Tag Archives: Val Kilmer

Great Performances in Westerns, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 3, 2013

This is the first of seven posts focusing on individual actors who gave excellent performances in westerns, regardless of whether the entire movie was excellent.  The list is quite selective; there are a lot of really good performances that don’t show up here.  It is intended to point to the very best, in no particular order.  The list is also open for additions, but you should wait until the completion of the series to make sure your suggestion isn’t already on the list.  Some (e.g., Lee Marvin, John Wayne) are on the list for multiple roles.

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Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett in The Alamo

Especially for baby boomers, it’s hard to get past the coonskin-capped caricature of Tennessee’s David Crockett rooted in Fess Parker’s work for Disney in the 1950s.  Thornton does the best job on film in portraying a real Crockett—a frontier personality who seems like he could have been a successful politician, with both personal magnetism and some sensitivity.  One scene that lingers in the mind is Crockett at twilight, playing a fiddle on the walls of the Alamo as a Tennessee counterpoint to the Mexican deguello (the cut-throat bugle call), with death looming two or three hundred yards out.  Another is wordless, as he places cocked pistols in the hands of a Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) almost too weak to hold them, prostrate with typhoid.  Best of all, he doesn’t wear a coonskin cap.  With his Arkansas accent, Thornton would be a natural for westerns, if there were more being made.  He did show up effectively in a bit part in Tombstone, as a violent gambler backed down by Wyatt Earp.  This recounting of the Alamo story isn’t among the very greatest westerns, but it is the most accurate historically and it’s worth watching for Thornton’s performance.  

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Thomas Haden Church as Tom Harte in Broken Trail

Church uses his distinctive voice and a stony face marvelously in his role as Tom Harte, lifelong ne’er-do-well cowboy and nephew to Robert Duvall’s Print Ritter.  Initially Harte is seemingly motivated by resentment that his inheritance has gone to his mother’s brother, but he nevertheless develops as a stand-up guy whose flinty resolve is the bedrock quality that ultimately saves everybody.  He’s relied on at key points in the plot’s backbone story, and he comes through believably.  His initial judgment is schooled at times by Ritter, and he rises to that tutelage.  He’s helped by good production design that makes him look authentic.  Church is another actor who seems made for westerns but will never get the opportunity to make many.  In some ways here he’s reminiscent of Lee Marvin, although he successfully plays lighter roles elsewhere (see Sideways, for example) as well.  This made-for-television miniseries is highly re-watchable, with several excellent performances (Duvall, Greta Scacchi, Scott Cooper and others) in addition to Church’s.  He’s probably the most historically-accurate Billy Clanton on film in Tombstone.

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Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone

Doc Holliday is the showiest role for an actor in the Wyatt Earp story, retold many times.  Earlier versions were played by the physically robust Victor Mature and Kirk Douglas, as well as by excellent character actor Jason Robards.  Kilmer probably does it better than anyone (with the possible exception of Dennis Quaid), being believably tubercular and hair-trigger dangerous, yet with an educated intelligence behind it all.  A lovely performance, one of the best in a western in recent memory.  His lines “I’m your huckleberry” and “You’re a daisy if you do” have continuing resonance for their whimsical quality with an underlying edge and implicit threat.  But also look at his cameo as a not-terribly-effective cavalry captain in The Missing.  Kilmer is the only actor to have played both Doc Holliday (here) and Wyatt Earp (Wyatt Earp’s Revenge, 2012).

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Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone

A lesser actor would have been overshadowed by Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in this version of the Earp story.  Russell was not only convincing in a role that can be quite dour (see Costner’s version, as well as Burt Lancaster’s and James Garner’s) because it deals with a relentless quest for vengeance, but he also seems more balanced.  And physically he bears an extraordinary resemblance to one of the most famous photographs of Earp.  On top of that he’s a terrific actor, believable in action and motivation and in his relationship with Holliday.  We believe him when he’s restraining violence and when he isn’t.  He makes an excellent center for the most successful retelling of the Earp story since the 1940s.  For a late-career resurgence in westerns, see him in Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight (both in late 2015).

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Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp

Quaid’s performance is often overlooked because of Kilmer’s dazzling performance in the same role a year earlier and because the Kasdan-Costner version of the story was kind of a cinematic clunker.  Quaid nevertheless is very convincing as the tubercular dentist and killer.  He lost so much weight for the role that it left new lines in his face, and Holliday’s innate meanness showed through in Quaid’s performance.  That’s unusual for an actor whose most bankable characteristic is his devil-may-care grin.  Although Holliday has been played by some superb actors, Quaid and Kilmer are the best in the role so far.

