Kurt Russell Isn’t What Makes ‘Tombstone’ a Great Western

Kurt Russell is awesome, so this is really saying a lot.

  •  Tombstone is a cult classic Western film with a beloved performance by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.
  •  Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc is cool, witty, and magnetic, defying his physical limitations and adding a mystique to his actions.
  •  The film highlights the uncomplicated and beneficial friendship between Kurt Russell’s Wyatt and Doc, providing a great narrative backbone with real pathos.

Tombstone is one of the last great Westerns, a rousing slice of old-fashioned pulp fun that would make Sam Peckinpah proud, and the last gasp of a type of Western snuffed out by modern blockbuster Hollywood and the ripple effects of Unforgiven. Leading the charge (and secretly directing the film) is Kurt Russell in a commanding performance as Wyatt Earp, who more than embodies the noble lawman of legend. But he is actually not truly the reason this movie is so fun. Yes, he might be a strong asset, but not he is not his real MVP. That honor goes to Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Wyatt’s ne’er-do-well best friend who’s as honorable as he is rambunctious, as tragic as he is desperate. Kilmer soars above everyone else in arguably his finest work, and made being an outlaw look fun in a way few performers ever have.

‘Tombstone’ Is One of the Last Great Westerns

Tombstone is the story of the Earp brothers, Wyatt (Kurt Russell), Virgil (Sam Elliott), and Morgan (Bill Paxton), as they attempt to live a peaceful retired life in Tombstone, Arizona. Unfortunately, they chose to retire at the same time a gang of outlaws called the Cowboys, led by Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and Curly Bill (Powers Boothe), are terrorizing the town. So the Earps must put their guns up one more time, with the help of Wyatt’s eccentric friend, Doc Holliday (Kilmer). Holliday is the true life of the party: womanizer, drinker, gambler, consummate gentleman, and all-around rapscallion. Already wracked with tuberculosis at the start of the film, sweating out of his every pore, Doc is a man raging against the dying light, having as much fun and being as chill as he can be before his inevitable curtain call.

Tombstone has gained the stature of a cult classic, in part thanks to an initially mediocre critic reception; this arguably came about due to a combin ation of valid criticisms of the film, the (even at the time) well-known behind-the-scenes drama with the directing, and the fact that it was a traditionally formulaic Western only a year after Unforgiven

Tombstone is exactly the film Unforgiven was criticizing: men playing with their guns, wooing the women, getting audiences unironically excited for big gun fights, and feeling valorized as heroes for winning those fights. But despite all that, one thing has remained constant: the love for Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. If you go back and look at reviews at the time, even critics that didn’t like the film had to admit that “it’s got to be recommended for Kilmer’s performance alone.”

Val Kilmer Is a Revelation as Doc Holliday in ‘Tombstone’

Above all else, Kilmer as Doc is simply cool. He is the living embodiment of every fantasy you’ve ever had of being an outlaw. He’s always composed no matter the circumstances, and he’s fully capable and prepared for action at the drop of a hat. Plus, he’s just plain witty without being too smarmy. Most of Kilmer’s best scenes revolve around his ability to either brush people off or antagonize them with the simultaneous utmost courtesy and lack of consideration. For instance, there’s a scene where a local saloon employee has been besmirched by Doc, and goes to confront him with a shotgun, but is shocked when he sees Doc talk with the entire Earp family. He’s so stunned that he stands there while they keep talking, to the point that Doc turns his attention to him by saying “Johnny, I forgot you were here. You may go now.” That by itself is pretty cutting, if not threatening, but Val Kilmer says it with the refinement of a curt school teacher, throwing in a little hand wave like you would to a fly.

It’s this central contradiction that Kilmer emphasizes throughout that makes him so magnetic. That despite Doc being actively dying, oozing a sickness that he knows is eating him alive on a constant basis, he is imbued with an effervescence that allows him to transcend his physical limitations. This man said “I’m in my prime” while dripping like a faucet and coughing up blood, and he didn’t bat an eye. Think of it like when Michael Jordan dropped 38 points in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals while crippled by food poisoning. It’s impressive enough what he does by itself, but seeing Doc be so cool under so much internal pressure adds a mystique to his actions that makes him live up to the legend. Doc gesturing towards his gun to let a fellow gambler know that he hopes they can still be friends is the kind of flex that you can’t get away with unless you have the carefree tone just right, for fear of accidentally tripping into a Blazing Saddles 

scene. But Kilmer keeps the gravitas and dignity of Doc in mind at all times.

Val Kilmer Makes Doc Holliday Incredibly Fun

An important theme all throughout the film is how Doc Holliday doesn’t have friends. He may gamble with a lot of people, he may have a main squeeze partner (Joanna Pacuła), but he does not have many platonic friends, and it seems to be a source of pride for him. This is underlined towards the end, where he insists that “Wyatt Earp was my friend” and that he doesn’t have many of those, with steely conviction. This makes for a great narrative backbone, since Kilmer has so much chemistry with Russell that it creates the most convincing arc of the film.

The friendship of Wyatt and Doc is one that’s been told multiple times throughout other films like My Darling ClementineGunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Wyatt Earp, but this film has easily the best version of their relationship, in part because it’s already established before the story starts, and they fall back into each other’s orbits so easily. Most other versions of their dynamic involve some kind of ongoing conflict, be it motivated by Doc’s vices getting the better of him or the plot machinations making Doc mad at Wyatt for a decent portion of the runtime. Here, Wyatt and Doc’s friendship is relatively uncomplicated and Doc is almost always of major benefit to Wyatt and what he needs. There’s real pathos at the end where Wyatt’s last gesture to Doc before he dies is giving him the book Wyatt wrote about their friendship, so that he may die feeling satisfied with his life, knowing that Wyatt is living his best life for him.

Not to mention, Doc is the only character who is truly allowed to be fun, while all the other actors are in a more serious-minded epic. While he isn’t full-fledged comic relief, Kilmer does provide levity and color to numerous scenes, in large part because of how many little things he thought up and how invested he is in the character. Only highlighting the best examples: his whistling while walking to the O.K. Corral for the big gunfight, his winking at Billy Clanton (Thomas Haden Church) before the gunfight, the way he whirls a drinking cup around his finger in place of a gun to one up Johnny Ringo, the drawl of his signature phrase “I’m your huckleberry,” and the absolute relish he brings to it when he confronts Johnny Ringo at the end of the film, stepping out of the shadows looking like Zorro.

Val Kilmer Is Deeply Connected to Doc Holliday

Val Kilmer’s time as Doc Holliday has had a lasting impact on himself and his legacy. He even named his autobiography I’m Your Huckleberry, acknowledging how iconic it has become. In his book, Kilmer speaks at length about his role as Doc and why he thinks of him so fondly. He said he knew he had to take the chance to play him because “the archetype of the gunslinger…is ever present” and “Americans have to deal with the West and its glorious, sordid, sadistic past” for its hopeful and horrifying lessons. Kilmer articulated what made Holliday so fascinating by describing him as “a fallen aristocrat, frustrated by his inability to express his authentic self,” so he turns to drink and wit out of “defiance in the face of death.” You can see this coursing all throughout his performance, the Southern debutante charm disarming the audience into undervaluing his inner character and writing him off as a distracting agent of debauchery. But that’s the trick: never underestimate what Val Kilmer can bring to the party.

Tombstone is available to rent on Prime Video in the U.S.


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