Originally posted to the internet August 14, 2010
I need no holiday rationale (as I did with my previous review of The Postman) to watch Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell. Since its release in 1993 Tombstone has been one of my favorite Westerns. I remember, though, that when the movie came out the critical reviews were very mixed, even hostile. Audiences ignored the critics and the movie was a hit. Let’s look at the story Enneagram of this movie and see if any clues exist as to why opinions were so divided.
Again, I appreciate your patience at watching less-than-stellar recordings of clips from the movie. I have turned on the hearing-impaired captions in case the sound is inaudible. (My DVD copy had no English subtitle option.) Also, another rated R movie means that some clips may be inappropriate.
Establish the world. Tombstone is kind enough to not only recap Wyatt Earp’s character but to set the entire Western scene. The “documentary” footage of Earp, along with Robert Mitchum‘s smoky narration, puts us firmly in the time period. Quickly we are shown the Earp brothers, their wives, the “cosmopolitan” town of Tombstone, and the brothers’ idea that they’re out of the law-enforcement business. Also, Wyatt’s heroic, no guff-taking attitude, is immediately established.
Just prior to this scene we’ve also been presented with our bad guys, the Cowboys. We are shown a little bit about their individual characters: We know that Johnny Ringo, played by Michael Biehn, is the kind of man who would shoot a priest, and that the Cowboys are men who would rape a bride after killing her groom. Very clear, very concisely handled.
Now begins the fun. The very next scene in the movie introduces Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer). Our first instinct would be to assume that Doc is part of the One moment, above. We haven’t seen him before and he is a major character; he deserves a detailed introduction. However, I will argue that Doc is the Two. As the following scene shows, Doc is most definitely trouble.
Although we love Doc, we don’t completely trust his motives. (Odds are he was cheating at that card game.) Although Doc rides with Wyatt, he is no shining hero. When we look closely at the movie we will see how many times Doc instigates mayhem. Another reason I believe Doc is the Two is because of the Eight moment; I will explain that in more detail when we get there. For now let’s proceed under the assumption that our Two has been injected into the story.
In a gritty Western such as Tombstone what can be an outside influence, a touch of God, that will propel this story onward? No mystical moment would work. We’re looking for a moment without a lot of gloss, and we have a few to choose from.
The Earp brothers are seeking a way to make some money, and the Oriental Saloon just happens to have an opening. Nice coincidence. Could this be the Three?
Well, no. I just wanted to show Billy Bob Thornton getting slapped around in one of the best tough-hero moments ever put on film. In order for this scene to be the Three, a mirror-like version of it would need to exist out at the Six. By the Six-ish point in the movie Wyatt has moved beyond the relative civility of saloon life; no such mirror scene is possible. More importantly, Doc (our Two) is yet to get a scene with Wyatt. We the viewer have seen the Two but our hero hasn’t. Doc and his irreverence must come to town and intrude on Wyatt’s life before we can find a Three.
This, unfortunately, is the Three:
I’m not a fan of the Dana Delaney bobble-head school of acting.
Nothing is wrong with this Three, although it feels unorthodox. To drop a love interest into town, when Wyatt has a wife and a life mapped out, is a legitimate surprise that will remake Wyatt’s future. However, this Three has nothing whatsoever to do with law enforcement and the upcoming gunfight we’re all anticipating. This is a very weak Three that battles expectations for this story. Audiences who are engaged in Wyatt’s journey will blink at this Three and move on; critics waiting for the O.K. Corral will cringe and hold this as a black mark. Also, Josephine arriving on a stagecoach to change Wyatt’s course may be an iffy Three, but just wait until we get to the Six. This is a tough Three to bring home when the movie runs toward the finish. A very interesting choice. I look forward to seeing how it plays out.
Ahh, finally. Let the action truly begin.
Here, as promised, is Doc getting Wyatt into trouble. Wyatt, although he has the shotgun mounted under the faro table, is willing to live and let live when it comes to the Cowboys. No confrontation would occur if Doc didn’t poke at Ringo. Doc’s love of mischief is pitted against Ringo’s need for destruction. The relationship of these two fallen angels, one light and one dark, is a key subplot in the movie, which this scene beautifully exemplifies. Doc and Ringo will dance again.
This Four has, as all good Fours do, our hero acted upon rather than being the actor. Doc riles the Cowboys; Virgil takes the sheriff job and riles the Cowboys. Wyatt would prefer to avoid the whole thing, but his loyalty to his brothers and his friend drags him into the story. Throughout the Four Wyatt is a reluctant participant. Arguably the greatest scene in the movie involves Wyatt, instead of leading the charge, “backing his brother’s play.” When the gunfight begins, Wyatt can only react.
What do you think: Would the gunfight at the O.K. Corral have occurred if Doc didn’t wink? The troublemaker strikes again. I like this consistency in the movie; it speaks of directorial intention. Also, I don’t think Wyatt’s heroism is diminished by his relative passivity in the first half of the story. We know the action-oriented Wyatt will come, and we enjoy the anticipation. All we need is something to change Wyatt from unengaged to engaged.
The something that happens to Wyatt is a doozy. Virgil is wounded and Morgan is shot in the back.
