Tombstone is in my opinion a great and beautiful homage to a romantic style of westerns that transcend the horror of killing people and the dirtiness of the frontier, while at the same time remaining brutal. So awesomely brutal.
How did they do this? With Wyatt Earp.
The trusty Marshall is the stuff of legend, taking no hit at the OK Corral and generally mowing down a bunch of dudes who killed his brother with seemingly no consequences at all. He was like The Punisher of the Wild West. On top of it? He married a pretty, sassy actress from a rich family who also took naked pictures of herself way before the internet. When you have to accept a flashbulb and a flurry of smoke that’s commitment to a naked picture.
Anyway, this movie is brilliant because it’s gorgeous. It’s a beautiful imagining of archetypal characters in the most idealized way. The casting is practically gilded I find it so stunning.
I’m not really big on swooning over actors, especially when that actor is Kurt Russell, but the long coat and the epic handlebar mustache totally does it for me. Somehow the melding of these two personalities creates a character who is Super Hot.
“Skin that smoke wagon,” he says as he smacks Billy Bob Thornton around, “Are you gonna do somethin’ or just stand there and bleed?”
I argue that this film is influenced and directed by Faustian themes including seven deadly sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride. Furthermore I believe it is also directed by both the absence and presence of the feminine. These things are often major themes in Westerns. I believe they evoke the fragility of the human across the frontier. Sin is fragility and women are often both. But in the end, so many of these tales of the west hinge on the holder of the womb. And they hinge on justice.
This quote from Revelations is introduced in the first sequence as we have Wrath, Greed, and Pride exhibited by the Cowboys.
The Cowboys are a rough large gang and Curly Bill leads a group of them, including Ike and Johnny Ringo, to a Mexican soldier’s wedding to avenge the killing of two Cowboys. There is a shootout and the soldier is murdered while clutching his new wife. Cowboys then drag her into the church and we assume she is raped. They don’t respect the feminine.
Curly Bill and the others take to eating the reception feast. A priest curses them, asserts that they will be struck down, and he quotes revelation, invokes the end of the world — the end of the world for them.
Johnny Ringo swiftly and unexpectedly pops a bullet into the priest’s head. Curly Bill and the others laugh nervously in awe of Ringo’s brutality. He scares even them because he has no reverence even for revelations.
So here, we’ve got it. We’ve been informed of the true villain and his fate to be swallowed by hell. Later on in this film as he sits watching Josephine and her troop act out Faust he comments that he’s already sold his soul to the devil.
Vi veri universum vivus vici: I by the power of truth have conquered the universe.
By comparing himself to Faust we are left to wonder if he will be saved by forgiveness or if he will be dragged down to hell for his failures. I wondered if the feminine, evoking Gretchen, would intervene and save him from the wrath of the rider on the pale horse.
In real life Johnny Ringo killed himself. In the film he is shot by Doc Holliday (as per one theory), who I believe is redeemed in his assistance of the Righteous Earp and his desire for a solitary and peaceful death with his boots off. Redeemed, but not saved. His death, the Faustian damnation, may be signaled by the distinct absence of his lady Kate. He muses that she may be the anti-Christ. We wonder if the absence of her sin allows him to go to Heaven or if the absence of her feminine forgiveness damns him like One Such Faust.
The film glosses over the pasts of the Earp wives as prostitutes and while I wish it had been a little less subtle (Ike calling the Earps pimps) I understand why the film makers left it out. Audiences have a hard time with sex workers as western society has a problem with women who aren’t sublimated.
Matty, Wyatt’s wife, doesn’t even reject sublimation in that she’s a drug addict. Her alienation from Wyatt is established early on as she looks away from the window in which the Earps and their wives are framed. Coming off the train in Arizona, Wyatt grabs his brothers and sisters-in-law and stands them in front of a window, gazing at the reflection like a photograph of heaven. As I said, Matty looks away. She is focused on laudanum, on drug-induced sloth. She is so locked into this that she scoffs at Wyatt’s genuine compliment of her beauty — her femininity — but not locked in enough to escape feeling jealous of Josephine.
