The multitalented actor who played Johnny Ringo in Tombstone reflects on Kevin Jarre’s script and the film’s production.
About two years ago my wife and I decided we would spend more time in Arizona. We selected a home in historic Bisbee, drawn by its small-town, artisanal character. Bisbee also lies within close proximity of Tombstone, setting of the 1993 movie in which I played Johnny Ringo.
I’d agreed to
play Ringo, and I tried to envision the case
he would make for himself, to grasp his
reason for being. I didn’t approach him as a
“bad guy” per se; actors don’t play bad
guys; they play characters in situations. It
helped, too, how much the other characters
built up Johnny as the fearsome antagonist:
“The deadliest pistoleer since Wild Bill,”
Doc calls him in their first scene. And near
the end, on the night of the final showdown,
Doc and Wyatt wax eloquent on what makes a
man like Johnny tick: “Got a great empty
hole right through the middle of him and no
matter what he does he can’t ever fill it…he
wants revenge.” “For what?” “For being
born.” After a buildup like that, I didn’t
have to do a whole lot more than just show
That was why I objected to a scene in the screenplay following Johnny’s “I want your blood!” drunken howl. Curly Bill whisks Johnny off to a ranch house, clearly intent on raping the woman inside, and leers “See, Johnny, there is a God.”
Michael Biehn inhabited the Tombstone role of Johnny Ringo as no other actor, before or since. Biehn credits Jarre’s script for inspiring his fan-favorite interpretation of the outlaw.
Overkill, I protested.
Johnny’s villainous persona is already
established by now; if shooting a Catholic
priest at a wedding hadn’t accomplished
that, it’s hard to imagine what would. And I
felt demonstrating Johnny’s knowledge of the
Bible and Latin prior to shooting the priest
suggested a backstory involving the church
that gave him grounds for his actions.
That “See, Johnny, there is a God” line didn’t survive to the final film; we never shot it. All movies undergo screenplay modifications prior to and during production as well as through editing, this was just one of many cuts. In fact, the story-behind-the-story of Tombstone is just how severely the screenplay was “modified” when screenwriter Kevin Jarre was dismissed as director weeks into production. Whole sequences went on the chopping block during the hectic weekend following Kevin’s departure, when the fate of the production hung in the balance.
Kurt Russell talked in these pages (True West, October 2006) about what he and the producers faced in determining what would remain of the screenplay, a dilemma made even more difficult by the decision to not use any of Kevin’s footage. Kurt talked about how much he had to pull down from Wyatt’s scenes to give the other characters breathing space. The Cowboy roles also underwent severe cuts; Powers Booth and I lost meaty scenes and fifth credited Robert Burke (Frank McLaury) barely has any lines or screen time in the movie.
I had long believed that after Kevin’s departure, Tombstone lost the depth of his original vision; that the shadings and nuances of the primary figures had been stripped away and what remained were the familiar, stereotypical caricatures of the standard Western. I’m sure my identification with Ringo and my bonding with the actors playing other Cowboys put blinders on me and rendered my memories myopic. I’d come to believe that Kevin’s almost fanatical desire for historical accuracy in matters like wardrobe and weaponry meant that his screenplay was similarly accurate in depicting the fullness of its characters.
I’d come to believe that with such certainty that I recently did something I’ve never done before—dug up a copy of the version of Tombstone I first read 30 years ago. I don’t watch my old movies—the “willing suspension of disbelief” just isn’t there for me—let alone reread the screenplays. But filled with what I’d been reading and fired by the conviction that Kevin had tried to tell a truer story than all the previous versions by far, I began reading.
Kevin Jarre’s original Tombstone script is noted for having much fuller roles—and more dialogue—for the actresses who played the Earp women. L.-r.: Dana Wheeler-Nicolson as Mattie, Kurt Russell as Wyatt, Paula Malcomson as Allie, Sam Elliott as Virgil, Lisa Collins as Louisa and Bill Paxton as Morgan.
