Not So Bad Men of Tombstone

by Sean Barron

When the low-budget producing team, the King brothers, threw their Bad Men of Tombstone hat in an already bloated ring of Westerns in 1948, it didn’t make a whole lot of noise. One might argue that it was a victim of its time, coming out the same year as John Huston’s masterpiece Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s easy to be swallowed up and disappear in the presence of such greatness.

I’ll start with the good, because I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. The movie was shot brilliantly by Russell Harlan, who gave it a noir sort of look that was prevalent at the time. The movie was quick, too, with a run time of 74 minutes. There wasn’t a whole lot of drag, though it is a bit talky. That being said, Bad Men of Tombstone suffers from a number of weaknesses. We follow the one-dimensional Tom Horn as he gets tossed in jail after attempting to hold up a claims office in Gold City. In jail, Horn meets cellmate Morgan, who runs a gang of rough and tumble outlaws.

What I appreciated most was the fact that we follow the bad guys. Sure, many contemporary films have done this, but not many were in the 1940s. I can see how this might be a thorny movie for what America’s “Greatest Generation.” Guys coming back after squaring up with Hitler probably weren’t too keen on following a band of outlaws. That is, until the very end when a didactic narrator tells us that crime doesn’t pay.

Tom Horn joins a gang after busting out of the clink. Horn earns his keep by robbing the Blue Goose Mining Company, where the love of his “not so long” life works. Julie catches Horn’s eye and doesn’t give him up, which is pretty much the definition of a ride or die type. The gang hides out in a ghost town, amplifying their thug status and augmenting their street cred in a sequence that makes prominent use of a miniature model train. You never see minatures anymore unless you’re watching a Wes Anderson joint.

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Eventually, Horn decides he wants to bow out of the game. He lets the gang know that he and his better half are heading to San Francisco. They are all very understanding. Okay, no. they aren’t. Morgan refuses to split the pot, ending in a shootout wherein Horn makes short work of Morgan, making you wonder how gang leader Morgan rose to power in this “rough and tumble” gang of outlaws. Horn, expecting to ride off in the sunset with his steed and his lady gets a slice of humble pie when he finds a militia waiting for him in Tombstone.

I didn’t love many of the performances in this film. Barry Sullivan (who wins the double crown for having been on Love Boat and Fantasy Island) didn’t come across as the ultimate badass that I was supposed to believe him to be. He looks more like the guy working in the parts department at Pep Boys. Morgan (played by Broderick Crawford) started out promising but went out with a whimper. I’ll give this film a little leeway because of its initial intentions. It’s a squeaky-clean, repressed era trying to be edgy. Maybe made in a different time Bad Men of Tombstone could have worked better, but was lost in the shuffle of its period.

Bad Men of Tombstone is available through Warner Archive Collection 

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