For Chris Geovanis, one bad motherfucker who hosted me while I wrote some of this and also once saved my life.
If it’s possible to have spoilers for a popular film that has been around for decades, this essay definitely does. I rely heavily on the works of Christina Sharpe, Sylvia Wynter, Vincent Brown, Joy James, Bedour Alagraa, Patrick Wolfe, Sekou Sundiata and George Jackson even if not all are directly cited. Anything useful in what follows should be credited to them, blame for the rest lies with me. Special thanks to Zoé Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for insight into the Christians! Feedback whether in-, con- or de-structive is always appreciated.
The 1993 film Tombstone opens with a group called “The Cowboys” – that a narrator tells us is an early example of “organized crime” in the US – killing several police who had previously killed a couple of the Cowboys. A priest at the site of the killing quotes the Christian religion’s biblical Book of Revelations, “Behold the pale horse. The man who sat on him was Death. And Hell followed with him.” The full verse in the King James biblical edit reads, “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” This scene sets up the film’s last act where, in the opposite of subtext, Wyatt Earp rides a horse while killing people by the dozen in order to establish “the law”.
Tombstone was officially directed by George Cosmatos, unofficially co-directed by lead Kurt Russell, from a script by the originally intended director Kevin Jarre. It tells a story of Wyatt Earp (Russell) and his brothers as they head to Tombstone, Arizona colony, in 1879 seeking riches from the colonial silver mines and the economic boom surrounding them. There they find conflict with The Cowboys – Hollywood shorthand for the Cochise County Cowboys – and the Tombstone Sheriff affiliated with them. The Earps and the Cowboys provoke each other into increasingly violent encounters leading the Earps to become cops and use their state power to kill some Cowboys at the now famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which didn’t actually take place at the O.K. Corral). The Cowboys take revenge by shooting one of the Earp brothers, and killing another one. Wyatt Earp then gathers a posse and carries out a slaughter of dozens of Cowboys. Through all of this Wyatt is in the process of cheating on his wife and his friend Doc Holliday is fighting a losing battle with tuberculosis. The film ends with much of the cast dead as Earp and his new wife dance giddily in the magical snows of Colorado as Holliday takes his last breaths and a narrator celebrates the death by overdose of Earp’s cast aside ex-wife.
Tombstone has a devoted following and has had a second life in memes and GIFs but is uneven and unremarkable as a film. It does have elements to recommend. First are the mustaches. They’re terrific and frequently have more charisma than the people wielding them. Sam Elliott just oozes his Virgil Earp character and Val KIlmer rightfully garnered praise for his performance as Doc Holliday. Really though, it’s mostly the fine mustaches the performers grew that carry the day. Otherwise it’s an overwritten and overacted chore with its fandom primarily based on rather absurd posturings of frontier masculinity and the occasional cute piece of dialogue, mostly from Kilmer as Holliday. There is a lot of men-dominating-men with a studious unacknowledgement that the homoerotic tensions didn’t have to be resolved with a murder spree. It’s only “homoerotic tensions” at play and not also a material conflict between rival frontier gangster capitalists because, in the film, the Cowboys are called “outlaws”, but it’s never even inferred what their criminalized acts are. In material history it was mostly cattle rustling. In Tombstone they’re just kind of assholes which is lazy storytelling and, for the audience that adores it, lazy storywatching.
The film is historical in the limited sense that it has to do mostly with people who existed, but it’s concerned with mythologizing those people and not telling plausible tales of their being. For example the Earps were a gangster capitalist enterprise who captured the backing of a section of the colonial government, just like the Cochise County Cowboys did with Sheriff Johnny Behan in a different section. The only hint of this in the film is very early on, where Wyatt repeatedly strikes a faro dealer, steals his job and, with that violence, procures 25% of the profits in the saloon where the dealer formerly labored. The film portrays this as heroic and oh so macho. In the film the Earps are hero lawmen and it neglects to mention that Doc Holliday and Wyatt finish the film in Colorado colony because there were murder warrants out for them in Arizona stemming from their rivalry with the Cowboys. Wyatt Earp made friends in Hollywood in the autumn of his life which helped shape the later misunderstanding of him, along with becoming the subject of at least three, substantially fictional, lionizing biographies. Had Behan or Ike Clanton made those connections instead, Earp’s image would be much the worse. When Wyatt Earp died he was known, to the limited degree he was known publicly at all, mostly for his role in rigging the 1896 Fitzsimmons vs. Sharkey heavyweight boxing fight, since, by then, regional memory had long faded of his earlier years spent pimping in Illinois and Kansas.
Despite this, Tombstone has a lot of truth to it that it seems largely unaware of. Or, perhaps, Tombstone knows something is going on but thinks it’s something more superficial than what it actually is despite thinking this superficiality to be profound. So what is going on?
Tombstone is set during the Closing of the American Frontier, a period of colonization where the form of colonial war in the USian West finished shifting from conquest and enclosure of territory to counterinsurgency and enclosure of populations. As Vincent Brown notes in Tacky’s Revolt, this, a long war ongoing for centuries before the current Long War that it prefigures, was put into place first in the construction of the plantation. Which is to say that framing Tombstone’s narrative requires engaging both the destruction of the native world(s) and construction of the anti-black one(s) despite all characters with significant speaking roles, apart from Paul Ben-Victor in brownface as Florentino Cruz, being white settlers.