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Lee Marvin as Masters in Seven Men From Now, Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rico Fardan in The Professionals and dual roles (Kid Shelleen and Tim Strawn) in Cat Ballou

Marvin and Richard Boone were probably the best villains in the history of westerns, and they were both very versatile actors.  Marvin had an implacable quality that served him well in various roles, especially in (but not limited to) the roles listed here:

  • The most effective of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns featured an ambiguous bad guy, one whose relationship with Scott’s character could possibly go in different directions.  That was true of the first such movie, Seven Men From Now.  Masters had once been put in jail by Scott’s Ben Stride and they are wary of each other, but Marvin’s capacity for menace increases as the movie goes along and provides for an excellent denouement.  In particular, look at the claustrophobic scene in the back of a wagon at night in the rain, when Masters starts a story that strips two of the other characters bare psychologically until Stride kicks him back out into rain.
  • Marvin’s menace is unmitigated in his role as the villain in the title in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  The movie is full of remarkable performances (John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Woody Strode), but Marvin’s palpable bad-guy-ness makes it all work.  He’s one of the easiest-to-hate villains ever in a western, with a psychotic edge to his performance here.  (For a variation on this role, see him in The Comancheros where, in a brief part, he seems considerably worse than the movie’s ostensible real bad guys.)
  • Marvin won his Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his dual role in Cat Ballou as drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen and his noseless, black-clad assassin brother Tim Strawn.  There is a memorable photographic still from this performance of the inebriated Shelleen on his apparently drunk horse, both of them leaning against the side of a building, trying to stay upright.
  • Marvin could also do convincing good guys, as in his performance as Rico Fardan in The Professionals.  Here he principally projects control, hardness and competence (as he would later in The Dirty Dozen), with an overlay of elusive principle.  He’s the team leader, and although the movie’s an ensemble success, that’s in large part because Marvin is so believable as Fardan.  Marvin’s military background (he had been a Marine) shows through to advantage.  He could also be on this list for his performance in the title role in 1970’s Monte Walsh.

 BooneRioConchos As Lassiter in Rio Conchos.

Richard Boone as Frank Usher in The Tall T and as Major Jim Lassiter in Rio Conchos

Like Lee Marvin, Richard Boone is best remembered for the villains he played.  Like Marvin, Boone had a distinctive voice which he used to considerable advantage.  He could play silkier than Marvin and was very good at inhabiting the margins of villainy in different ways.

  • In Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, Boone as Frank Usher develops a strange relationship with Randolph Scott’s flinty Brennan.  He’s never anything other than bad, the mastermind of murders, kidnapping and robbery with two henchmen he thinks are below him.  But there’s a sense that he could have been something else, that he shares some dreams and aspirations with Brennan.  Some of that’s in the writing, which is quite spare.  But mostly it’s in Boone’s performance.  For a couple of other great Boone villains, see Hombre and Big Jake.  For earlier Boone bad guys in slighter movies, see Ten Wanted Men and Robbers’ Roost.
  • Major Jim Lassiter is an embittered, alcoholic Confederate veteran who hunts Apaches in revenge for their killing of his wife and son.  He is by far the most interesting character in the expeditionary ensemble in Rio Conchos.  It’s one of his rare opportunities to play an ambiguous character on the right side, and he carries the movie.  For work with some similarities (i.e., Boone playing parts other than overtly bad guys), see A Thunder of Drums and his work as the enigmatic Paladin in television’s Have Gun Will Travel.

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Tombstone

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 2, 2013

Tombstone—Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Stephen Lang, Bill Paxton, Dana Delany, Billy Zane, John Tenney, Harry Carey, Jr., Charlton Heston, Billy Bob Thornton, Thomas Haden Church, Jason Priestly (1993; Dir:  George P. Cosmatos)

There have been a lot of movies made about Wyatt Earp and the famous gunfight at the OK Corral.  Kurt Russell is a superb cinematic Wyatt Earp, in part because physically he looks so much like a well-known photograph of the lawman, down to the moustache, the hair and the blue eyes.  But he’s also an excellent and sometimes under-appreciated actor.  Of course, the really meaty role in any retelling of the Wyatt Earp story is that of tubercular gambler-dentist-gunfighter Doc Holliday, wonderfully played in this case by Val Kilmer.

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Earps cinematic and historical:  Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, and the real Wyatt.

