Why Val Kilmer’s Performance In Tombstone Is So Good

Tombstone is a Western classic for good reason. Though many actors have solid performances within it, Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday is a standout role.


1993’s Tombstone is a top-notch Western, and Val Kilmer’s performance as real-life gunslinger Doc Holliday is a vital part of what makes it so good. The film follows Kurt Russell as the legendary Wyatt Earp, a widely-known lawman from the Wild West during the late 1800s. The plot mostly focuses on the events that Earp was a part of in the titular Arizona town, where he famously tried to bring order to a part of the United States that still had a strong, every-man-for-himself ethos at the time.

Earp needs all the help he can get in Tombstone, and his old friend, Doc, is willing to help. Especially in the wake of a string of nasty events, such as bad guy Curly Bill shooting the town’s marshall dead, Earp’s brother Morgan also meeting his demise, and his other brother Virgil losing part of his arm after an assassination attempt. Doc Holliday is a layered, funny character; he’s a former dentist who’s turned into a gambling gunslinger, and he also happens to be ailing from tuberculosis (he moved to Arizona so its climate could benefit his health). He’s fiercely loyal and cuttingly sarcastic, commanding the screen–along with other strong characters–in a great deal of the film.

Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holliday is nothing short of legendary. He captures the character’s calm demeanor, which also has a certain level of volatility and viciousness bubbling beneath the surface at all times. Like Al Pacino’s Michael in The Godfather series, Tom Hardy’s Forrest in 2012’s Lawless, and a variety of other iconic characters, it’s this quietly violent nature that makes him all the more deadly. Kilmer’s Holliday has also become famous for his smart-aleck lines, which are delivered dripping in a southern drawl. One of the most notable scenes – which is densely packed with memorable one-liners – is his shootout with outlaw Johnny Ringo, where he shows up in Earp’s place to save his life. The sequence features his smugly sinister fan favorite, “I’m your Huckleberry


And, later in the conversation, there’s another classic Tombstone moment where Johnny Ringo tries to laugh off an earlier squabble, telling Holliday he had just been kidding around. But Doc simply stares at him tensely and seriously, briefly hesitates, and just replies, “I wasn’t.” And Johnny Ringo, fearing for his life, practically shakes in his boots. In scenes such as this, his character doesn’t say much, but Kilmer’s body language, facial expressions, and overall demeanor take the film to the next level. And, in addition to Holliday’s dry, sarcastic wit in the movie, his undying loyalty also stands out. Holliday is ready to do whatever it takes to assist Earp in enforcing the law, or later, after the attacks on his brothers, during what Doc calls the lawman’s “reckoning.”

Obviously, Tombstone‘s writers molded what Holliday would and wouldn’t say, as well as a large extent of his character’s behavior. But, had another actor been cast as the wily gunslinger instead of Val Kilmer, Holliday surely wouldn’t be the same, or have the same impact. His lines, and the cadence and mannerisms Kilmer attaches to them, are what makes his performance so transcendent, even years later. His version of Holliday captures the essence of Tombstone well; he’s dark, brooding, and violent, but also adds a sense of levity via a litany of flippant, too-cool lines that still stand the test of time.


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