Oct. 26, 1881 is the date of one of the most significant events in the history of the Old West: the brief, violent gunfight between Wyatt Earp’s lawmen and the gang called the Cowboys in Tombstone, Arizona.
The battle, short in duration but long in the making, resulted in the deaths of Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers and the wounding of Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday. It marked the peak–and the beginning of the end–of what was thought in the popular imagination to be a long period of unrestrained violence in frontier towns from Kansas to California.
Stuart Lake’s biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, in 1931 formed the basis of John Ford’s later great movie My Darling Clementine (1946), but I am also a huge fan of Tombstone (1993), Kurt Russell’s best film, and one of the greatest “guy” movies ever made: I mean, good grief, everybody’s in it: Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Powers Boothe, the always-underrated Michael Biehn as Ringo, and the scene-stealing Val Kilmer, who gives the performance of his life as the consumptive card-sharp, Doc Holliday. Tombstone does a better job than any of the other films or books in setting forth the larger picture of the Earps struggle to break up the Cowboys, and Robert Mitchum’s narration at the end of the film movingly connects the mythologized past to the all-too-real present:
“Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929,” he tells us. “His pallbearers were silent movie stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix. Tom Mix wept.”