Fans Want To Be Val Kilmer In Tombstone. What Is The Reason?


Although Wyatt Earp takes the spotlight, the real hero is the ailing Doc Holliday, a smart, dapper gunslinger who, most crucially for a long-term invalid like Scott Jordan Harris, makes chronic sickness seem good.

Tombstone’s main character is Wyatt Earp, but to me, Doc Holliday is the film’s hero. Tall, with a straight back and broad shoulders, Kurt Russell plays Earp. His personality is as intimidating as his size, and he has tanned skin. Holliday played by Val Kilmer looks noticeably thinner and sickly. He continually coughs, stumbles, and perspires and has a pallor of the vampire. Despite having tuberculosis, he is still the West’s fastest shot.

Like Doc Holliday, I am diminished and disabled by long-term illness. Like him, I spend much of my time suffering in bed, recovering from brief exertions. But my brief exertions don’t include winning the gunfight at the OK Corral or 12 consecutive pots at poker. When people hear that the movie character I would most like to be is from Tombstone, they assume I mean Wyatt Earp. I can never understand why.

Wyatt Earp is good in a gunfight – he’s brave and generally hits what he aims at – but he’s not a gunfighter in the classic sense. He’s no quick-draw specialist. In contrast, the outlaw Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) is a legitimate gunslinger. Ringo engineers fights he knows he will win, like a boxer hand-picking his opponents. This is why he challenges Earp to a one-on-one shoot-out. And it is why, learning of the challenge, Doc Holliday staggers from his sickbed to take Earp’s place.

For me, what follows is one of the most inspiring sights in cinema: the disabled supporting character fighting through his physical limitations to easily defeat an enemy who has the film’s great able-bodied hero completely outclassed. When Ringo thinks he sees Earp approaching, he is thrilled and eager to fight. When he recognises instead the pallid, infirm figure of Doc Holliday, he is suddenly terrified and stammers that their previous disagreements don’t amount to a real quarrel. “I was just foolin’ about,” says Ringo.


“I wasn’t,” says Holliday, and his eyes announce that the reckoning has arrived. It’s the coolest a chronically ill character has ever looked on screen. By this point, Wyatt Earp would already have been dead.

Growing up, I often fantasised about being one of the heroes of the old west played by Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, but I eventually realised that, if I became one, I’d have to give up my favourite pleasures. Rooster Cogburn and The Man With No Name are not noted for their sensitivity to the arts.

But if I became Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, I could be a legendary gunslinger and still be a bookworm. Holliday excels at the rough business of gambling and gunfighting, more so than any of the rough men around him, and yet he is educated and elegant. He speaks Latin, quotes Coleridge and plays Chopin on a saloon piano, sending his adoring girlfriend (Joanna Pacula) into erotic reveries.

And this is another reason I want to be him: women want to be with him. It is hard to feel attractive when you are chronically ill. Kilmer’s Doc Holliday makes chronic illness look good. He’s a sexy, Keats-esque consumptive. I dream of being a sexy, Keats-esque consumptive. As a long-term invalid, it’s the strongest look I can reasonably hope to achieve.

Many seriously ill movie characters are inspirational, but the inspiring message they usually send to seriously ill viewers is that we can learn to make peace with our awful situations or perhaps overcome them enough to get a degree or fight a court case. As wish-fulfilment goes, that’s pretty tame. Doc Holliday proves you can be chronically ill and still be an action hero.