Man of action and education proves popular

op frThere are movies that I simply cannot turn off once I stumble into them when I am switching channels, which I do whenever there is a commercial, as men have been hardwired to do since the dawn of the remote control. One of those movies is “Fargo,” by the Coen brothers, which I consider to be one of the five best movies ever made. Another is “Tombstone,” a western that I do not really even consider to be a very good movie, though it does contain an astonishing performance by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

In fact, it is Kilmer’s Holliday that compels me to keep watching every time I find “Tombstone” on cable. I can tell within five seconds exactly where we are in the movie, what scene featuring Holliday will come up next, and what the dialogue is in that scene, even when Holliday and his nemesis Johnny Ringo are trading ominous bits of Latin in their first encounter in the Oriental Saloon.

 “That’s Latin, dahlin’,” says Holliday to his girlfriend, Kate. “Evidently Mr. Ringo’s an educated man. Now I really hate him.”

I thought of “Tombstone” just last week when my friend and colleague, Bob Harrison, wrote on his Facebook page, “Why do teachers love ‘Tombstone’? Just about every English teacher I know can quote the movie like ‘Hamlet.’”

Hmmmm, ‘Tombstone’ and “Hamlet.” On the one hand, you have one of the great plays in the history of literature, a timeless classic written by the greatest writer ever to live, a play that has been performed countless times for centuries, a work that has spawned a dozen movies or more.

And then you have “Tombstone,” which barely got made in the first place (there were massive problems with the script and on the set), a garden variety western that was not nominated for a single Oscar and is largely forgotten, except for a small, but devoted cult comprised primarily of English teachers, or so it would appear. Let’s face it, on the surface, comparing “Tombstone” to “Hamlet” is like comparing fish sticks to Trout Almondine, Lindsay Lohan to Meryl Streep, “Hee Haw” to William Faulkner. That is, there is no comparison.

But wait. Consider Hamlet another way. When you strip away the Elizabethan English and the iambic pentameter, what do you have? You have a confused young man moping around the castle all day and night complaining about women. You have a poor wretch so locked into an obsessive need to please his father, while at the same time trapped by his complete inability to act decisively because … because because because life is hard, man, a real bummer, an absolute rip-off! Something is rotten in Denmark and I’m supposed to fix it because my dead old man says so? Yeah, right!

Hamlet wears us out because, by the time he is finally able to shake himself into action, it is too late and everybody dies, including him. Sure, he’s a thoughtful, sensitive chap, and look where that gets him.

One wonders how many of those English teachers who love “Tombstone” must have grown up in a world of books, surrounded by ideas, lost in a maze of abstractions, all of their adventures contained in pages and pages and more pages? Or, as Hamlet himself put it, “Words words words.”

The reason such a species would find Doc Holliday attractive is abundantly obvious. Holliday is also an educated man — he can speak Latin and quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge — but unlike Hamlet, he is a man of action, reciting “Kubla Kahn” in one scene and killing Johnny Ringo in the next without even bothering to put down his cigarette, which he smokes in spite of being on the brink of death from tuberculosis. 

Hamlet, despite his youth and vigor, courts death, swims in it, whining about the human condition, especially his own problems. Holliday, actually on the verge of death, curses the doctor who informs him that he must slow down and “curb his marital impulses” and joins Wyatt Earp in his battle against the dreaded cowboys despite being barely able to stand.

More than that, Holliday is his own man. He lives by a code he forged himself, and he is beholden to no man, no law and no crippling self-doubt or self-pity, which consumes Hamlet. He is independent, but he is loyal to his friends. He is wise, but also fearless. He is charismatic, but not cloying. He is funny, but never morose. He knows what to do, and he does it.

For most of us, Hamlet is the more likely role model, but Doc Holliday is who we’d like to be, a man worthy of his myth. Hamlet is our curse; Doc Holliday — Val Kilmer’s Holliday — is our huckleberry.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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