Tombstone: Is the 1993 Movie Based on Real Life?

Tombstone’ is a Western film that revolves around the story of Wyatt Earp, a retired lawman, who moves to Tombstone, Arizona, with his two brothers, Virgil and Morgan. Along the way, they are joined by Wyatt’s friend, Doc Holliday. Once in the town, the four men try their luck at gambling to earn some money; but at the same time, they can’t help but notice that a certain uneasiness lies beneath Tombstone’s glittering façade. The source of this uneasiness soon arrives in the form of outlaws raiding the town.

With the former Marshall having been gunned down already, the Earp brothers take it upon themselves to keep the peace. Directed by George P. Cosmatos, the 1993 film stars an ensemble cast comprising Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, and Dana Delany. Westerns have always fascinated people and kindled their imaginations. This is in no small part due to the fact that many Westerns are centered around famous historical figures. But is the same true for ‘Tombstone’ as well? Worry not, for we have the answers for you!

Tombstone Draws From Actual O.K. Corral Shootout

Yes, ‘Tombstone’ is inspired by a true story. Written by Kevin Jarre, it is loosely based on the records of the O.K. Corral shootout and the Earp Vendetta Ride. While some creative liberties have been taken in the film, its depiction of the events surrounding Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, along with the rest of the motley crew, is fairly accurate. The gunfight at O.K. Corral and the subsequent Earp Vendetta Ride are some of the key defining moments in US history that give us a glimpse into what the country was like in the years following the Civil War.

It was a volatile time, as people were scattered and moving toward the frontier in search of a better future. The changes that happened after the war seemed to have been especially more pronounced in the Wild West. With lawlessness on the rise and only a handful of courageous people to stand against it, it is no wonder then that this period in history attracts the attention of so many and stokes the imagination of storytellers everywhere.

‘Tombstone’ captures this essence – of both the lawlessness and the desire for something better in life that people had – through the Cowboys and Wyatt Earp and his companions. Wyatt and his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, along with Doc Holliday, move to the town of Tombstone in Arizona in order to earn a fortune for themselves through the various gambling houses in town. The Cowboys, on the other hand, seek to do the same by force, riding in guns blazing. While both the groups’ goal is the same, their means to achieve them are on different moral spectrums.

However, that is not to say that Earp Wyatt or any of his companions are necessarily “good” either. Wyatt isn’t beyond cheating at cards, and Doc Holliday has a tendency to kill those who accuse him of cheating, for example. Therefore, the idea of “good” is relative, and ‘Tombstone’ does an excellent job of presenting it. In a way, this also grounds the larger-than-life character of Wyatt Earp, who is generally portrayed as a hero figure in American history.

“The Westerns that I’ve seen in the past with Wyatt – he’s basically just a lawman. A real straight-line lawman,” said Kurt Russel, who portrays Wyatt Earp in the film, in a behind-the-scenes video. “Didn’t really ever explore the realities of the other sides of his character, a very dark side. A man who wasn’t above cheating in a card game, not above cheating on his wife. He is a human being, he has flaws, he has faults.” Similarly to how Wyatt is written in the film, the other characters are just as fleshed out. None of the villains feel like two-dimensional cut-outs of real people, only to provide the conflict part of the story.

Each character has their own distinct background and personality, even those who act as subordinates to the main antagonists, “Curly Bill” Brocius (Powers Boothe) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). “It really shows all these characters as fully rounded, fully developed people; which is what they were,” said Jason Priestley (who plays Billy Breakenridge in the film). “Curly Bill and Johnny Ringo, for being bad guys were charismatic, fun-loving great guys…who’d shoot you in the back! But, you know, it’s an afterthought.”

Adding to that, Powers Boothe said, “It seems to me in the last decade at least, uh, movies have become so formulaic – your hero’s sidekick, his girlfriend, and the villain. And the only question is how big is the gun gonna be and who kills the villain. And the villain has no past life, no future life, no nothing; and-and so I was extremely pleased to read this script and find that, you know, my character has a whole life and the humanity, and the Ringos and Ikes, and the McLauries they’re-they’re all people. They’re human beings and it’s not like Hollywood heroes and Hollywood villains.”

‘Tombstone,’ while a traditional Western, is conscious of the time period it has been made in as well. The film touches upon certain subjects that have been plaguing society for centuries. This includes racism, alcohol and drug abuse, sexism, and the risk of gun violence (which is taken care of by banning the carrying of firearms in town). But all of this only adds to the believability of the story, which is already rooted in reality, because these topics make the characters seem more relatable to the viewers.

Read More: Where Was Tombstone Filmed?