"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tombstone (Cinergi, 1993) and Wyatt Earp (Warner Bros, 1994)

You don't have to choose!

Wyatt Earp


Tombstone appeared in 1993 for Cinergi Pictures directed by George Cosmatos and starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, while Wyatt Earp was released the following year by Warner Bros, in which Lawrence Kasdan directed Kevin Costner as Wyatt and Denis Quaid was Doc. Apparently they were filmed at the same time and Tombstone got all the period costumes. Wyatt Earp had to send to Europe.

The Warner Bros movie had a solid Costner and a brilliant Quaid but apart from Gene Hackman as Wyatt’s dad it had, frankly, no one else of note in the cast. Was it deliberate to have bland Earp brothers? There is that suspicion in several Wyatt Earp movies. Weaker Virgils and Morgans enhance the star Wyatt's top-dog status. The best supporting part was probably Isabella Rossellini as Big-Nose Kate but her role (and nose) was too small.

The film is extraordinarily long. It takes an hour and a quarter before the Earps even get to Tombstone and two and a quarter hours to get to the famous gunfight (rather perfunctory at that). We’re still watching Wyatt get his revenge three hours in. That would be OK if it were a brilliant, beautifully photographed film with edge-of-the-seat action, stirring music and outstanding acting. But it isn’t, really.

I don’t want to appear churlish. It was a big Western in the 1990s and don’t think I’m not grateful. I have also watched it quite a few times. But these days when I put it in the DVD player I have to steel myself for the long haul.

The costumes are excellent and the look of the thing is authentic (Westerns have got so good at that these days). It was satisfactorily photographed by Owen Roizman, mostly in New Mexico, and the adequate music is by James Newton Howard. There are some big expensive scenes such as herds of buffalo and a railroad construction.

I don’t expect Wyatt Earp pictures to be authentic and historically accurate. That’s not the point of them. But I did get a bit irritated when Wyatt hired on Bat Masterson and brother Ed as junior skinners and taught them how to shoot. The Mastersons were then given their chance as tyro lawmen under Wyatt in Dodge. Dear, oh dear.

For color and more zest, watch the flashier Tombstone. For a more earnest and darker treatment, watch this one.

Hell, you have to watch them all anyway.

Of the two Wyatt Earp pictures of the early 1990s, Tombstone is probably the better. This is for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s more fun, lighter and shorter. For another, Val Kilmer makes a superb Doc and the supporting actors are stronger (with the exception of Big-Nose Kate, who was better in Wyatt Earp). Furthermore, the producers made the wise decision not to attempt, as Costner had done, a whole life of Wyatt Earp, not even to deal with Dodge, but instead to concentrate, as the title suggests, on the time in Arizona.

The movie is big, colorful and exciting. The look of it is fine and the costumes excellent. It is also probably the most accurate Wyatt movie historically, though liberties are taken here too, notably by showing the mass slaughter by Wyatt’s posse and the showdown between Doc and Ringo. Fair enough. This is drama, not history.

Sam Elliott as Virgil and Bill Paxton as Morgan are very good. Kurt Russell is a solid Wyatt. The bad guys are well done too: I liked Powers Boothe as Curly Bill; Michael Biehn is excellent as the psychotic Ringo; and Stephen Lang as Ike is nasty too (and also captures the real-life cowardliness of Ike Clanton). Both Wyatt’s women were played by a Dana, the Delany one taking the honours as Sadie aka Josephine Marcus. Nice to see Harry Carey Jr. as Fred White. Robert Mitchum was to have played Old Man Clanton but sadly was injured and his part written out. He gets to speak the voiceover prologue and epilogue (in the prologue, note scenes from early Westerns such as The Great Train Robbery of 1903).

The photography is very pleasant, by William A Fraker, and the Arizona scenery is ideal.

We know Wyatt is good because the first time we see him he saves a horse from being beaten. It’s always a child or an animal. Doc and Ringo have a conversation in Latin and Doc plays Chopin's Nocturne #19 in E minor, Opus 72 No. 1 on the saloon piano, as you doubtless spotted.

Good Western.

Watch them both. Both repay a look and you don't have to choose!

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