Some rivalries are built and strengthened by the opponents being perfect opposites, but others are memorable because the enemies reflect each other a little too closely for comfort. Doc Holliday spells it out for us during the famous first encounter he has with Johnny Ringo in Tombstone; here is a man who reminds him of himself, and for that reason alone, a drunken Holliday decides to despise him. When Ringo exhibits a knowledge of Latin that matches Holliday’s, Doc declares, “Now I really hate him.”
The men are very similar and it shows up on screen. Sometimes we’re simply told that two characters are or were similar in some fashion, but we’re given scant evidence of it. In Carlito’s Way, for example, one character scolds the older Carlito that brash, upstart Bennie Blanco (from the Bronx) is just a younger version of Carlito, to which the more seasoned gangster responds, “Never me.” It’s an example of how sometimes telling isn’t always necessarily worse than showing (a flashback would be cumbersome and disrupt the movie’s momentum), but it’s still something that we never get to visualize. Not so with Tombstone. The confrontation in the video above efficiently illustrates how Ringo and Holliday mirror one another. It also shows us where they differ.
One reason why Val Kilmer is rightly praised for his magnetic turn as Holliday is that he makes a murderous, borderline-psychopathic asshole likable. He almost certainly cheats at cards (“twelve hands in a row”? Ike’s right, nobody’s that lucky), taunts you for losing your money to his cheating ways, shivs you for reacting, then skips town with his lady and all the money on the table. He’s a scoundrel at best, a bloodthirsty, opportunistic murderer at worst. “Bloodthirsty murderer” is also an apt description of Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo. But Doc is also charming and witty, and he’s friends with the hero, so we like him. He’s also more confident, so he doesn’t have to posture aggressively the same way Ringo does (you can take “posture aggressively” literally in the scene above, where Ringo stands ready to draw, and Holliday remains calm with a drink in his hand).
Doc is a casual gardener of trouble, sowing it and inviting it to grow just to give himself something to do. Johnny Ringo is a compulsive carpenter of trouble. If he’s not building it, he feels lost.
Holliday also has a twisted sense of humor, whereas Ringo has none at all. Kilmer’s Holliday appears to see life and death as a bit of a joke. He knows he’s quick and great with a gun, and that his skills still won’t help him combat the brutal illness that’s consuming his life day by day. So he’s carefree about life-and-death matters in a way other men aren’t. He’s willing to “play for blood” in a shootout with a thoroughly drunken Ringo, but he doesn’t care about playing fair; he already has his gun drawn and hidden behind his back. Not only does he cheat at cards, he cheats at duels when he sees fit. Notice Doc’s slight grin as he tries to lure Ringo into a rash decision and hasty death.
Johnny Ringo lacks Holliday’s self-awareness. When Holliday says that a man like Ringo is “has got a great big hole right in the middle of him,” he’s speaking of himself as well. Granted, we spend more time with Holliday, but we get enough time with Ringo to understand that he doesn’t understand himself, doesn’t grasp what makes him so miserable and prone to violence. Holliday, conversely, knows and speaks of his own hypocrisy, he knows that Kate is using him and may be “the Antichrist,” and, in a heartbreaking, wonderful moment, he knows that he frankly hasn’t led a life that’s won him many friends.
Ringo is equally loyal to his few friends, even though he isn’t emotionally capable of articulating it the way Doc is. In the scene where he calls for the blood and souls of the Earps, he’s drunk for the only time in the movie. It’s no coincidence that this is on the heels of his friends in the Cowboys gang dying during the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. At no other time in the film is Johnny up for the Cowboys’ drunken debauchery. In fact, Ringo abstains from any vices besides killing. He’ll shoot a priest dead, to the shock of his fellow Cowboys, but he never chases women, doesn’t play cards and almost never drinks. Only when his friends have been killed–when he wasn’t there to use his expertise to help them–does Ringo seek solace in liquor.
The “hole” in Ringo’s life isn’t that much bigger than Holliday’s, Doc just realizes something is missing and therefore does something about it. While Ringo “can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain” to fill that space, Doc can at least partially quell his emptiness through booze, gambling, women, gunslinging, and an undying devotion to his one true friend. Ringo, intelligent but ignorant of himself and utterly joyless, avoids pleasure and seeks only death, but even that can’t come close to evening him out, which ultimately leaves him a twitchy, anxious mess when its time for the final showdown. When Doc says in the end that Johnny was “just too high-strung,” I don’t think he’s just talking shit.
This, after all, is Johnny Ringo’s attempt at an excited, insane happy face when he accepts Holliday’s last challenge to play for blood.
Nowhere else in the movie does he outwardly display such naked madness. He’s nervous here, and the madness is bluster. He knows he might be looking at a more skilled and more fearless version of himself in Doc Holliday, and while Ringo chases death and wants “revenge [for] being born,” he doesn’t really want to die. He resists death even when he’s been shot and has a leaking hole in his head. Holliday, meanwhile, sports the same relaxed grin prior to their duel that he was wearing when telling Wyatt he was “rolling” with success, or observing that Kate wasn’t wearing a bustle, or when he proudly proclaimed to Ringo in their first meeting that he is in his prime.
When Holliday lands the fatal shot in their duel, he goads Ringo into getting a shot off of his own, and you get the sense that he’s sincere. Doc isn’t the least bit afraid to die. His illness has condemned him to an early grave regardless of how he lives, and he never deludes himself to believe otherwise. When he senses his time is coming, he’s only distressed at the thought of Wyatt watching him pass. When Wyatt leaves the room, Holliday makes a final, calm comment observing that he’s dying with his boots off, and then he dies without much stress.
In the end, the result of this rivalry–predictable as it may be for a crowd-pleasing Western–is foreshadowed by that first confrontation. There is Doc Holliday, the casual gardener, and Johnny Ringo, the compulsive carpenter. Two men with similar talents and a similar blood lust, but a few crucial difference. Ringo instigates trouble because he must be in control–or at least feel that he is in control–and must keep up appearances as the baddest man in the room. He needs others to see him a certain way, otherwise he won’t be sure of who he’s supposed to be. Doc invites trouble and simply takes things as they come, and doesn’t flinch when Ringo puts a pistol in his face. Ringo shows off his gun-twirling tricks for the crowd to show everyone he’s a bad, bad man, and Doc makes a joke of it, because he’s savvy and wants to deescalate the situation for the sake of his friends, but also because he doesn’t care if anyone else thinks he’s a bad, bad man. He knows who and what he is.
And when the man who must control trouble is confronted by an uncontrollable variable he wasn’t prepared for–Doc showing up for a duel before Wyatt could arrive–well, his fear is so apparent that his rival can see the ghost in him, and truthfully tells him that he looks as though someone’s walked over his grave.