The story is so well known that there are always questions about the historical accuracy of a movie telling it yet again.  This is one of the more accurate, along with Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp, which was made about the same time and which is much less enjoyable.  Some events are telescoped close together in time, when they actually happened months apart, and there’s frequently a very theatrical signaling of impending events.  The supporting roles here are very strong, including, in addition to Kilmer’s Holliday, Powers Boothe as Curly Bill Brocius, Stephen Lang as Ike Clanton, Michael Biehn as a psychotic Johnny Ringo, and Jon Tenney as the slippery Cochise County sheriff John Behan.  Sam Elliot’s presence as older brother Virgil Earp is good, too, and Bill Paxton has a quieter role as younger brother Morgan.  Dana Delany as Wyatt’s romantic interest, the actress Josephine Marcus, is not as strong as one might wish to match with Earp, but even this bit of casting works.  One does appreciate the fleeting staging of the famous supposed Marcus photograph, even if throwing it into the middle of the gunfight seems kind of gratuitous.  Charlton Heston has a cameo as rancher Henry Hooker.  Tombstone town marshal Fred White here is played by aging western movie veteran Harry Carey, Jr., despite the fact that the real Fred White was only 31 years old.

There are a lot of characters here, and they’re handled well.  Some movie retellings of the Earp story culminate in the famous gunfight at the OK Corral.  It’s a high point here, with an unforgettable image of the Earps and Holliday striding toward the confrontation in their long black coats.  As cinematic renditions of the legendary gunfight go, this is more accurate than most.  But the gunfight is just the start of a series of strike and counter-strike moves, leading to Wyatt’s months-long vendetta ride against the Cowboys gang.  There are a lot of small historical touches that are accurate if you know to look for them.  For example, the use of then-current vernacular, as Doc Holliday responds to challenges with “I’m your huckleberry” and “You’re a daisy if you do.”  And Wyatt pushes Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton) with “No need to go heeled to get the bulge on a tub like you” and “Go ahead, skin it!  Skin that smoke wagon and see what happens!”

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Holliday (Val Kilmer) and three Earps (Sam Elliot, Kurt Russell, and  Bill Paxton), heading for the OK Corral.

This was Cosmatos’ only western, and he made the most of it, although there was a certain amount of directorial coming and going on this movie and it’s not entirely clear that all the credit goes to him.  According to some (including Val Kilmer), Kurt Russell took over not too far in and finished the shooting.  Russell himself commented in a 2006 interview, “I backed the [original] director; the director got fired, so we brought in a guy to be a ghost director [Cosmatos].  They wanted me to take over the movie.  I said, ‘I’ll do it, but I don’t want to put my name on it.  I don’t want to be the guy.'”  If that’s true, Russell should do more directing.  Cosmatos is rumored to have said, “I do slick American movies with a European sensitivity,” and that describes Tombstone.  There’s a florid theatrical sensibility at work here, but it doesn’t get in the way.  Cosmatos supposedly claimed that all the lightning and moustaches in the movie are real.

The battles and gunfights are well-staged, especially the famous OK Corral fight (surprisingly accurate historically), the battle at the river with Brocius and the other Cowboys (also quite accurate) and the final showdown between Holliday and Ringo (could have happened, but this version is made up because nobody knows what actually took place when Ringo died).  There’s so much going on in this movie, with lots of excellent supporting performances, that it has a lot of re-watchability.  One has the sense that there are a lot of small things (e.g., the part of Billy Breckinridge, played by Jason Priestley) that remain underdeveloped to limit the playing time of the movie.

In addition to the good casting and excellent acting, the music is by Bruce Broughton (Silverado).  And the narration is in the recognizable tones of Robert Mitchum’s voice.

According to Hall Herring in Field & Stream (May 2012), this is the definitive retelling (among many by now) of the Earp saga.  “The story is ancient:  strong newcomers run up against entrenched economic interests that are a part of the legal and extra-legal power structure of the new place.  The enforcers of the entrenched order resist the newcomers.  Violence results.  The arc of the story in Tombstone follows that model almost perfectly.  But any American watching this movie brings to it a wealth of assumptions, and knowledge about mythical figures like the Earps, Holliday, or to a lesser extent, the adversaries like Ike Clanton and Curly Bill [Brocius].  The power of Tombstone is that it does not challenge, ever, what we think we know….  By the time the fight actually comes, we know everybody so well that we are utterly invested in the outcome–every shot, every misstep, is of grave concern.  Tombstone is actually not too far from accurate in a historical sense.  But if it were not, the movie is so powerful that we wouldn’t care one whit what the real history was.”

