Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, from the 1993 film Tombstone, is always the version of Doc that springs to people’s minds. He’s playful and boisterous. He has all the best lines. He fights with the roughest of cowboys. But, he’s also witty and intelligent enough to duel in Latin. These are a few reasons but what else about his Doc Holliday, is so appealing and charismatic?
The Doc Holliday Look
The first thing that is so appealing both with Doc Holliday and also with the overall look of Tombstone are the lush costumes. The suits that the Earps and Holliday wear are colorful and fashionable for the 1880s’ era. Doc Holliday is adorned with silk vests, polkadot cravats, jeweled cravat pins and cufflinks. He’s a dandy. This is in keeping with Doc’s high-rolling gambling lifestyle and his flair for flamboyance.
The costumes for Tombstone were purchased in Europe, after all the available Hollywood Western costumes were tied up in the production of the competing biopic Wyatt Earp. The European costumes certainly give Doc a more sophisticated/fashionable look. I’m sure historically, he and others with money in the day would have purchased the latest Parisian fashions.
“I have two guns, one for each of ya!”
Instead of the usual Buscadero holster that most Western films use, Val wore a double-rig shoulder holster in Tombstone. For more information about the custom made rig check out my interview with Peter Sherayko. I’ve never seen anything like it in any other Western. It fits Doc’s reputation historically as a gunfighter and gambler.
Saloons in Tombstone and Dodge City had an ordinance in place against the carrying of firearms in city limits. Despite this, it was common for gamblers to hide a gun in a coat pocket or they’d stash a derringer in a vest pocket. Failing this, they sometimes also had a knife hidden in a boot. Doc was reputed to have carried a Bowie knife at the card tables, but how a skinny dude was able to hide such a large knife, no one seems to care to explain. More than likely he carried a small dirk or jeweled dagger like the one Val had in Tombstone.
Imagine Doc Holliday armed with two guns and ambidextrous. It’s a terrifying idea! Which hand will he use to shoot with? Who knows? Because he’s just as fast with either hand, Doc can spin a bullet both ways. You won’t know which direction the bullet is coming from. He’s just that good!’
“I want him spitting blood!”
Let’s talk about Doc’s tuberculosis in the film. Kudos to Val Kilmer, he chokes and coughs his way through the movie, which couldn’t have been easy to do. Doc coughs up blood constantly. Honestly, the number of hemorrhages he suffers are far more than anyone in real life could survive, but it certainly adds to the drama.
Then there’s the sweatiness, certainly accurate, as Tuberculosis causes fevers and night sweats. However, I think a lot of the sweatiness portrayed on film may simply have been due to the the actors wearing wool jackets on the hot film sets.
“Wyatt Earp is my Friend”
Doc Holliday’s illness also made him vulnerable and reliant on Wyatt’s help. His dedication to the Earps, is demonstrated repeatedly even when deathly ill. He’s a martyr and loyal soldier, ready to give everything to the cause.
One of the reasons Doc was loyal was because he depended on the Earp brothers during his illness. (I wrote about this in my novel A Gentleman In Hell). He suffered from poor heath in Kansas. However, despite Tombstone‘s portrayl, I don’t think Doc suffered from hemorrhages during his Tombstone years. The Arizona climate helped his condition and he was healthier and more robust as a result.
Don’t you think you’ve been hitting it a bit hard Doc?
Drunk Doc Holliday is very much a theme throughout the movie. Doc’s drunken brawling and drawling make Tombstone so much fun. He’s an unusual drunk. He can spout Latin phrases, play Chopin on the piano, and also manage a good game of poker. He does all of this, pulls all-nighters to the point of collapse and can still sit a horse. Val Kilmer plays a flamboyant drunk. He’s expressive, witty and has a devilish smile.
In comparison, Dennis Quaid’s drunken portrayal in Wyatt Earp is more subdued. It’s probably more realistic, but not as much fun. Val’s drunken Doc is less cantankerous alcoholic and more a young guy who likes to party hard. The best parts of the film are the lines delivered by Doc Holliday in a drunken drawl.
I think that historically, the real Doc Holliday would have been more in control of his drunkenness. It would not be in the best interest of a gambler to lose all self-control on a regular basis. This isn’t history though this is entertainment. It’s extremely entertaining to watch Doc get drunk in this movie.
Val Kilmer’s southern accent is what makes Doc, Doc. It’s the Rhett Butler, “Gone with the Wind” twang that makes the character so romantic. He’s an old school ‘twanger.’ What’s a twanger? It’s where you manage to make the endings of words go on forever. It’s not chair, it’s chayeahh dahlin.
Sadly, the real Doc Holliday probably was a non-twanger. He hailed from South of Atlanta and Georgians generally don’t talk that way. Of course maybe they did back in the day. I don’t have a time machine to go back in time and find out. So we will probably never know for sure.
Doc Holliday gets all the best lines in Tombstone. Just mention Tombstone and what comes to mind? “I’m your huckleberry,” “You’re a daisy if you do,” “Music lover, you’re next,” “I’ve got two guns, one for each of ya,” “There’s no normal life Wyatt, just life.” Which one is your favorite?
“I’m your Huckleberry, that’s just my game.”
Val Kilmer does a fine job as Doc Holliday. He’s funny, charismatic, intelligent, deadly and loyal to a fault. He has serious depth, but can ride a horse, shoot and play both a deadly game of poker and duel with the best of them, even while on his death bed. In short, he’s the friend that everyone wishes they had.