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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp: Who is your favorite Doc Holliday?

The movies Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, both released in the 1990s, are valiant and commendable attempts to capture the life and tell the story of the legendary American lawman Wyatt Earp on film. In doing so, both movies also feature the enigmatic John "Doc" Holliday - the hard-drinking, gambling and gun-slinging, tubercular southern gentleman who was a loyal friend to Earp and his brothers. However, Holliday is portrayed a bit differently in each film, and I would like to compare and contrast his depiction in these two movies, and then I would love to hear what others have to say so please feel free to comment.

In Tombstone, Holliday is portrayed by Val Kilmer, who plays the part very colorfully. As a matter of fact, the first time I watched the movie Tombstone when I was a youngster, I was captivated by Kilmer’s portrayal of  Holliday, and I still am to this very day.  He brings a heavy dose of artistic liberty to the role and delivers an exceptionally memorizing performance. It is arguably the finest work of his career, and many, including myself, believe that he was robbed of a best supporting actor award. In Wyatt Earp, Holliday is portrayed by Dennis Quaid, who plays the role more cantankerously in my opinion. Holliday’s wittiness and sense of humor still exists in Wyatt Earp, but it is more sporadic, whereas Kilmer displays these traits more effectively, frequently, and memorably throughout Tombstone. Quaid played a grouchy and solemn Holliday, whereas Kilmer, on the contrary, played the role rather humorously and people are still quoting his famous lines nearly two decades after the movie's release.  

Some have argued, however, that Quaid may have had the edge in a few categories. For example, it has been said that Quaid looked a bit more like the real Holliday, as he had dark brown hair in contrast to Kilmer’s reddish hair. Moreover, in regards to the vernacular,  some also believe that Quaid adopted a more prominent Georgian accent, but I personally thought that the southern dialect Kilmer spoke in was impeccable nevertheless. Lastly, it has also been argued that Quaid appeared more sickly than Kilmer. I happen to agree with this point, and Quaid has even stated publicly that he lost over 40 pounds to prepare for the role.  

Wyatt Earp and Tombstone share the commonality of implying that Holliday did not have many friends aside from the Earp brothers, and I thought Kilmer and Quaid both did a tremendous job showing Holliday’s unwavering commitment to the Earps. Tombstone and Wyatt Earp accurately depict how Holliday followed Wyatt Earp and brothers, Virgil and Morgan, to the O.K. Corral, to take on the Clanton’s and McLaury’s, even though he was coughing up his lungs and walking with a cane. Moreover, both movies also show how Doc traded Virgil his cane in exchange for the "street howitzer" shotgun as well, which historians agree he did in fact use at the actual gunfight at the O.K. Corral.   

Holliday's character is more fully developed in Tombstone, as Wyatt Earp focuses mainly on the life and adventures of Earp, which results in Holliday’s part in the latter being tragically abbreviated. In Wyatt Earp, Holliday does not even appear until approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes into the film. Earp meets Holliday, who is drinking whiskey and playing solitaire, in a bar in Texas while on the trail the historic outlaw Dave Rudabaugh. In their first conversation, Holliday reveals details regarding his background, such as the fact that he hails from Georgia and was once a dentist. This information, though historical and accurate, is never mentioned and is surprisingly omitted from Tombstone, and this is one of the few times Quaid's Holliday has the historical and biographical advantage over Kilmer's.  Tombstone, on the other hand, ventures into many other aspects of Holliday’s life, and the barrage of one liners Kilmer dishes out more than makes up for the absence of a small portion of his biography

Holliday, unlike in Wyatt Earp, appears very early in Tombstone, in the midst of a poker game, looking sharp, with Kate, his Hungarian girlfriend, at his side, and the ivory handles of his Colts exposed and at the ready. The viewer can literally smell the aroma that surrounds him. It reeks of booze, confidence, and the diseased air he coughs. Moreover, in Tombstone, the viewer also gets a wider glimpse into Holliday’s impressive levels intelligence, intellectualism, and sophistication. For example, he and Johnny Ringo, one of the main antagonists of the film, trade insults in Latin, and, in the director's cut, Holliday also quotes poetry after the death of Morgan Earp. It is true that in real life Holliday was very educated, intelligent, liked to dress well, spoke Latin, as well as French, and played the piano which is also shown in Tombstone when he drunkenly and flawlessly performs Frederic Chopin’s nocturne No. 19. 

Although Quaid delivers an admirable portrayal of Holliday, he is not given enough screen time. There is a reason why the film is titled Wyatt Earp as opposed to Doc Holliday. As I mentioned earlier, I would really like to turn this discussion over to anyone who may be reading this, so please feel free to leave your comments and let me know which Doc Holliday you prefer.  If, by any chance, you have not seen either film, I would recommend you watch both movies, but I would suggest that you watch Tombstone first. If you are interested in a fresh, original, charming, and clever take on a complex historical character then you will not be disappointed. Even if you are not as big of a fan of the western genre as I am, you will thoroughly enjoy watching Val Kilmer steal the show.

BF