The Location Hunters: Gunfight ended with three Tombstones: This town ain't big enough for everyone. Alex McGregor visits touristy Tombstone, Arizona, and discovers that it has two Hollywood doubles

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The Independent Travel
A man is talking through a large megaphone to the waiting film crew in makeshift stables that are the OK Corral for today. 'We're going to kill these three guys,' he says. 'And then we are going to reverse the master and bring the crowd in to see the gunfight.'

On the set of Tombstone, the temperature might be 43C (105F), but the Earp brothers - Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan - and their consumptive companion, the dentist Doc Holliday, are wearing black three-piece suits along with ostentatious moustaches as they face a motley group of unkempt cowboys. Quite apart from the fact that Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer are playing Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday respectively, you know from their clothes alone which side is going to win this shoot-out.

The smell of horse manure and sound of the cowboys' clinking spurs give the scene an air of authenticity. Once again the dirt ground is watered lightly to keep the dust down, ear plugs are inserted, the horses - trained to jump at the sound of gunfire and not run off - are tethered, and the shoot-out begins all over again.

Southern Arizona has long been a popular place to film westerns. The most-used western location apart from Hollywood was the Old Tucson studio just outside Tucson, until it shot itself in the foot by becoming a tourist attraction and, more recently, a western amusement park.

So Mescal was built, a town that is a western set and nothing else. It has already provided the background for Young Riders and Young Guns; a new Paul Hogan western, Lightning Jack; and, most recently, The Quick and the Dead, with Sam Raimi directing Sharon Stone in the role of an enigmatic high-plains drifter.

Mescal has doubled for Tombstone more than once. And while this set might only be a reconstruction of the OK Corral, it is 'better than the real Tombstone', says the publicist. 'It hasn't been spoilt by tourists.'

The real Tombstone can be found roughly 40 miles south-east, sitting on top of a mesa with views of the surrounding mountain ranges filling the end of every street. The town is not much bigger than a film set, but its old and worn appearance is not merely the result of art direction.

The name Tombstone comes from the first mine in the region. Whenever Ed Scheiffelin left Fort Huachua on a prospecting expedition in the Apache country along the San Pedro river, the soldiers would tell him that all he would find out there was his own tombstone.

Instead, Scheiffelin found silver, which caused a rush of prospectors and the subsequent explosion of Tombstone from a tent city of 300 people to a bustling town of 10,000 in 1879.

For the next eight years Tombstone was the biggest community between San Francisco and St Louis, supporting up to 800 mines and hundreds of saloons and gambling houses set up to accommodate the 'boomers'.

Tombstone's most famous event, the gunfight at the OK Corral, which left three men dead and is enshrined in western mythology, took place on the afternoon of 26 October 1881. Within six months, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday had fled the town and a murder warrant following another shooting. Earp eventually went to Los Angeles, where he became good friends with, and technical adviser to, William S Hart and Tom Mix, the cowboy stars of the burgeoning motion picture industry.

Not surprisingly, when Hollyood started to make its simple morality tales, the Earp brothers emerged as heroes. Although the real-life gunfight lasted less than a minute, it has inspired close to 20 films - not counting a recent batch led by Tombstone and Kevin Costner's forthcoming biopic of Wyatt Earp (filmed largely in New Mexico). And the shoot- out is re-enacted every Sunday in the corral where it actually took place.

Tombstone is perhaps the first town in the United States to establish itself and survive solely as a tourist attraction. The mines closed in 1889, and it became virtually a ghost town until it was turned into a historical attraction.

Since then it has functioned as a living museum, devoted to its boom years, or at least to the time when the Earp brothers walked the streets: they spent less than two years in Tombstone, but their bullet holes and photographs seem to appear in every nook and cranny. It is difficult to walk more than six feet along Tombstone's main drag, Allen Street, without reading a plaque or story devoted to the Earps' drinking or shooting exploits.

Inevitably, the town's main attraction is the OK Corral, where it is possible 'to walk where they fell', as the sign on the street proclaims. Past the old stable yards and a genuine 1880 wooden lavatory is the bare clay yard where the gunfight took place.

