Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight movie is “Tombstone” (1993)
When I was a kid, it was the dream of every American boy to be either Mickey Mantle or The Ringo Kid. This was in the days before we discovered girls. Once we discovered girls, we wanted to be James Dean or Elvis. Elvis was preferred but we would settle for James Dean. Both made the girls swoon and there was nothing we would rather have than a girl swooning over us.
In our pre-girl days, our Saturday mornings were spent baseballing and our Saturday afternoons at the matinee watching the latest horse opera. Since I discovered early on I was no darn good at throwing or catching a baseball, I chose The Ringo Kid.
Ringo was the guy in the white hat. It might be John Wayne or Randolph Scott or Alan Ladd, Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. It didn’t matter whether they were playing Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp or Shane, they were always The Ringo Kid to me. So when I played my share of white hat and black hat, I was Ringo, the baddest good guy in the west.
And I always had Black Bart for a nemesis. While The Kid wore a smile, and said Yes ma’am and No ma’am, Black Bart wore a sneer and pushed around widows and orphans. He was mean. Real mean. Little did I realize he would grow up and become Jason or Freddy Kruger, the stuff of nightmares.
For some reason, Hollywood in the sixties forgot how to make the westerns I loved. John Wayne quit being quite the John Wayne he had been. Oh, sure there was “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. Instead westerns went Italian and the cowboys now ate spaghetti. Either that or the good guys didn’t want to be good guys any longer. Instead they wanted to ride with Bonnie and Clyde or the Wild Bunch and create mayhem and chaos.
In the seventies we got a new kind of western. It was “Star Wars”. Luke Skywalker wore the white hat and Darth Vader wore the black one. It, and others like it, were space operas. But they didn’t take the place of the westerns I loved as a kid when my hero was Ringo. He knew right from wrong and believed in justice and defending the weak and the helpless.
Now I am not saying that all the westerns treated non-whites fairly. Often, too often, the Indians were the Black Barts. But every so often a movie like “Broken Arrow” or “Cheyenne Autumn” came along and gave a looksee at a different side of things. And there were no African Americans in those movies. Sadly so because African Americans made a contribution to the taming of the west just like a lot of other folks.
As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate some of the subtler exploration of the American West mythology. Films like “The Searchers” showed the ugly side of things and that was not always easy to handle. Mexicans gave their lives for freedom at the Alamo alongside Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Col. Travis as shown in John Wayne’s “The Alamo” and a more recent version.
Movies like “Dancing With Wolves” and books like “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” revealed the great injustices the white man did to the indigenous peoples. And African Americans began to take their rightful place in such films as “Posse”, “Buffalo Soldiers”, “Silverado” and “Hateful Eight” which have attempted to rectify that injustice. And my hero, The Ringo Kid, I discovered, was a lot more complex than I thought. Often his hat was gray and sometimes just as black as Black Bart’s. Sometimes he could even be Black Bart.
Two movies and a television series come to mind when I think about the recent exploration of the American West Mythology. The television series is “Lonesome Dove”. “Silverado” is one of the two films and it is a lot of darn fun to watch. Not great but fun to watch.
The second movie is “Tombstone”. Kurt Russell does the best Wyatt Earp ever and Val Kilmer makes a great Doc Holliday. The cast is filled out with wonderful performances by Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp, Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp and Dana Delany as Josephine Marcus. Powers Boothe as Curly Bill Brocius makes Black Bart look like a tenderfoot. Michael Biehn is Johnny Ringo and he never wore a white hat. Thomas Haden Church has his Billy Clanton down.
But it is Kurt Russell who gives us the great film that “Tombstone” is. His Wyatt Earp is as complex and conflicted as a Wyatt Earp can be. His is a Wyatt Earp with a different colored hat.