We’re always experiencing history now. Few grasp this concept like Alex Cox, who frequently eschews the traditional idea of “historical accuracy” in favor of something we might pretentiously refer to as historical truth. In 1986’s Sid and Nancy, a bunch of kids meet the title character just outside New York City, and when they hear his name — “Sid Vicious” — they immediately scatter. That never happened in real life, but the metaphorical depiction of Sid’s living legend trumps the facts because it actually tells the real story more effectively in film. The more all-encompassing example is 1987’s Walker, Cox’s searing indictment of America’s quasi-colonialist mindset toward Nicaragua. Walker, set in 1853, is full of intentional anachronisms in the form of modern items — helicopters, automatic rifles, Newsweek — that weren’t around at the time. If you presume this device might take you out of the action of 1853, you’re exactly right — and it more or less plants you in Nicaragua in the 1980s, where much the same U.S. meddling would spur the Contra War for more than a decade.
Tombstone Rashomon, Cox’s latest, is in many ways a logical extension of this view of history as inextricable from the present. The title somewhat bluntly particularizes the story at hand: this is the tale of the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, told in the kaleidoscopic style of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Rashomon. The tale of this shootout — dubbed on its exhaustively-detailed Wikipedia page as “the most famous shootout in the history of the American Wild West” — has been told in film a hundred different ways already, most notably in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), John Sturges’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and George Cosmatos’s Tombstone (1993). All of these technically depict the same event, but the varying degrees of accuracy and divergence speaks to Cox’s point: short of being present in Tombstone at about 3:00 p.m. on October 26, 1881, the vast majority of what we “know” about this event comes from its depiction in popular culture.
The framing device for the film cheekily plays with this idea before the curtain even goes up on Tombstone Rashomon. Ostensibly, we’re told in the epigraph, a time-traveling team of documentarians is returning to Tombstone to get the real story of the O.K. Corral gunfight. But the team arrives a day late, and thus are forced to simply interview the survivors, each of whom has a distinctly different take on what went down. From there, it’s up to us to decide what to believe.
Despite having enjoyed early success in Hollywood with Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, Cox has with rare exception been making independent productions since the commercial failure of Walker in 1987. While the budgetary constraints on Tombstone Rashomon are evident, the storytelling bravado is largely enough to overcome them. A nearly four-minute tracking shot in the Sheriff’s retelling of events gives us our best sense of Fremont Street, where the gunfight actually took place, and Cox’s early placement of this version offers freedom for more stylistic jumps in later iterations (like the black-and-white segment in Doc Halliday’s tale).
The prevalence of anachronistic modern items also seems to increase throughout Tombstone Rashomon, much as it did in Walker, such that we’re perhaps meant to draw a comparison between the Old Wild West and today. CCTV footage in the saloon, Wyatt Earp and the boys hopping suddenly into their SUV, a beautiful shot of a plaza with modern buildings and a neon sign in the background. These instances gel humorously in the context of the film, rather than playing as on-the-nose commentary on violence or the police. The most dramatic events of My Darling Clementine and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Tombstone all sort of blend together; those same events are painted uniquely in the winking, self-aware Tombstone Rashomon.
And Cox’s script seems intent on purposefully undercutting the emotional moment with more than just CCTV footage or a modern car. Wyatt Earp reaches the climax of his version of events, woefully bringing a book to his chest as his brow furrows in deep thought. “Hold the book to your breast for a longer moment,” we hear the documentarian say off screen. Earp drops the book and lifts it again. “One more time for us, please.” Earp obeys. Later, in Doc Halliday’s tale, the music swells as his narration seems to finally approach some kind of truth…but a coughing fit brings an end to his soliloquy before he can ever set the record straight. And those who would romanticize “the most famous shootout in the history of the American Wild West” might learn that the shootout actually happened down on Fremont Street, six doors down from the O.K. Corral.
All of that adds a little fuel to the Rashomon half of the film’s conceit: while no hard “truth” is reached, the picture we’re left with paradoxically feels far more comprehensive in spite of consistent discrepancies with itself. Cox’s affection for Akira Kurosawa is clear, even without reference to his 1999 documentary Kurosawa: The Last Emperor (available in parts on YouTube). Kurosawa, in turn, always cited the early Westerns of John Ford as an influence, and the interplay between the samurai film and the Western has always been a two-way street. Shane inspired Yojimbo which inspired A Fistful of Dollars, and on and on. Tombstone Rashomon gets to split the difference, resulting in a unique film from one of today’s most distinct cinematic voices.
Tombstone Rashomon will be released on DVD by TriCoast Entertainment on April 21st and on VOD in July.