Western Movies

The Tombstone that Might Have Been

Taking a look at some of the winning and losing idiosyncrasies of Kevin Jarre’s original script.


Long before the 1993 movie Tombstone was produced, the screenplay by Kevin Jarre had gotten the attention of a great many people.

Everybody who read the script was familiar with the characters in it and the mythical framework of the story. How could they not be? Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Earp’s brothers Virgil and Morgan, Johnny Behan, the Clantons and the McLaurys, and the events that led up to the gunfight behind the O.K. Corral had been worked and reworked in every conceivable manner, by masters and by hacks. The story has been gripping the imagination of filmmakers since the early 1930s, only a few years after Wyatt’s death. It has been used to create myths and to debunk them.

But Jarre was able to reach deep inside that story and turn it into an operatic epic, more colorful and grander than anyone before him, including John Ford. He did it by recognizing and respecting the facts with uncanny accuracy. That’s not a small thing.

Like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Tombstone colors a routine genre with new wit and brilliantly realized characters to the extent that it made people who knew the story care about it anew, and attracted those who had never heard of it. His script helped people not only appreciate the history, but also the era, when greed and ambition, chaos and character were intertwined. Like Deadwood, it’s a fantasy framed by fact.

One only has to compare Tombstone to Lawrence Kasdan’s competing picture, Wyatt Earp, to understand how anemic history can be when earnestness supersedes drama. Kevin Costner, who plays Wyatt Earp in Kasdan’s version, owned Jarre’s script initially, but he passed it on to Kurt Russell and Andrew Vajna. Costner wanted to make a picture he had every reason to think would be a definitive historical piece. He succeeded in that, except the movie isn’t fun or thrilling—you’ll find no joy in Costner’s Mudville.

The three things that make Tombstone better than it might have been, in the wrong hands, are: Val Kilmer taking the Brando prize as Doc Holliday, Kurt Russell’s sharp sense of economy in keeping his character squinty and restrained, and Jarre’s script, first and foremost.

Anyone who has read the screenplay, which is freely available on the Internet, can see that the best scenes in the picture are true to the script, for...

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