Val as Doc Holliday in Tombstone

Going West

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David Aldridge meets Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer - riding into town to promote TOMBSTONE ...

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Film Review Magazine, March 1994

KURT RUSSELL and Val Kilmer have just watched their careers go West. And they're over the moon about it. Kurt and Val play frontier Marshall Wyatt Earp and gunslinger-sidekick Doc Holliday in "Tombstone".

Val, 34, rising star of "Top Gun", "Willow" and "The Doors", is Wild about the Old West, anyway. Part Cherokee, and a lover of the wide open spaces, he perceives it as a time of purity - a period he feels spiritually in tune with. "Imagine it," he says, in town to tout Tombstone: "being able to ride a thousand miles, and all you experience are those thousand miles. There's nothing man-created to move through. It's just the land; I find that extremely moving. I live in the US's fifth largest state (New Mexico), yet there are less people there than in Central London. There's still quite a bit of space. And it just does something for you. It creates a spirit that I find quite noble.

I've lived in three major US cities and I don't like it at all. It's just the desert I love. I live there, and my mother lives there - just a couple of hours away from Tombstone, in fact I spend most of my free time in deserts, either in the US or someplace."

JUSTICE:

Kurt, 42, veteran star of "Tango and Cash", "Backdraft" and "Unlawful Entry" claims to feel in touch with bygone times, too. A self-confessed man's man who hunts for sport, he says of the days when men were men, and women were glad of it: "They were a fair time, with a simpler notion of justice. They were unencumbered by years of lawyers inventing language that only they pretend to understand. We've now got laws about everything. Too many laws!"

Kurt plays his Wyatt the way he was - as a self-doubting dark revenger, out to avenge the murder of one brother and the crippling of another. "I like Wyatt Earp a lot," he says. "I see eye to eye with a lot of him. I enjoy playing him. His attitude was: 'You killed my brother - I'll kill you!' That's what he believed. And that's what I believe."

But when I pull Kurt up on this, and ask him whether he's really saying that he'd take the law into his own hands if someone threatened him or his family, he tumbles to the implications of what he's just said, and switches to more defensive mode. "I wouldn't say that to you personally", he says, "because I'd be held responsible."

Val Kilmer grew up steeped in Old West ways. His grandfather was a gold miner on the New Mexico border with Tombstone's Arizona. And he recalls the tales told to him. "I grew up more interested in the real stories of the West than in the films about it. The films never seemed logical to me, I could never understand why the Apaches wore Cherokee headbands. Inaccuracies like that really bugged me." But he grew to love the movies later.

Kurt Russell unquestionably wouldn't want to be in a terrible Western. For he says the appeal of making TOMBSTONE wasn't "throwing on a six-shooter, and galloping up and down Main Street". It was the movie's unparalleled historical accuracy.

"I've been an actor for 33 years; I've done the fun, I've done the playing at cowboys. Tombstone's appeal was in trying to do something that had never been done before. Because there's never, to my knowledge, been a Western so authentic."

He instances the town of Tombstone itself. "Never before has it been depicted the way it really was," he says, "It was Las Vegas, it was Beirut. It was a colorful, evolving, constantly changing place, with millions of dollars streaming in and out of it. The townsfolk could have the best of what there was to be found anywhere in the world because Tombstone was a boomtown, and they could afford it. They dressed in the latest fashions. They could have oysters in the middle of the desert if they were prepared to pay to have them shipped in. They could have fresh strawberries brought in by fast horse from Denver. Anything you wanted was available in Tombstone."

And the movie's authentic beauty also extends to the lead characters themselves in extensive research to make an accurate portrayal. Of the consumptive Doc Holliday, a killer Southerner, with charisma, a borderline psycho who didn't give a damn because Death already had his number anyway, Val says: "He was actually a dentist. So he had a mean streak even before he started killing people. But he was also an aristocrat, the son of a Georgia mayor - apparently a very witty man, extremely well mannered, and rather shy unless you insulted him. He knew Latin. And he played classical piano. He's never been portrayed as three-dimensionally before. Kevin Jarre [the writer] did a great job. The character was already there, ready for me to more or less step into."

PIANO MAN:

But not without learning to tinkle the old ivories first. "I'm musical," says the man who did his own singing in the concert scenes of The Doors, "but I'm no pianist. Learning a nocturne for TOMBSTONE was a real Bitch! It took four months. I can now play one minute of Chopin - and Chopsticks. That's my entire piano repertoire."

Kurt Russell went to even greater lengths to research his Wyatt. He not only read all he could, he also sought out people with remembrances of the real McCoy, including Glen Wyatt Earp III, a descendant of one of Wyatt's cousins. "Glenn actually appears in Tombstone, ironically playing a member of the gang that his ancestor came up against in the famous gunfight at the OK Corral."

Kurt acknowledges what he describes as the current Hollywood 'feeding frenzy' for Westerns, with Geronimo already out Stateside, and Kevin Costner's alternative take on Wyatt Earp, with Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday, currently in production. But he's pessimistic about long-term genre prospects. "it's like any other genre," says the actor, "good initial movies translate into good box-office taking. Then crap gets made to capitalize on that initial success. People make Westerns, not good Westerns, and then the genre disappears again. No genre stays alive without good movies being made to support it."

Says Val Kilmer of the Costner 'rival': "Our's came out first and is doing well (more than six million dollars during the opening US weekend), so I'm sure they're worried. I'm curious about the Costner because they've been filming it only about 50 miles from where I live, in New Mexico. But our script is so good - why are the bothering? But then films always come in clusters. A couple of years back it was two Valmont's [Dangerous Liasisons and Valmont], then it was three Robin Hoods."

But why the current Western comeback kicked off by Dances with Wolves, given added momentum by Unforgiven, and now positively ploughing along?

"Because we're currently a nation with an identity crisis," avers Val, "and because, during an identity crisis, we always seem to go back to the genre that features our culture's only true heroes. And I think we're exhausted of the other extreme - where actors who can't even properly speak English make offensively expensive movies with dubious messages." Can't imagine who he means, can you?

"We just set out to make something that was both entertaining and informative", says Kurt Russell simply.