Everyone seems to agree that Kevin Jarre’s original script for Tombstone was brilliant. So why hasn’t someone dusted off the source material and re-filmed it the way Kevin wrote it? Is it because it’s too long for a movie, as some suggest, or is there a deeper truth about the whole shebang? We asked the participants in the 1993 film to weigh in, along with some of the best historians in the Earp field. Read on, this is very insightful stuff. —Bob Boze Bell
Not Ready for Prime Time
In December 1993, Buena Vista Pictures and Cinergi Productions released the classic modern Western, Tombstone, the story of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the O.K. Corral. Written by Kevin Jarre, who, in 1989, also wrote the screenplay for the award-winning film Glory, the script was the main reason many actors wanted to be a part of this project. This was to have been Jarre’s first attempt at directing. And, with crackling dialogue, biting accuracy, and brilliant dramatization, the screenplay came closest to telling the legend of the shootout better than any other previous attempt. Rather than an action-packed shoot-’em-up, Jarre’s script focused on a character study of Wyatt, his brothers and Doc Holliday. Sadly, however, as brilliant a writer as Jarre was, his enthusiasm couldn’t offset his lack of directorial experience. He just didn’t have any, and he refused to listen to those who did. Imagine ignoring Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, Val Kilmer and Bill Fraker when they tried to make suggestions. Many have said it was a shame that Kevin hadn’t had a few smaller productions under his belt before taking on a project of this magnitude. And a review of Jarre’s unused footage clearly supports that contention.
Most of Kevin’s scenes were master shots, visually beautiful but challenging to edit. His goal was to shoot Tombstone on “sticks,” in the style of John Ford, but he either didn’t understand the concept or didn’t know how to execute the vision. The result, wasted time, energy, money and hours of discarded footage. The only scenes Jarre shot that appear in the final release are those with Charlton Heston, and they couldn’t reshoot them after Jarre was released as Heston had already departed the set and wasn’t available.
Within mere days of start-of-production, it was apparent Kevin wasn’t able to bring his script to fruition. While it is not explicitly known precisely what prompted the studio to replace him, it was clear that the fledgling novice would not deliver what the studio expected. Some have said the studio only Kevin Jarre’s career as a director began and ended in the Arizona desert as he was removed from the Tombstone production less than halfway through principal photography. His original script remains an unfulfilled dream of many of his fans and supporters wanted Jarre’s script, and it was their intention all along to replace him as director; others pointed to Kevin’s micromanagement and lack of adherence to a schedule. Still others spoke of scene composition and coverage. Dialogue that previously leapt off the page now sounded stilted and artificial, and the actors’ performances appeared forced and pedestrian.
There were numerous rumors on the set; Jarre was drunk, or doing drugs or was out riding his horse all day, or deliberately being sabotaged. In any case, the studio had had enough, and after considering John Milius and John McTiernan, among others, Jarre was fired and replaced by action director George Cosmatos. For Kevin, a project that began with such high expectations and excitement ended in failure. Several of Jarre’s ideas were used but eventually re-filmed by Cosmatos. In the revised screenplay, parts were pared, dialogue changed, scenes blended. Some said they wouldn’t have agreed to do the film if that had been the original script.
Jarre never again achieved the brief success he had with Glory. He was a script doctor, involved with The Devil’s Own before the script was torn apart in 1997, worked on The Mummy (1999), and supposedly was an uncredited writer on John Lee Hancock’s The Alamo (2004). If he just had a bit more experience, it would have been interesting to see what he could have accomplished with his Tombstone script. However, at that time in his career, he just wasn’t prepared to take on such a massive opportunity.
—John Farkis Author of The Making of Tombstone: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Modern Westernâ€
A Savaged Script
Simply put, the script Kevin originally wrote was most brutally savaged in the vendetta ride scenes. In Kevin’s script, the action scenes are anchored in an explicit context. That makes those scenes dramatically meaningful and informs the audience as to who exactly is being killed by the Earp party. In the film, as released, the vendetta ride becomes a somewhat confusing montage of scenes that lacks dramatic cohesion. And, one new scene, which makes no sense whatsoever, is added for no discernable purpose. That is the scene of Wyatt’s posse lynching someone in front of the Dragoon Saloon in Tombstone.
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