TombstoneKilmer2 Kilmer as Holliday.

The film is rated R for violence, of which there is a fair amount.  The body count during Wyatt’s Vendetta Ride is much higher than it was in real life.  For a ranking and comparison of various movies about the Earps (of which there are five good ones), see below.  The other Earp movies that made the list of great westerns here are John Ford’s My Darling Clementine from 50 years earlier and John Sturges’ Hour of the Gun from the 1960s.  At least two others (Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp and John Sturges’ first Earp movie, Gunfight at the OK Corral) are very worth watching.

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The Missing

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 29, 2013

The Missing—Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Val Kilmer, Aaron Eckhart, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Eric Schweig, Jay Tavare, Simon Baker (2003; Dir:  Ron Howard)

At the heart of this story is the strained relationship between Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), a father who abandoned his family years ago to go live with the Chiricahua Apaches, and his grown daughter Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), a New Mexico rancher and healer with two daughters of her own.  A restless sort, Jones has never been one either to maintain family ties or to stay very close to civilization.  “If I stay here very long, I might misbehave.  Somebody might have to kill me.”  Now that he thinks he’s dying, he is in fact seeking out his lost family to make what modest amends he can at this late stage of his life.

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Cate Blanchett, in a hat reminiscent of Clint Eastwood (Pale Rider).

Maggie is fairly blunt about the fact that she has no use for him at all, but she finds that she needs his help to recover her own daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) when she is abducted by a band of white and Indian renegades.  Samuel Jones’s knowledge of Indians and the terrain and his ability to navigate and survive in desolate conditions are essential to the pursuit, or Maggie wouldn’t have taken him along even in her desperation.  Maggie turns out to be her father’s daughter in the good sense:  she has grit, resourcefulness and determination, carrying the small group in their mission by sheer will at times.  On the expedition, they come to know each other at last, and they come to some acceptance of each other’s weaknesses.  They do eventually rescue the girl, among others.  And come to a greater appreciation of Indians generally.  And take care of the bad guys.  It’s better and more fun than that sounds.

Jones, a native Texan, is really a natural in westerns, with his weathered face and quick drawl.  He, like Robert Duvall, has attained a kind of iconic status in the genre, in part from their partnership in Lonesome Dove.  Blanchett, perhaps the premier actress of her generation, has never been in a western before, but she’s as convincing at this as she was as such imperious characters as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth or as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator.  Val Kilmer is excellent in a cameo as the not-terribly-helpful commander of a platoon of cavalry.  And Aaron Eckhart seems to deserve better than the small, thankless role he has early in the movie as a foreman and romantic interest for Maggie.  Jenna Boyd as younger daughter Dot Gilkesen outshines abducted older daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood), but much of that may be in the way the parts are written.  Jay Tavare and Simon Baker are very good as Katiyah and his son, Apache acquaintances of Jones with more dimension than Indians usually are given in westerns.  Canadian Indian actor Eric Schweig, so noble as Uncas in Last of the Mohicans a decade earlier, is virtually unrecognizable as the renegade Apache El Brujo.

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In general theme, this is similar to The Searchers, the John Ford classic from 50 years earlier.  In interviews, director Ron Howard said that The Missing was basically a remake of The Searchers, and that may be true in the sense that the basic plot involves white people trying to retrieve captured girls from Indians.  In broad outline, it’s another of many westerns with a search-for-family theme, but the two movies are based on separate novels by different authors (Alan LeMay and Tom Eidson).  And as it turns out, the main characters, their attitudes and the balances between them are very different.  The time frame is compressed here, the irrationality in the obsessive pursuit is gone and the attitudes toward Indians are much more complex.  Jones and Maggie are also searching for their lost father-daughter relationship, even though they’re actually in the same place for the first time in decades, and for common emotional ground that would allow them to remake that relationship.  There’s an undercurrent of conflict between conventional Christianity (embodied by Maggie) and Indian animism (embodied by Jones and others) that is not entirely successful.

With the confluence of top-flight director and cast, this could have been absolutely terrific, and it isn’t, quite.  The weakness is in the story, with its emphasis on the Apache brujo leader of the renegades and on supposed Indian mysticism.  That current is a little freaky and doesn’t mesh entirely with the more realistic western elements of the film.  But it’s still an excellent western.  Ron Howard was a first-time director of westerns with this and probably won’t remember it as one of his three or four best movies, but it’s enjoyable.  It’s rated R, largely for its violence and for the nastiness of the renegades.

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