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Return to the OK Corral: Cargill’s Tombstone Turnaround

By  · Published on December 2nd, 2016

Factual inaccuracies vs. genuine mustaches.

So much of what I choose to write in the editorial leading up to the posting of each new Junkfood Cinema podcast comes from conversations that occur during that episode’s recording. In those moments between the intro and outro music, we often learn quite a bit…and not always simply about the movies we cover.

For example, I had no idea that my cohost Cargill spent many years as a detractor of the 1993 action western Tombstone, a movie I love to the point of obsession. Cargill’s resistance (at best)/animosity (at worst) toward Tombstone apparently derived not from filmmaking gripes but instead from the presence of factual inaccuracies in its conveying the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the infamous Cowboy gang.

I didn’t know Cargill lived in Arizona as a teenager, nor did I peg him for a western history buff, though given his love for the genre (one of the many common grounds on which we tread) I suppose this should have come as no surprise. The discrepancies between the facts of the lives of the historical figures involved and the fates of their big screen analogues really got under his skin and kept him at arms length with the movie.

Until now.

It was revisiting Tombstone for this episode of the podcast that inspired his turnabout, as he began to evaluate the film for its structure, pacing, performance showcase, and entertainment value as opposed to biographical veracity. He now counts himself a convert. During the episode, we exalted at the film’s cast list that reads like a character actor Pro Bowl roster, we traded quotable dialogue like bullets in a gunfighter’s duel, and somehow spoke of a Vincent-Price-narrated diorama without it being non sequitur. No small lesson for all film critics here: the fluidity of opinions on art over time.

Again, westerns are a common ground for Cargill and I. I may razz Cargill about being older than me, thought the difference in years between us is marginal, but this experience reminded me of how westerns bridged more substantial age gaps for me as I grew up. These movies were a kind of Rosetta Stone for myself and my grandfather, or my best friend’s grandfather, or older uncles, etc. We had something to talk about, and the discussions often centered on the legends as much as the art form. The longevity of the genre, which almost simultaneously with the moving picture itself, cements a universal experience that then speaks to personal affiliations, value sets, and so much that connects us.

The ironic thing about Cargill’s grievance with Tombstone is that while the final product may make their efforts dubious, the filmmakers strove for authenticity wherever possible. However, their efforts were scattered in focus. The OK Corral shootout is presented accurately as best as historians know, but then in reality only four Cowboys were ultimately killed during the Vengeance Ride; Johnny Ringo not among them. They borrowed from the actual accounts of Wyatt Earp foes who relayed the sequence of events after their encounters…the same encounters in which the character translation of that foe was killed in the movie. They hired actual descendants of Wyatt Earp to work behind the camera, but then Russell’s portrayal glossed over character flaws of the actual man.

Possibly most emblematic of the misguided authenticity was director George P. Cosmatos affirming that all lightning and mustaches in the film are 100% genuine. A quote from the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, directed by western cinema master John Ford and relayed by Cargill in the episode, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This is echoed by Tombstone’s own trailer: “they say every town has a story, Tombstone has a legend.”

When a film is based on a true story from hundreds of years prior, when we focus too much on the factual details of that story, and when it’s the thematic content of the legend that really matters, we’re doing a disservice to both the film and ourselves as audience members. This doesn’t excuse total lack of effort toward authenticity in filmmaking mind you, but sometimes it’s enough that the mustaches are real.

To saddle up with your Huckleberries Brian and Cargill, check out this week’s episode of the Junkfood Cinema podcast.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.