There was a
comforting old familiarity in the
screenplay’s opening lines, Robert Mitchum’s
voice intoning the opening monologue.
Mitchum had been cast as Old Man Clanton in
the first scene, but injury kept him from
filming, so he narrated instead, and the Old
Man went to an early grave as Curly Bill
took his best lines. I was fortunate to get
the screenplay early, and the caliber of the
cast that came together would be among the
best of any film of the decade, I would
argue, a testament to the screenplay’s
quality. “Godfather of Westerns,” it’s been
My first thought after putting the screenplay down after rereading it, however, was “What just happened?”
This wasn’t what I remembered at all. That subtlety and nuance, that balanced presentation of the characters I’d persuaded myself was the bedrock of Kevin’s screenplay, never existed. Kevin went all in showering the Cowboys in villainy at every turn while exalting Wyatt into an avenging angel Frontier Dirty Harry.
The Wyatt lionizing reaches a high-water mark in a scene near the end during the vendetta ride. Wyatt stumbles upon a wagon train filled with fellow Illini, who hail him without knowing anything about him, a sequence that ends with a nod to a classic Western with a little boy calling after him something akin to “Come home, Wyatt, come home.” Cue the music. That sequence never got shot, as was true of much of the screenplay’s last third, which included subplots drawing out the vendetta ride into a meandering marathon.
I thought when I got to page 90 that I must be nearing the end and gasped when I saw there were still 40 more pages!
In his True
West interview, Kurt Russell said he
often urged Kevin to cut 20 pages, and I’m
sure he was referring to this material since
much of it went with Kevin. Wyatt lost some
nice moments—he had plenty—and Johnny lost a
rousing version of a “St. Crispin’s Day”
oration taking command of the Cowboys in the
aftermath of Curly Bill’s demise “ … This is
my time, children. This is where I get
One significant discovery for me was how much fuller the women’s roles had been; I hadn’t appreciated just how severely they’d been emptied out with the screenplay cuts. Josie (Dana Delany) was an integral player in Tombstone history as well as in the screenplay. She was first engaged to Sheriff Behan before fixing her eyes on Wyatt, and the ensuing romantic triangle contributed to the tensions that resulted in the gunfight.
With Kevin’s departure, Josie’s screen time was so scaled back that any reference to her involvement with Behan disappeared, and her relationship with Wyatt amounts to little more than a chance encounter on horseback. A tense scene with Josie and Mattie Earp vanished, along with just about any other presence of the Earp wives. In the screenplay, Big Nose Kate’s repartee was every bit the match for Doc Holliday’s wisecracks, but in the movie she’s little more than an adorning onlooker.
Without question the biggest eye-opening takeaway for me in the screenplay is just how strenuously Kevin pushes the “depraved” label on the Cowboys. My illusions about “nuance” and “shadings” got put to rest right from the start with this now-deleted definition of Cowboy—“an insult implying deviant sexuality.”
From there follows a palpable homoerotic undercurrent amongst the cowpokes, almost as though they were a crew of “gay caballeros” and Curly Bill’s frequent protective arm around the shoulder of “Sister Boy” Breakenridge (Jason Priestly) suggests they may have strayed off to Brokeback Mountain a time or two. This “sexual depravity” element feels like a dead horse the screenplay insists on flogging, one of several the film didn’t need or use.
Clearly, then, no one has a monopoly when it comes to myth-making and truth-bending; there’s a veritable glory hole of it surrounding tales of Tombstone. I didn’t realize how in my “misremembering,” I’d mythologized Kevin Jarre’s screenplay into something he never intended it to be. Kevin very much followed the Liberty Valance dictum that “when legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The movie that emerged after his departure is a boiled-down version of what was always in the screenplay and not some compromised artistic vision. The irony is in no way lost on me that for months now I’ve been advocating for a greater embrace of “the truth about Tombstone” while at the same time remaining so oblivious to the truth about something I should have known all along. Wouldn’t be the first time.