Truth in Black and White
True West|February - March 2022
The multitalented actor who played Johnny Ringo in tombstone reflects on Kevin Jarre’s script and the film’s production.
By Michael Biehn

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 up.

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.”

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.

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