Jakob’s From Fact to Film: The Truth Behind “Tombstone”


Welcome to Jakob’s From Fact to Film! Hundreds of films like to boast that their films are based on true stories, but just how true is this? Surely events that are important enough for a theatrical portrayal would be far too boring for an audience to sit through. However, this is rarely the case. In reality, fact can be just as, if not more, interesting than fiction. Despite this, movie companies tend to merely base these films on the barest of truths, keeping the general idea of the historical event intact, though sometimes that can’t even be accomplished. Instead, they focus more on themes and ideals that they believe would draw in bigger audiences. This is where I come in. The goal I have made for this blog is to discover just how accurately companies can keep their movies to reality, while still being able to make an entertaining piece of media. Our first look will be at the 1993 American Western, Tombstone.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Directed by George P. Cosmatos and starring legendary movie stars Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, and Bill Paxton, Tombstone centers around the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the events shortly thereafter following the protagonist, Wyatt Earp. The film begins with Wyatt and his brothers, Virgil and Morgan Earp, moving into the town and becoming lawmen. While this did happen, it is not for the reason portrayed in the film. In reality, Wyatt had moved to Tombstone with his brothers and their wives, to become stagecoach drivers. However, larger businesses had already moved into the area and forced them out of business early on, and they would not join law enforcement until much later. This is cut out of the movie primarily for time constraints but does not take much away from the film.

Next, the film introduces everyone’s favorite character Doc Holliday, a gambler who would use his wits to anger his opponents. Some may wonder why people like Wyatt and Doc would even be friends, but this is because Doc saved Wyatt’s life in Dodge City, Kansas in 1879. After this, Wyatt invited Holliday to join him in Tombstone, and Holliday took up his offer to win a quick buck at the gambling tables.

With our protagonists out of the way we can proceed to our antagonists: the cowboys. These include Johnny Ringo, associated with the Cochise County Cowboys, one of the first examples of organized crime in America. Those at the Gunfight at the O.K Corral include Tom and Frank McLaury, Billy and Ike Clanton, and Billy Clairborne. Lastly, there is Curly Bill Brocius who accidentally shoots Lawman Fred White causing Wyatt to finally rejoin law enforcement. At least this is how it is portrayed in the movie. Wyatt and Virgil Earp had already joined law enforcement due to their stagecoach business failing, not of moral obligation. Only Morgan became a lawman after Fred White’s death.

The story picks up when Ike Clanton begins making drunken threats to kill the Earps. Again, truth and reality are starkly different. In reality, Wyatt tried to get Ike’s help in capturing some criminals who he knew. However, this deal fell through when all the criminals were killed by other lawmen, causing Ike to believe that Wyatt would one day reveal that he had betrayed his fellow cowboys to either his brothers or anyone else. Ike’s threats come alive when both he and four other cowboys are spotted just outside of a vacant lot in the O.K. Corral, causing Wyatt, his brothers, and a temporarily deputized Holliday to investigate. What results is one of the most famous gunfight of the wild west.

This fight is remarkably accurate to court hearings of the actual fight, with Ike surrendering and everyone on the cowboys side, minus Billy Clairborne and Ike Clanton being killed. The only inaccurate part is when Ike finds a gun later in the fight and fires it at the Earps. Afterwards, the town is not united under the Earp’s banner and is instead divided due to the mentalities of the Democrats who despise the violent end. The Democrats view the Earps as bloodthirsty government lackeys, and the commercial Republicans are glad to be rid of the threat to their businesses seeing Earps as heroes.

This is where many would assume the story ends, but the cowboys decide this would not be the case. They attempt to assassinate the Earps, wounding Virgil and killing Morgan. The film portrays this as happening on the same night, though it really was almost two weeks apart. Morgan’s death sends Wyatt into a frenzy, and with Holliday and a few other lawmen, they set out on a vigilante rampage against the cowboy menace. The first casualty is an outlaw named Frank Stilwell who first attempts to ambush Wyatt with Ike Clanton. Frank’s death causes arrest warrants to be issued though Wyatt simply ignores them. Though the film portrays this as the killing of a multitude of outlaws; in reality, Wyatt and his lawmen only kill around four men. The rampage ends with the death of Curly Bill Brocious in 1882. The fight is again historically accurate, minus one of the most hilarious scenes in movie history.

The movie takes the story a little bit further by having Johnny Ringo and his gang of cowboys almost in an all out battle against Wyatt and his lawmen. This fortunately does not come to pass, though not for the reason the movie explains. In the movie Doc Holliday tricks Ringo into a duel and kills him on the spot, ending any confrontation. In reality, Ringo was found dead in what historians still debate was either suicide or murder.

Wyatt and Holliday were forced to flee from the Arizona territory to escape their warrants, but never served time thanks to their supporters. Not even Ike Clanton served time as he was killed by lawmen in 1887. Holliday died alone in 1887 after having a friendship ending argument with Earp over a woman, not on good terms as portrayed in the film. Wyatt passed away much later in Los Angeles, California in 1929, his legend emerging not long after.

In the end, the film devolves into the fight of good versus evil, though Earp’s actions portray him more as an antihero than anything else. It plays up to the mythology of the west and yet still manages to get just about every event at least somewhat accurate. It is certainly the most faithful telling of Wyatt Earp’s story ever put to screen and an incredibly good movie in itself. If you ever get the chance, I wholeheartedly recommend watching Tombstone.

— Jakob Kagay, Film Blogger

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