It's one of cinema's greatest mysteries: who really directed this major western? –

An excellent western released 30 years ago and with a formidable cast, “Tombstone” is considered the best film of its director, George Pan Cosmatos. Unless it is a film signed by Kurt Russell himself…

Six months before Lawrence Kasdan set out to tell the famous story of Sheriff Wyatt Earp launched into his ruthless war against the Clanton clan which culminated with the famous settling of scores at OK Corral, a certain George Pan Cosmatos had grilled him politeness by devoting to the same historical episode a film that many consider to be the best of this filmmaker rather subscribed to encore films: Tombstone.

After a series of failures of his films in theaters, unable to reconnect with the triumph of his Rambo II carried at arm's length by a Sylvester Stallone more testosterone and angry than ever, Pan Cosmatos, who surprisingly always managed to summon impressive castings in his films, therefore revisits the Western, armed with a casting King Size.

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, in tandem with Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday; Michael Biehn, Billy Zane, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Booth, Michael Rooker, Billy Bob Thornton, Charlton Heston, or even Stephen Lang, the future villain of the Avatar saga for James Cameron.

Settling scores at the Box Office

With a budget almost 2.5 times lower than Wyatt Earp by Kasdan, barely $25 million, produced by Hollywood Pictures, a Disney subsidiary, Tombstone hit the screens in December 1993 in the United States (and in February 1994 here).

Results of the races: a little more than 56 million dollars in revenue. Not exactly a heist; but in any case more than double the Box Office receipts of its competitor released shortly after. A total disaster for the film led by Kevin Costner which only collected 25 million.

Kurt Russell, the real director?

Over the years and thanks to video clubs first and then DVDs, Tombstone has largely been (re)discovered, and deserved its stripes as an excellent film. But, if we are accustomed to saying that it is the best film of its late director, who died in 2005 at the age of 64, the behind-the-scenes story of its conception reveals above all that it would be Kurt Russell who would have largely shot the film in reality, without however having his name appear in the credits.

In an interview on the True West website published in 2006, Kurt Russell, who believed deeply in the film at the time, explained that he was asked to direct the film, after the initial director (and screenwriter), Kevin Jarre, was ejected after a month. If he did not necessarily feel capable of replacing the departing filmmaker, he was ready to support George Pan Cosmatos behind the camera.

“I told George [Pan Cosmatos] : “I’m going to give you a list of plans every night, and this is how we’re going to do it.” I went to George's room, gave him the list of plans for the next day, that was the deal.” Their relationship on the set was, according to Russell, rather good.

Rambo's wise advice

How did Cosmatos get on set? On the wise advice of Sylvester Stallone, whom Russell sought for advice. Not only had Stallone also played shadow directors on Rambo II, but he also starred with him in 1986's Cobra. Russell doesn't explain in the interview why he thought of calling out Stallone specifically, although the actors collaborated on the film Tango & Cash, which itself had a troubled production.

Still, Russell promised Pan Cosmatos that, “during his lifetime, he will never say anything about this behind-the-scenes arrangement.” Russell's comments have since been significantly tempered by the film's co-star Val Kilmer in 2017, in a post on his personal blog (via The Wrap).

It39s one of cinema39s greatest mysteries who really directed this
Hollywood Pictures

While he praises Russell's commitment to the project and pays tribute to his colleague, he writes that “Kurt is solely responsible for the success of the film. I was there every minute of it and even though Kurt's version differs slightly from mine, the only thing he gets absolutely right about is how hard he worked hard the day before, for the list of shots for the next day, and the considerable efforts that he and I put into editing, because the studio did not give us extra time to make up for the time lost during the whole month that we had just lost with the first director.

[…] Russell didn't direct it, although he did virtually everything necessary to make sure the film did, right down to providing the director with his shot list. Question answered…unless Russell intervenes, of course.”

Unfortunately, we will probably never get the end of the story: in his audio commentary of the film released on DVD at the time, George Pan Cosmatos made no mention of such unofficial involvement of Kurt Russell in the film. Which can also be understood from his point of view, because it's not very flattering either…

By the way, if you haven't seen this little nugget yet, it's available on Disney +!

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