Tuesday 7 August 2007

Tombstone (1983) George P Cosmatos

George P Cosmatos would seem a strange choice to direct Tombstone, a highly prominent western. He was born in Italy, spoke fluent Greek and died in Canada. He only directed ten films, from 1970's The Beloved to 1997's Shadow Conspiracy, hardly a prolific output, and most of them are war movies or war oriented action films. This one would seem to be a major departure but he demonstrates a vivid understanding of the dynamic of the western, from Powers Boothe's ruthless attack on a Mexican wedding party in the opening scenes on out.

Boothe is the first of a long string of stars that don't ever seem to end, even though he's desperately trying to be Lee Marvin. Not only does Cosmatos do his job right, he's aided by what seems like every western star in the business. To be honest, it starts with the opening narration, provided by no less a star than Robert Mitchum, who was relegated to the role after damaging his back on day one of his shoot as Old Man Clanton. When people like Harry Carey Jr, Billy Zane, Jason Priestley, Joanna Pacula, Michael Biehn and Terry O'Quinn play the small parts, you know you have some talent in the big ones.

And yes, the key names are big stars. Wyatt Earp is a heavily moustachioed Kurt Russell, who completely looks the part. He quickly meets up with his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, here played by the excellent Sam Elliott with his perfect voice and Bill Paxton. Best of all though is Doc Holliday, played by Val Kilmer looking at once very much like Val Kilmer and yet somehow nothing like him, even before his tuberculosis starts to make itself obvious. Most of the rest are recognisable before we even see them, from Billy Bob Thornton to Michael Rooker, Thomas Haden Church to Charlton Heston.

What is so priceless here is that the certain things make themselves very apparent. Firstly, the characters who stamped their indelible mark on the real west very believably and effectively stamp their indelible mark on this film. Billy Bob Thornton is a tough guy until he meets Kurt Russell, at which point he becomes nothing and nobody. Russell is that emphatic and he damned well ought to have been. What impresses most was that when he meets Val Kilmer they're both that emphatic at each other, in the most restrained and polite manner possible. It's joyous to watch.

Secondly, these major names, along with most of the other gunfighters in the state, all know each other, by name, by reputation and by sight. The egos are huge, the bravado palpable and the showdowns somehow both believable and exactly the sort of things legends are made of. It isn't just Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, it's Earp and Johnny Tyler, Holliday and the Ringo Kid, Virgil Earp and Ike Clanton, Holliday and Billy Clanton. They seem endless but always memorable.

In many ways, the story is the sum of these legends, rather than being any particularly limiting plot. We quickly find ourselves in Tombstone, AZ, which has become a boomtown because of a powerful silver strike. Holliday and the Earps are far from the only people moving in, as the people already there fully expect it to grow beyond the size and influence of San Francisco within a few years. Inside the town, certain people are becoming very rich but outside, the large gang of outlaws known as the Cowboys are running the townsfolk ragged. While Wyatt doesn't want to get involved, his brothers get involved for him, becoming marshals after the existing one is shot dead by the Clanton gang. Naturally things don't go quite as expected after that.

The countryside around Tombstone looks right, as well it should given that the film was shot in Arizona, partly at Old Tucson before it burned down and partly in the countryside around. The colours are solid, where everything looks right and nothing looks too right, from the new building signs to the never too clean clothes to the way Wyatt Earp has to adjust his gait after getting down from a long horseride. The reality even extends to the amount of spitting going on and the fact that Cosmatos cast a relative of the real Wyatt Earp, also named Wyatt Earp, in a small role.

Clint Eastwood did the cinematic world a service when he made Unforgiven in 1992 and resurrected a dead genre. Tombstone may well be the best western made since then, however inaccurate many of the details are, and when I finally get to see Unforgiven I'll see how it matches up. Certainly I'm not expecting to much appreciate Kevin Costner's taken on the role of Wyatt Earp a year later in a film named after the character. Kurt Russell is going to be very difficult to follow indeed.

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