"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
So says the newspaper editor in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," and that's pretty much the approach that director George P. Cosmatos and writer Kevin Jarre take in "Tombstone" (1993), an unabashedly fictionalized version of the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
As John J. Puccio wrote in his DVD review, "We've seen it all before and maybe more compellingly in John Ford's ‘My Darling Clementine,' 1946, with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, and then again in John Sturges's ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,' 1957, with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the leads. But I doubt we've seen it done more realistically, more violently, or more excitingly as in ‘Tombstone.'"
That's because Cosmatos ("Rambo: First Blood Part II") and Jarre ("The Mummy"), who reportedly directed much of the film before he was replaced, try to have it both ways. They give us everyday details of life in the old West that fortify the illusion we're watching something absolutely accurate, while also embracing the romance of legend, populating the film with characters that have plenty of swagger. They spout "Smile when you say that" gunslinger clichés and such colorful things as "I'm your Huckleberry." And they treat as fact all of the exaggerations that an older, celebrated Earp told newspapermen--like how he killed Johnny Ringo, for example. The result is a shoot-‘em-up that's entertaining enough . . . if you're not the sort who's bothered by frequent and sometimes major departures from the facts.
How major? Well, in "Tombstone" Wyatt's brother, Morgan, is out of the picture before the big gunfight occurs in spring 1881, when, in fact, he participated. And Wyatt didn't have much of a reputation before he came to Tombstone. He'd been a peace officer in Dodge City, but not City Marshal as he later claimed. In this film and many others, Earp's reputation precedes him. At first glance, Kurt Russell looks a bit young and smooth-faced to play Wyatt, but Earp was only 32 years old when he gave testimony in court about what happened the day he and brothers Morgan and Virgil, the town's lawman, took on two pairs of brothers who'd been itching for a fight: Ike and Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLowry. And in point of (interesting) fact, he went on record as saying he told Clanton, "Jerk your gun and use it." Language which, of course, evolved via Hollywood shorthand to something like "Draw!"
At 130 minutes, "Tombstone" is probably an overly long movie, especially considering that the famous gunfight itself took no more than 30 seconds. But the characters—and the stars playing them—are so slap-leather fun that it's easy to get caught up in the drama leading up to that climax. In fact, by the time the climax comes, it's almost anticlimactic because the gritty day-to-day conflicts of living in a lawless town are so engrossing.
Wyatt and his brothers, Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Pill Paxton) ride into Tombstone looking for the pot of gold retirement that Wyatt led them to believe was there. Whom should they find there ahead of them but another Dodge City cohort, the consumptive gambler "Doc" Holliday--played by Val Kilmer, who relishes the southern accent he gives the character the way that Powers Boothe revels in the role of bad-ass Curly Bill Brocius. In this shoot-‘em-up, look for an appearance by Mr. NRA himself, Charlton Heston, and Billy Bob Thornton as a crooked faro dealer. Stephen Lang and Thomas Haden Church play the Clantons and Robert John Burke and John Philbin are the McLaurys. Presumably encouraged by the director, all of the actors embrace the romantic stereotypes, and while you'd think that it'd kill the sense of realism, on the contrary, it reinforces the legend--the "real" West that Americans have grown up with. Add the gritty realism of what life actually was like in 1881 Arizona, when a gang known as the Cowboys ran the town, and it conveys a truly colorful sense of period.
There's plenty of action, too, with "Tombstone" rated R for "strong Western violence." And the action isn't CGI'd or blurred, which puts the burden on special effects that indeed rise to the occasion. I'm not as high on this film as John, because it does tend to go on too long and it plays fast and loose with the truth, but the location filming and cinematography are as strong as the other atmospheric elements, and the plot moves along rather crisply.
"Tombstone" comes to Blu-ray via a decent but imperfect AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc. I say "imperfect" because quite a few scenes seem murky, though I found nothing wrong with the level of color saturation or accuracy of flesh tones. It's a better presentation than the DVD, but while the 3-dimensionality is enough to make some figures pop out nicely, edge detail isn't quite as impressive. I could have sworn I saw some ghosting, and I don't mean at Boot Hill. There's also a thin layer of film grain that accompanies many of the low-lit scenes. Overall, though, I think it's a good but not great video, presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
The sonics have a much more commanding presence. It's a dynamic track that zips and zings bullets with the noisy accuracy of a top gun. Bass is pleasingly resonant, while the timbre is rich and full. Whether it's a line of dialogue or the retort of Earp's legendary Buntline Special, every audio note seems correctly modulated and mixed. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, which is recorded at a higher level than usual. But even when you turn down the volume it still sounds full and flattens out a bit only when you approach whisper-mode. Sound is pushed far from the speaker sources, so it really fills the room. Additional audio options are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
You'd think Disney would have matched all the DVD bonus features plus tried to come up with a Blu-ray exclusive, but that's not the case. Included from the 2002 DVD release is a better-than-average "making of" feature that runs a half hour, but that's the only significant extra. The only other features from that earlier release are a few storyboards that run just under five minutes and seven minutes worth of TV and theatrical trailers. Missing is the director's commentary and, most egregiously, the real account of what happened at the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
If you check your history books at the door and just sit back and relax, "Tombstone" is a rousing Western. And while the Blu-ray isn't the slickest to be produced this year, it's still a respectable transfer that beats the pants off of the DVD except for a handful of murky scenes.