The central narrative backdrop of so many western genre stories is “the law coming” or another type of institutional regimentation like a railroad or other industrial capital. The television show Deadwood was backdropped by both the threat of the law or army arriving as well as industrial capital represented by George Hearst. Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in the West has a railroad bringing pacification. But what is being pacified if, in so many stories covering this period, the native population is narratively absent entirely or rendered peripheral and there are few to no black characters? It’s the “frontier rabble”, the violent packs of settlers of which both the Earps and Cowboys were a part. Per Patrick Wolfe:
Rather than something separate from or running counter to the colonial state, the murderous activities of the frontier rabble constitute its principal means of expansion. These have occurred “behind the screen of the frontier, in the wake of which, once the dust has settled, the irregular acts that took place have been regularized and the boundaries of white settlement extended. Characteristically, officials express regret at the lawlessness of this process while resigning themselves to its inevitability.”
In a storytelling genre sense, westerns like Tombstone seem at first glance to be post-apocalyptic, bringing order in the wake of the violences of settler conquest. But it is not like the settlers returned the land to apocalypsed populaces; there is no post to the apocalypse’s effects. And in destroying native worlds to build anti-black ones, it is in the wake of settler conquest and also, per Christina Sharpe, in the wake of the slave ship. So this genre is apocalyptic but it is not post-apocalyptic, rather it is the apocalypse’s ordering. It is the shift from the fires of conquest to the “long war” of counterinsurgency. The apocalypse shifts from something the settler society inflicts to something it lives. And the western genre through its focus on the law coming describes the shift from the violent events of the colonial encounter to their structuring into colonial rule.
Tombstone does this structuring by having Wyatt Earp and his posse massacre the Cowboys, over twenty in the film’s final act. It is portrayed as heroic even as they kill Cowboys at the barber, the opium den and other decidedly non-combat locales. The film begins this at a train station where the Earps who survived the Cowboys revenge are on a train out of town. Some Cowboys lie in ambush to kill the remaining Earp gang members. Wyatt, revealing himself to be newly deputized a US Marshall, kills one Cowboy – who is also a Cochise County Sheriff deputy, then screams at another who lays disarmed on the ground:
SO RUN, YOU CUR! AND TELL ALL THE OTHER CURS THE LAW IS COMING! YOU TELL THEM I’M COMING! AND HELL’S COMING WITH ME YOU HEAR? HELL’S COMING WITH ME!
Hell comes with the law. Two decades before Tombstone was released, George Jackson wrote about this scene where “the law” begins to massacre a competing faction for the plunder of frontier pacification:
Every time I hear the word “law” I visualize gangs of militiamen or Pinkertons busting strikes, pigs wearing sheets and caps that fit over their pointed heads. I see a white oak and a barefooted black hanging, or snake eyes peeping down the lenses of telescopic rifles, or conspiracy trials.
The law in the western genre story is the arrival of the counterinsurgent violences of the plantation, the ordering of the apocalypse the settlers will then live. Calgacus described the Roman Empire’s plundering as “they make a desert and call it peace.” If we include Brown and Sylvia Wynter’s insights into Calgacus’s formulation, we might say of the US settler empire, “They make a desert and call it piece,” or pieza, the Spanish system of ordering the African slave trade.
Tombstone relays explicitly only part of what is above but that still teaches us something about both the film and its audience. Specifically it teaches us that the US settler society has at least a liminal knowledge that it is an apocalypse and celebrates itself on those specific terms with imagery like Wyatt Earp’s revenge ride. The Christian Book of Revelations and the story of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ – of whom Death with his Pale Horse is the final – is popularly known at a superficial level at least in the United States. They appear in song as with Johnny Cash’s 2002 ballad “The Man Comes Around” and in popular television shows like Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow and in professional wrestling with The Four Horsemen and the Horsemen of Apocalypse in Marvel comic books. These Christian pop culture adaptations are before even considering the dispersal of biblical knowledge of the Book of Revelations through church sermons, study groups and leisurely reading.
The US settler society broadly understands Death and his Pale Horse as cataclysmic, as apocalyptic, whether as allegory or prophecy, whether superficially or studiously. When Wyatt Earp and his gang on horseback slaughter over twenty people while he brings “hell with [him]”, he is fulfilling the apocalyptic role foretold in Tombstone’s opening scene. But Earp, representing “the law”, is not bringing nor ending the apocalypse, but ordering it in a way meant to make the apocalypse heroic to its audience. Through ordering the apocalypse, Tombstone and similar stories (re)produce a timeline where settler violence was solved rather than ordered, keeping settler self-awareness of being an apocalypse at the periphery of knowledge. Sekou Sundiata described this as how power says. “That was then, this is now. Take time off-line. Break the bridge.” By imagining the ordering of the apocalypse as its end, Tombstone helps invisibilize the counterinsurgency that succeeded conquest. But the law coming doesn’t bring peace and Tombstone doesn’t hide this. Indeed, the film agrees with George Jackson; fascism is ‘the law’. Thanks for reading.