second row, so Burt and Kirk had heads 20 feet high each. It left an indelible mark on my consciousness. I saw every OK Corral/Earp/Tombstone movie since — and when it became possible, before — but “Tombstone” is my favorite. It is nominally more accurate. It omits a lot of history, but had it been included, not only would the film have been a mini series, it would have put the audience to sleep. We don’t go to see westerns for full historical details: we want to see a legend.

    This is the best version of the legend I’ve seen. We own it on DVD, and BRD. The DVD “long form” has an extra disc with interviews, background, etc. I don’t usually watch this stuff, but in this case, I made an exception. I have watched the “extra material” almost as often as the movie. The interviews with Kilmer and Biehn are my favorites.

    Garry and I made the pilgrimage to Tombstone. I’ve had people argue with me that it was really cut on a stage set, but unless this entire town had a mass hallucination and merely thought a movie company had come, rebuilt the town to look like historical Tombstone, then filmed it — mass hallucinations aren’t nearly as common in the real world as they are in Hollywood — then they filmed the movie in actual Tombstone.

    I have pictures. We were there. We bought tee shirts. It was our favorite part of a long sojourn to the southwest. I hope we get back one more time before we are too crotchety to enjoy it. They may have done some re-shooting on a set, but the bulk of the film was made in Tombstone. It was and remains the only thing of note to happen there in more than 100 years and everyone talks about it.

    August was not the best time to visit. Temps reached 128 and never dropped below 120 during daylight. It was painfully hot. Maybe that’s what the fighting was really about. It was so damned hot, people got cranky and shot each other. That’s what they do in L.A., right?

  2. Ah, one of my absolute favorite movies, and one of my favorite westerns! I actually only saw this a few years back for the first time, and after I’d finished it, I literally went out to buy it. (No joke) Wyatt Earp has always been a real favorite of mine, and Russell not only looked the part, but his delivery was wholly believable. Loved it. And Kilmer was the perfect second to Russell. Heck, the whole cast was awesome, although I really wanted to run Ike over with a bus or something. I had no idea that Costner was dumping all over Russell’s efforts with ‘Tombstone’; what a bum thing to do. I liked his film alright, only because it explored more of Earp’s life, but he was definitely no Russell, and definitely no true Earp. I didn’t really like Quaid as Doc either. The film just lacked the charm and excitement of ‘Tombstone’. Anyway, great review, Mike!

  3. I am going to have to go ahead and disagree with you on this one–I thought this film was filled with overacting particularly with Russel and Kilmer as Doc Holiday. For me at least the drunk with the silver cup thing got old real fast.

    1. Oh well, to each his own! Different tastes in films is to be expected, if we didn’t have that, films would truly be boring. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one. Cheers mate!!!

  4. In the sixth paragraph of your review you did a switcheroo. Sam Elliot plays Virgil and Bill Paxton plays Morgan, not the other way around:
    “Elliot as the stiff-necked and doomed Earp brother Morgan and Paxton as the eager and righteous (and most experienced of all the brothers in the world of law enforcement in real life) Virgil both help bring this strong willed family to life.”

  5. Michael,

    I completely disagree with your last statement “Because folks, it’s about as accurate as you can get.” Event for event, Costner’s “Wyatt Earp” is MUCH more accurate. In particular, the gunfight sequence in Costner’s version is much more in line with the testimonies of witnesses during the trial. While many witnesses disagreed and slanted their statements in favor of one side or the other, the actions of each participant is relatively clear. Here are some inaccuracies within Tombstone:

    1. Nothing in the testimony even hints that Doc ran from the far right side of the lot to the far left shooting over his head into Fly’s. This would be impossible since, by the end of the fight, he was lying on the ground far to the right of Wyatt and Virgil with a wound to his hip (see #3).

    2. Nothing in the testimony suggested that Doc fired his shot gun into the air. Had he done so, he would have shot Tom with only one barrel. After the fight, it was documented that Tom’s death was due to TWO shot gun blasts to the chest.

    3. Doc was wounded by a shot from Frank when Frank stumbled onto the street behind Doc and Morgan. The bullet didn’t penetrate and left a large bruise. ‘Tombstone’ does not capture this event.

    4. Frank McLaury died on the street from a head shot by Morgan. Tom McLaury also died on the street while crawling/stumbling away from the lot. ‘Tombstone’ shows both dying in the back lot.

    5. While impossible to ever confirm, the testimony did strongly suggest that Virgil didn’t even reach for his gun until after the first shot was fired. In ‘Tombstone’, Virgil grabs for his gun before the shooting starts.

    6. The silent stand off before the shooting starts was a Hollywood fabrication. Per the testimony, after Virgil shouted “Hold! That’s not what I want”, the shooting immediately began (or, as some witnesses say, it began simultaneously with Virgil’s command to ‘hold’) and “became general”.

    7. Witnesses testified that Morgan stated “You sons a bitches have been looking for fight and now you can have it”. This was not covered in ‘Tombstone’.

    8 Mrs. King testified that, when the Earp party walked past her position in front of the store, she heard Morgan say “Let ’em have it” to Doc. This was not covered in ‘Tombstone’.

    9. Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc is terribly misleading. Doc was a gambler, an alcoholic, a hot head, and a lunger but he was not the suave calculating gunfighter as portrayed in ‘Tombstone’. In reality, Doc was very much a human with human frailties. Being lonely and having been imbued with the importance of loyalty from childhood, he bonded with the Earps and they served as substitutes for his own family in GA.

    I would ask that you give Costner’s version another try. I admit that it is a little dry and slow at some parts, but, historically, it is much more accurate.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and giving an excellent break down of the actions, “on the day.” If you will notice, I did actually point out that the film makers did take liberties with the gunfight portion of the film. Obviously this is a subject you hold very dear and have spent much time on. While I have a fascination with the old west and Tombstone, I watch films to be entertained. I do not enjoy films that are “a little dry and slow” and avoid them. If I want “dead” accuracy of events, I’ll watch a documentary. I’ll stick to my guns (sorry couldn’t resist) and still say the Tombstone is the better film. Cheers mate! :-)

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