1. Tombstone (1993)
“I’m your huckleberry…”
This is it. Tombstone isn’t only the best Western since Unforgiven, it’s one of the best Westerns ever. Eastwood may have killed the genre in 1992 but Tombstone came back in less than a year to take revenge through gritted teeth and a cocked Peacemaker. The film is a simple but grandiose revenge epic disguised as a Wyatt Earp biopic that”s high on the body count and fast with the one liners. An unapologetic embrace of all things dealing with manliness, loyalty, and vengeance is what makes Tombstone the one true quintessential modern Western of all time.
Oh, and Val Kilmer as the seductively vampiric Doc Holiday doesn’t hurt either. Play for blood? That’s just his game.
When Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) arrives in the small but growing mining town of Tombstone, (as big as San Francisco one day. And just as sophisticated.) he is already a made man. Well known lawman from his days as sheriff in the wild Dodge City, he’s come to Arizona territory looking to strike it rich with his wife Maddie and two brothers Virgil (Sam Elliot) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) And that’s just what he does within minutes of arriving in town. Everything seems to be coming up aces for Wyatt early on, even his good friend Doc Holiday is in town to help Wyatt and his brothers get rich. But Tombstone isn’t big enough for Wyatt’s crew and the gang of red sash wearing Cowboys who push back against the Earp’s takeover. When events and tempers boil over Wyatt laws up and leads Doc and his brothers into the most famous 30 second gunfight in American history. Thirty shots and three deaths later, Wyatt stood triumphant though his world would come crashing down as Morgan is soon assassinated and Virgil is seriously wounded by Cowboy reprisals. With a furious obsession Wyatt sets off to begin the Earp Vendetta Ride (yes, that’s really what it’s called) and kill every Cowboy he lays eyes on. Like a guardian angel Doc follows Wyatt on the ride to hell and back killing the Cowboy’s sadistic leader Johnny Ringo (Micheal Biehn) to end the blood feud once and for all. With Wyatt’s temper finally sated, he calms down and runs away with the love of his life to live on room service for the rest of his days.
Everything a great western requires Tombstone has in spades. Strong willed and uncompromising protagonists? Check. Vile and rotten scoundrels for villains? Check. Exciting gunplay? Epic scenery? Scene chewing cast? Sweeping orchestral music? A story of right through might? Check. Check. Check! Like Unforgiven the majority of the film is one wildly long buildup to the action packed and violent final act. Wyatt does pause briefly to reflect on the morality of taking another man’s life. But he doesn’t dwell on the thought long. He’s too busy killing cowboys to give it more than a fleeting notice. And kill cowboys he does. At one point Wyatt even walks towards the screen, blasting away at the audience with pistols in each hand, he’s become so crazed. The film never slows down and moves at a brisk pace between Val Kilmer’s scene stealing performance and violent exchanges of gunfire. The movie fills everything in between with everything you love about Westerns. Saloons. Gambling. No nonsense mustaches. Horse chases. Dialogue you could hammer through a 2 x 4.
Tombstone is one hell of a movie and should be recognized as one of the best Westerns ever made. John Ford. Eat your heart out.
Did you know? Early in the shoot the original director Kevin Jarre was fired by the studio leaving Kurt Russell to direct the film largely by himself to avoid cancellation. While filming he reduced a number of his own scenes so that the other actors would receive more screen time to shine.