The gunfight at the legendary O.K. Corral is one of the most well-known stories in the history of the Wild West. The scene has been revisited numerous times over the years in Hollywood in classic cowboy films and TV shows. In fact, the real-life Wyatt Earp even served as a consultant on the sets of old John Wayne movies to help make sure things were portrayed as accurately as possible on the big screen. He’s an iconic western hero, with a life full of adventure outside of miraculously surviving the O.K. Corral.
The legendary shoot-out was brought to life in the ’90s with two of the most memorable westerns which were released just 6 months apart — Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. Both films featured incredibly impressive casts who brought the legendary heroes of the west to life in their own ways. Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell portrayed the heroic Wyatt Earp with Val Kilmer and Dennis Quaid playing his friend, the sickly Doc Holliday. Though Tombstone had superior results at the box office, western fans are passionate about both films for different reasons and Wyatt Earp has managed to become a cult classic over the years.
Six months after Tombstone’s release, Wyatt Earp was met with some rough reviews from the same critics that had previously praised Tombstone. Roger Ebert had some particularly negative feedback in his 2-star review.
“‘Wyatt Earp’ plays as if they took ‘Tombstone’ and pumped it full of hot air. It involves many of the same characters and much of the same story, but little of the tension and drama. It’s a rambling, unfocused biography of Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner), starting when he’s a kid and following his development from an awkward would-be lawyer into a slick gunslinger. This is a long journey, in a three-hour film that needs better pacing.”
Years later, Sam Elliott told EW that he thinks that Tombstone’s rendition of the Old West was superior, largely in thanks to his movie’s amazing cast.
“That’s what made that take of the O.K. Corral the best of all of them, I think. I mean, that tale’s been told half-a-dozen times too over the eons. F–ing Powers Boothe, you know. Billy Paxton. Kurt and Val. I mean, it’s just endless. Michael Biehn. Best f–ing thing he’s ever done. Best thing Val Kilmer’s ever done. Ever. Just mind-boggling. All of them. Everybody in that film. Billy Bob Thornton, he came in and played a little bit. Amazing cast. It just had all the elements to make a great Western.”
While it’s hard to compare Wyatt Earp performances as Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner are just such different actors, I found it a bit easier to go back and compare Doc Holliday. Both Kilmer and Quaid had their own ways of bringing the legendary man to life on the big screen. While I think both were exemplary performances, I went back to rewatch both films to see which performance was truly superior. Here are all of my personal thoughts on the representation of Doc Holliday in Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp.
Val Kilmer in Tombstone
Tombstone picks up with Kurt Russell starring as Wyatt Earp looking for a fresh start after working for years as a lawman in Dodge City. Along with his brothers Morgan Earp (Bill Paxton) and Virgil Earp (Sam Elliott), he relocates to Tombstone, Arizona to put his gunslinging days behind him. He’s barely spent any time in town when he crosses paths with his old pal, Doc Holliday, played by Val Kilmer. Powers Boothe and Michael Biehn star as the outlaws, Curly Bill and Johnny Ringo who come to town causing trouble. The Earp brothers and Holliday are forced to protect their new home, stepping in as lawmen after the rowdy outlaws refuse to stop wreaking havoc. The film is fun, fast-paced, and wastes no time getting to the nitty-gritty.
Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday is one of the most notable parts of the entire movie which is saying a lot considering the cast also includes the likes of Charlton Heston, Thomas Hayden Church and Billy Bob Thornton. Just like the real Doc, Kilmer’s character looks noticeably ill as a result of a lengthy battle with tuberculosis, in addition to drinking himself silly over late-night card games at the local saloon. Kilmer’s character is slowly wasting away over the course of the film, constantly covered in sweat, while still managing to keep his wisecracking spirits up. His swarthy southern accent is delivered to perfection, most memorably with the iconic line “I’m your huckleberry” which he utters twice to Johnny Ringo.
It’s a captivating and scene-stealing performance that apparently was the entire reason he was later cast in the role of Batman. I’m still confused as to why Kilmer wasn’t nominated for anything — no Best Supporting Actor nod at the Oscars or Golden Globes, which I think was a major miss. Rewatching the movie, you just can’t look away. You fully believe that even facing imminent death, he chooses to stand by his friend Wyatt Earp in his mission for revenge after the outlaws attack his two brothers. The movie honestly wouldn’t work without Russell and Kilmer’s performances, which is probably why we’re still talking about it decades later.
Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp takes a different approach in covering the Old West hero. It chronicles Earp’s life growing up on an Iowa farm to protecting Dodge City, moving to Tombstone, and settling down with his wife later in life. There’s definitely more of a focus on his family, with Gene Hackman starring as his father, and Linden Ashby and Michael Madsen appearing as his brothers, Morgan and Virgil, respectively. With Mark Harmon, Tom Sizemore and Bill Pullman in the cast, it was nearly just as stacked as Tombstone.
Maybe one of the biggest differences is the movie is just slower than Tombstone. It’s covering a lot more ground, so that makes sense. It’s also an entire hour longer. There were definitely parts that I felt dragged on (maybe it would have made a better miniseries?) but I did feel like Dennis Quaid and Kevin Costner had some really strong chemistry as Doc and Wyatt Earp. Unlike the other film, you get to see their friendship first form which was nice, though Quaid admits that he also felt like the friendship was well represented by Kilmer and Russell.
“I greatly admire Val’s portrait of Doc,” Quaid said. “He and Kurt Russell really captured the deep friendship he had with Wyatt.”
Quaid decided to get rigorous in preparing for his role and ending up going on an intense diet and workout plan to lose 40 lbs in order to give, what he felt, was an accurate representation of the sickly western legend. He did end up looking sickly and gaunt — just not as much as you’d think, considering all of the work he put into his preparation.
“I thought I needed to lose weight to play Doc because of his illness,” Quaid told True West. “He was a waif of a man because of the tuberculosis, and I’m sure that had a deep effect on his self-image when he looked in the mirror. I’m sure it affected his mood as well.”
Overall, as impressed as I was with Dennis Quaid, it just wasn’t the same as Val Kilmer’s showstopping performance. I think Quaid did a great job on the accent (being Texan probably didn’t hurt), capturing Doc’s alcoholism, and even showing his dark side, which most people other than Wyatt Earp frowned upon. If I had to choose, Kilmer was my favorite. But bottom line, both performances are incredible and worth the watch. I think both actors’ portrayals of Doc Holliday are some of the best work I’ve seen from either actor over the years, which is saying a lot considering they both have lengthy and impressive filmographies.