Tombstone has an incredibly strong Switch. Look at the directorial control in this scene. We are being told by the director to pay close attention. Every person Wyatt loves turns away from him, including his (dying) most-beloved brother. Thunder cracks as the music swells. Wyatt is isolated on a dusty road at what seems to be the end of the earth. And then, just in case you were in doubt, a drunken and mournful Doc quotes Coleridge at you. Kubla Khan is a drug-induced poem about lost paradise and the eventual fall of a great man’s dream. Deep stuff going on here, if you care to delve. I like a movie that operates on two levels, both of which are enjoyable. If you want to watch a shoot-’em-up Western without attending to metaphysical themes, this movie is perfectly satisfying. If you want to contemplate man’s place in the universe after each blood-bath scene, then we’ve got that, too.
The payoff has arrived and action-hero Wyatt is in da house. Right away we see what his brand of justice will entail, and we like it. It’s about time.
Again, if you care to attend to deeper themes, you’ll notice that Wyatt’s line refers back to the beginning of the movie when Ringo translated the priest quoting Revelations. The Pale Rider the priest foreshadowed has now arrived. Indeed, Wyatt’s justice seems to have a touch of the supernatural. See this scene from the meat of the Five:
Fun stuff. Doc’s commentary fits within the movie and also as a commentary on the movie. I like the tone.
Our team works together to take down the Cowboys; cooperation is the hallmark of the Five. The members of the team are a bit disconcerting: our old buddy Doc is still around, but who are these other characters? We barely know or care about them. With Morgan dead and Virgil incapacitated Wyatt has no brothers left to organize. As we’ll see later, this is an unfortunate flaw for the movie.
As promised, we’ve arrived at our awkward Six. The mirror aspect (necessary for a successful Three/Six) is well done: she comes into his life by stagecoach, she goes out of his life by stagecoach. Also, the promise of love that arrives with her in Tombstone is now fulfilled, if Wyatt can ever get out of the killing business and move on with his life. You’ll see in the following clip that this Six leads Wyatt to exactly that conclusion.
Wyatt has something to live for, a life beyond what he’s known so far. He’s ready to move on to decision-making in the Seven; in that regard this Six is very successful. However, the insipidity of this scene harms the enjoyment we get from watching a gunslinger movie, and whatever satisfaction we get from contemplating the movie’s philosophical themes is ruined by such an ersatz encounter. This weak attempt at love-everlasting is disappointing, and, I would suggest, one of the reasons critics found fault with the movie. I wish the filmmakers could have generated a more energetic Three/Six. The lack of chemistry between these two actors is painful.
Wyatt recovers beautifully from his weak Six moment and lands squarely in this Seven. As you’ll see, Wyatt must decide that he will face Ringo, even though he knows he can’t defeat him. Kurt Russell handles the scene with a light touch that shines. To our surprise, Doc also has a decision to make. We don’t completely realize what Doc is doing until we get to the Eight, but in retrospect we can see that Doc works very hard in this scene.
The Platonic love (yeah, gotta qualify in this day and age) between Doc and Wyatt is the true heart of this movie. Kilmer and Russell hit their scenes out of the park, and their friendship is the story that overcomes any flaws the movie has. Watching these two actors at work is a privilege.
This is our Eight, a very unorthodox piece of business. Wyatt, our protagonist, is mostly absent.
Does this climax work for you? Every Western should have an exciting gunslinger scene. Wyatt is no quick draw, so the task falls to Doc. Ringo deserves to be shot, and he dies with style. Doc, who goes into every gunfight hoping to be killed, is wonderfully sardonic as he taunts the dying Ringo. think this is a good scene. Many expectations are fulfilled, and Doc’s selflessness is a pleasant surprise. However, the absence of our protagonist at the climax is a strange choice. Some viewers may have wanted Wyatt to be more of a superman.
Thinking back to our Two, the entrance of troublemaker Doc, this Eight makes more sense. Often the Two and Eight share a relationship, similar to the Three/Six connection. The promise of Doc in the Two is fulfilled in the Eight. That symmetry helps to make this Eight more successful.
After this scene we enter a weird zone where Wyatt and his posse ride around killing off the last of the Cowboys. We see them riding side by side in a money shot that disappoints. No brothers, no interest in the team. This is part of the climax yet it feels ho hum. The triumph of the moment is diminished because the people aren’t that engaging. As a Monday morning quarterback, I wish Virgil could have snuck back in for this last ride.
Resolution. Wyatt’s life as a lawman is over and he only needs to bid farewell to Doc. Because Wyatt is a true friend he will not abandon Doc until the end arrives.
Conveniently, Doc knows where Wyatt should go next and points him toward the culminating love interest. Meh. Because Wyatt Earp was a real person with a known biography, the summation of his life is interesting and charming. However, the above moment with Doc is the real end as far as I’m concerned. The closing of their relationship is the payoff I’ve been waiting for, and the two actors are, again, excellent.
All in all, an enjoyable and entertaining movie with a couple of profound moments added. Despite its Enneagram flaws (or, more accurately, weak choices) I consider Tombstone to be one of the great Westerns.