Tombstone (Vista Series) Review

The Film

The western is, infamously, a genre in decline, with the commercial and critical failure of Heaven's Gate widely accepted as signalling its death knell, and Clint Eastwood's magnificent but underappreciated Unforgiven as the final nail in its commercial coffin. While other films have been made since then, such as Sam Raimi's gloriously overblown The Quick and the Dead, this is probably the highest profile of the new crop of western films, given the failure of such lacklustre efforts as Wyatt Earp or, for our sins, Wild Wild West. At first glance an apparently lightweight choice for a so-called elite band of films, Tombstone is actually a surprisingly good film, and one that stands up to repeated viewings.

The plot is famous. Wyatt Earp (Russell), his brothers Virgil (Elliott) and Morgan (Paxton), and Doc Holliday (Kilmer) have, after successful (and in Holliday's case, notorious) careers as lawmen, settled in Tombstone, in order to seek their fortunes in prospecting. Unfortunately, the town is overrun by outlaws calling themselves 'The Cowboys', as led by Curly Bill (Boothe) and Johnny Ringo (Biehn). Despite attempting to stay out of trouble, the four find themselves inexorably dragged into violence once more, and tragedy ensues. Repeatedly.

After an infamously troubled production, in which the original director, Kevin Jarre, was fired halfway through production and replaced by George 'Cobra and Rambo 2' Cosmatos, it is a surprise that the end result works at all as a coherent film, let alone that it is a surprisingly accomplished western, action film and even a not-bad character study. Despite a fairly slow opening, where Jarre and Cosmatos introduce a wide range of eventually irrelevant characters, the film actually improves as it goes on, unlike many similar ones, with characters genuinely growing in depth and texture as the story goes on. The film is sufficiently intelligent to paint in shades of grey, as well as black and white; Earp might well be as heroic a figure as has ever blown villains away by the dozen, but he is also an adulterer, a cold-blooded killer, and a man initially more interested in himself than the law. Likewise, the Cowboys are shown to be multi-faceted; despite their frequently appalling actions, moments of vulnerability and humanity illuminate their characters.

The performances are generally strong, as a cast that includes the likes of Charlton Heston (as an old ranger), Robert Mitchum (as the narrator) and Wyatt Earp's grandson (as a bandit, ironically enough) are all suited to their roles. Kilmer is, unsurprisingly, the stand-out as Holliday; although he's an actor who is desperately irritating in the wrong part, he is electrifying with decent material, and he is quite superb as a dying man who has decided to live his life to the full, knowing that each day may well be his last. Russell is also surprisingly good as Earp, bringing depth and sensitivity to the role which was not apparent in his earlier (and subsequent) work.

The film is unlikely to be hailed as a timeless classic, but it is a very enjoyable, solidly professional piece of work, with many exciting scenes, some fantastic lines (with my favourite being 'Tell 'em I'm coming, and hell's coming with me!'), a genuinely convincing period setting and a more intelligent script than material of this sort normally warrants. Recommended.

The Picture

One of the criteria for the Vista Series is that the film should be presented in as technically strong a manner as possible, and so it comes as no surprise that the picture is mostly terrific. Cosmatos frequently pays homage to Sergio Leone visually, and his compositions use the anamorphic lens consistently, so the 2.35:1 ratio is crucially preserved. Colours are strong, although the dominant ones are yellow (for the sand and dust) and red (take a wild guess); the only minor fault is that there is some print damage from time to time, which becomes more apparent as the film goes on. Still, this is easily the best that the film must have looked on DVD or video (and far better than the non-anamorphic version that came out before).

The Sound

As you would hope from a film with a very active soundtrack, the Dolby and DTS mixes both do a terrific job of showcasing the various gun battles, with bullets appearing to fly in every direction. The gunfight at the OK Corral thus becomes somewhat...intense, to say the least, especially with the DTS track. The stirring soundtrack also comes across very nicely, although the dialogue occasionally sounds slightly muted.

The Extras

And this, once again, is where the disc falls down. Two pluses first; this is the director's cut, which, although only a few minutes longer than the cinema version, does restore a couple of questionable plot points, and also includes a rather wonderful scene of Holliday reciting poetry. Secondly, full credit to whoever put a genuinely interesting 'historical timeline' on the disc, as well as the actual newspaper from Tombstone on the day of the OK Corral; both are interesting features, and it's striking to see how close the film actually was to historical fact.

However, this is rather lightweight stuff otherwise, and hardly deserving of Buena Vista's description of a series that serves 'the filmmaker's vision with imagination and content.' We have a weak commentary by Cosmatos, who scarcely mentions Kevin Jarre's substantial contribution to the film, both in script and actual direction, a vaguely interesting but promotional 25-minute making-of featurette, as divided into 3 shorter featurettes, and the usual round of storyboards. (Why do DVD producers think people care about them? They're really not that interesting.)The usual trailers and TV spots round off the package, although there's a time-passing Easter Egg of some production and poster designs. It's too easy to start pointing out what should have been here; a candid and contemporary documentary, perhaps, some deleted scenes, a second commentary track, etc...


While not the best western ever made (that would either be The Searchers or Once Upon a Time in the West, depending on your preference), Tombstone is a genuinely good film, working both as intelligent commentary on the genre and as straightforward shoot-em-up. The disc is excellent technically, but the extras really are lacking for a so-called 'special edition' release from Buena Vista, whose track record with the Vista Series has so far been less than impressive; roll on the 4-disc director's cut of Pearl Harbor to rectify matters.

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Last updated: 04/05/2018 06:48:06

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