Hell’s Songbird (For Doc Holliday)

Hell’s Songbird (For Doc Holliday)

John Henry “Doc” Holliday was one of the West’s more storied gunfighters.  He was an ill-tempered motherfucker who was perpetually drinking and swigging laudanum for his tuberculosis.  He was by turns a dentist, a gunfighter and a professional gambler.  He was a Southerner who was bored by dentistry and soon discovered his talent for games of chance, particularly faro and poker.  He was well-educated, fluent in French and Latin, and often dropped clever non sequiturs in French to annoy fellow gamblers who were under the impression that the droll and elegant Doc was “high-hatting,” or condescending to them . . . he was.  Doc had little tolerance for the ignorant.  These altercations often turned into gun battles, which Holliday never lost.

He was a fearless gunfighter.  A longtime friend of Wyatt Earp, Doc was present the day the Earp brothers decided to settle the hash of the Clanton-McLaury gang, setting off a war between the Earps and the Clantons that was long and bloody, and killed a dozen men on both sides of the feud.  Doc Holliday threw in with the Earps, largely because the Earps allowed him to gamble and settle his accounts in blood with impunity.  Doc ran with a sharp-tongued whore named Big Nose Kate, who was at once his only love and his tormentor in equal measure.

In the splendid film, Tombstone, Holliday is played with a doomed and elegant élan by Val Kilmer whose portrayal, most Western historians agree, is probably the closest to the character of the real Doc.  I’ve never been a big fan of Kilmer, except in this film.  His Holliday is a sweating, tubercular dandy of carefully measured eloquence and lethal intent.  It is a performance for the ages.  Holliday, half-dead, listening to heartbreaking Chopin nocturnes, and nearly killing a man over his ignorant dismissal of them, is a wonderful moment in a really underrated film.

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