Josephine Marcus is absolutely not sublimated. She’s a “spirited actress,” as Holliday remarks. She plays the devil and she asserts that she “wants one,” when analyzing the Earp Archetype, a man with the visage of “both predator and prey”. Billy Zane responds, “Happy Hunting.”
So Josephine hunts for Wyatt, displays her rejection of sublimation, and Matty recedes into her bed. When Wyatt sees the devil revealed he exclaims, “I’ll be damned.”
Doc responds, “You may indeed, if you get lucky.”
This prognostication is very interesting to me in contrast to Johnny Ringo’s so-called cheat of the devil. Wyatt never tries to cheat the devil. Josephine only plays the devil. She is presented as a temptation, but I believe that she is Gretchen empowered by her vagina.
“I’m a woman. I like men,” she declares. Wyatt maintains that she’s still a lady, that he’d swear to it. Duh. She’s totally a lady. She may not be a Lady, but rejecting a chaste and modest veneer because she just wants to have fun forever does not negate female definition.
I argue that her desire for Wyatt signals that he will be the one saved.
Et vivus a potentia veri universum vincet.
The only threat is the absence of the feminine, if he cannot be forgiven by Josephine. Following the death of Morgan and Wyatt’s rejection of her comfort she strolls across the street casually the next day. Holliday muses, “and she walked out of our lives forever.”
Wyatt Earp rides off on the vengeance meme, embodying the ultimate wrath of Armageddon with a few men on hearty horses.
He anticipates Ike meeting him at the train. As Ike disrespects Matty by asking her to betray Wyatt, the Man himself has already moved on from her sloth. He’s right behind Ike. He dominates him and marks him with Mexican Tattoo minus the rope; an emblem of the coming apocalypse. Ike runs off with the message of Wyatt’s incantation, “Hell’s comin’ with me!”
At the OK Corral Wyatt Earp was not hit by a single bullet. That was part of his mystique. Everyone, even Holliday, was grazed by a bullet. But Wyatt stood untouched as if protected, captivated by a greater power for a greater deed: Faust unlimited.
In the film when Wyatt encounters Curly Bill and his men he charges across the water to execute his destiny, to bring forth hell and death. And as Ike rides off in fear he drops the red sash that associates him with the plague of the Cowboys. He renounces them.
And Holliday’s presence? Why does he go on to kill Johnny Ringo instead of Wyatt? Well I’m going to make a wild argument that I think is pretty kickass. I am going to suggest that they are the two opposing moralities of the White Horseman of the apocalypse. They are fighting for the title. They are two sides of the coin and that’s why they hate each other.
Johnny Ringo exclaims that he sold his soul to the devil. He shot a priest for evoking revelations, and he exclaims to Wyatt that he wants his blood following the shootout in Tombstone. Johnny Ringo is evil.
But what of Holliday? Is he Righteous? Is he the counter to Johnny Ringo’s evil? Should he take the place as the proper horseman by Wyatt’s side?
Yes. This is why he wins. This is why at the end I believe he is redeemed. All of his gambling and drinking and shooting is ancillary to his inherent goodness in the film. Those frivolities are not evil; they’re simply frivolities. He rides along with Wyatt as death, bringing an end to the Cowboys and indeed to evil. That world is destroyed. When asked why he’s followed Wyatt through his sickness (pestilence), Holliday says simply “Wyatt Earp is my friend.”
The White Horse is sometimes argued to be Christ himself. Is Holliday Christ? Is he the Holy Spirit? He helped Wyatt overcome evil. Now that it’s over he demands to die alone, without his friend and without the feminine. But he’s fulfilled his duty and spread his gospel. He has separated himself from Kate (perhaps unnecessarily) and ordered Wyatt to find his high-spirited actress. He passes into the night in a white bed.
And Wyatt Earp? He makes good on his deal with the devil, with vengeance. He ends the Cowboys and with the fulfillment of revelation he is a man again. He is Faust awaiting his fate. His last effort is to pursue the forgiveness of the feminine. Who is the ultimate feminine? Josephine Marcus. He will love her for the rest of her life. Rest of her life? Not his own? Beyond death.
Wyatt is forgiven and allowed to have true happiness in heaven: Room Service.
You think he’s damned with “And she walked out of our lives forever,” but being damned turns out to be a very “lucky” thing.