Life-size, painted plaster models of the combatants are bolted to the ground, fixed in what are said to be the stances the gunmen adopted during the brief, bloody clash. Across the yard, a melodramatic recreation of the sounds of the fight echoes from hidden speakers on a tape loop that has become slurred from repeated use.

Within a year of the gunfight, two fires burnt down much of the town centre. It was quickly rebuilt and the three main streets have remained intact, with the addition of electricity and street lights. Half a dozen of the hundreds of saloons remain today, almost museums themselves, with historical artefacts such as roulette wheels or guns from the frontier days displayed on their walls. These capacious bars, with coloured glass mirrors and windows, have the sadness of a half-empty church or a barn dance on a slow night.

A theatrical tradition, which started in Tombstone with the construction of the Bird Cage Theater in 1881, continues. The theatre is an original structure, having survived both the fires and close to 50 years of neglect when it was boarded up.

Like most of Tombstone's old buildings, it has been reduced to museum status. Ticket-sellers proudly point out the bullet holes in the theatre foyer. Inside, glass cases display such relics as Doc Holliday's tooth extractor, and in the corner are a coin-operated music box and, of course, the mandatory photographs of the Earp brothers.

The performing tradition begun at the Bird Cage has taken to the streets, with the town's three theatrical troupes - the Vigilantes, the Wild Bunch and the Boothill Gunslingers - putting on their shows outdoors. Volunteer actors dressed in period costume roam the streets of Tombstone, yelling and shouting at each other and brawling and shooting in imitation of the pioneers. Visitors must feel they have stepped into the twilight zone rather than seen Wild West history recreated.

On Sundays, the Vigilantes and the Wild Bunch, about 40 and 20 years old respectively, re-enact the gunfight at the OK Corral on alternate weeks. The newest group in town, the Boothill Gunslingers, presents a daily show of western comedy with as much subtlety as a cartoon, but without the laughs.

There always seems to be some sort of controversy in Tombstone. The latest involves an old subject: gun control. In the 1880s, shootings became such a problem that guns were banned from the town. The famous gunfight was precipitated in part when the Earp brothers were able to hide a personal vendetta behind their duty as lawmen to strip the Clanton family and their cohorts of their guns.

The consequent shoot-out - described by Hollis Cook, manager of the Tombstone Courthouse State Historical Park, as 'a misdemeanour bust gone sour' - has ensured that the town's name is synonymous with guns and shooting.

That reputation attracts a lot of tourists (about 75,000 a year, a few of whom bring their guns in the hope of reliving the old days by firing them off on main street). There have been no duels reported, but the local actors are becoming a little apprehensive and want to have guns banned once more from Tombstone. Perhaps they are worried they will be mistaken for the real thing and be shot at, or are just jealous they cannot return fire with fire. Whatever, some people in Tombstone are trying to control the guns, even though they are firing blanks.

While films have made Tombstone what it is today, the industry itself has only touched the town glancingly. Tombstone's only real brush with the industry, apart from the regular appearance of documentary crews from around the world trying to capture the 'true west', was to play host to John Wayne during filming of 'Rio Lobo . . . or was it Rio Bravo?' as the woman in the tourist information office put it.

The townsfolk may not recall the film, but the great actor's stay in Tombstone has become institutionalised, like everything else remotely famous here, with signs at one hotel offering visitors the opportunity to 'stay where John Wayne stayed'.

The slogan of Tombstone, to be found everywhere from local maps to tea-towels, is that it is 'the town too tough to die'. Most of the other towns that sprang up in the surrounding mountains during the mining boom have crumbled to the point where many do not even appear on maps, or at best are noted in tourist brochures as bona fide ghost towns.

However, it is possible to drive south of Tombstone and, about 10 miles north of the Mexican border, stop at Bisbee, a town once known as the 'Queen of the Mining Camps'. There is no longer any mining, but Bisbee has grown into a gracious town, a blend of turn-of-the-century brick buildings and old narrow streets winding into the side of a mountain.

If there are any ghosts, they seem to have been buried elsewhere. In the bars, with the multi-channel radio programmed to intercut between cool jazz and hip-hop, and a basketball game dancing across the big-screen television, you know you are back in the USA. In the restaurants, where they serve such dishes as ravioli with jalapenos, you know you are in the here and now.

(Photograph omitted)