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'Tombstone' Full of Box-Office Life : Movies: The surprise hit about the bustling Western frontier town soon will reach $40 million in domestic grosses, despite a troubled start.


NEW YORK — For Christmas, the movie industry gave the public films about AIDS, concentration camps, escaped convicts and men sentenced to life imprisonment. The public--or a sizable portion of it, anyway--decided it wanted a Western, and "Tombstone," the surprise hit of the winter, was launched.

At the time of its Christmas Day release, the chances for "Tombstone," the latest version of the escapades of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, seemed about as good as the Clantons at the O.K. Corral. The production was a troubled one, and at one point shut down for several days when original director Kevin Jarre was fired. Disney gave it only minimal support on its release, and many critics either dismissed it or ignored it.

Despite the odds, "Tombstone" is headed for the $40-million mark in domestic grosses and seems to be picking up a devoted cult. A New York theater manager where "Tombstone" is playing says, "The audience really responds to it. You hear people laughing, cheering. They come out of the theater repeating Doc Holliday's (played by Val Kilmer) lines. When people react like that to a movie, they tell their friends about it."

A source in marketing at Disney said, "Look, the film was done through Cinergi Productions, and, by the time it came to us, there were all the stories about the director being fired and bad feeling between him and the producers. It took a while for us to know what kind of film we had, but we're behind it now and pushing as hard as we can."

What nerve is "Tombstone" hitting? "It's different from any Western I've ever seen," says Kurt Russell, whose performance as Earp anchors the film. "I love some of the old Wyatt Earp movies, but, in some of them, when you saw what a bleak, depressing place Tombstone is, you say, 'Why would Wyatt Earp or anyone else ever want to come here?' What we wanted to do was to show people why so many wanted to come to Tombstone during the silver rush. It was a sprawling, bustling frontier town, spilling over with energy. We didn't design this town to look like the Old West--we designed it the way people saw it in 1879, as the New West.

"And Kevin Jarre's screenplay was really the first time anyone has tried to present Wyatt Earp in his entirety," he continues. "I mean, all of him: his relationship with his brothers, with his first wife, how he took up with Josephine Marcus, the traveling actress that he ended up spending nearly half a century with. You could see the dark side of the man."

The Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday legend has always fascinated American filmmakers; dozens of versions of the story have made it to the silver screen, including "My Darling Clementine" and "Gunfight at the OK Corral." The popular TV series with Hugh O'Brien as Earp also kept the legend alive. And this summer will see the release of Lawrence Kasdan's "Wyatt Earp" with Kevin Costner as Earp and Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday. All in all, the Earp brothers have made the walk to the fatal pen more times than the Dodgers' '93 pitching staff.

Jarre's attention to detail in "Tombstone" may have paid off in atmospheric richness, but it may also have led to his removal as director only six weeks into shooting. "Kevin just didn't have the experience, and he was moving much too slowly," says a cast member who asked not to be identified. "At the rate he was going, we'd have needed a six-hour miniseries to do the film."

Finally, producer Andy Vajna pulled the plug on Jarre and hired George Cosmatos, director of "Rambo: First Blood Part II."

"We didn't hire George because we wanted an action movie," says Vajna. "We're certainly not saying it hurt, because George made the action scenes crackle, but he also helped supply a visual element that we felt was badly needed. A lot of recent Westerns have deliberately gone for a drab, colorless look. I think people were ready for a truly gorgeous-looking Western."

One thing that everyone agrees on is that Russell is a major part of the film's success. "In the movie, Wyatt's brother (Bill Paxton) keeps saying to Wyatt, 'You're the one,' " says Kilmer, whose own laconic performance as Holliday steals several scenes. "Well, Kurt was the one. 'Tombstone' is a tribute to his determination."

"Our attitude was, 'Hell, yes, let's do this movie,' " says Powers Boothe, who plays the colorful and slightly deranged gunfighter Curly Bill Brocius. "We had really juicy roles and you could see everyone just chomping at the bit to get at them. All of the distractions just brought us closer together."

One of the "distractions," it was rumored, was the hostility of Costner and his agent, Michael Ovitz, whom Jarre publicly accused of "trying to crush my picture." While some felt Jarre's paranoia was showing, it is true that Costner's group rented all the Western costumes available in Hollywood.

"That didn't hurt," says Russell. "It forced us to go to Europe, which in fact is where the nouveau riche of Tombstone bought their clothes in the first place."

What ultimately may be the secret behind the success of "Tombstone," in the opinion of producer Vajna, is that "people are getting tremendous enjoyment from seeing these actors in these roles."

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