I didn’t see the film Tombstone for years after it came out. Family members urged me, but I didn’t want to waste my time on a Val Kilmer characterization of Wyatt Earp’s buddy Doc Holliday. History had told me that Holliday was a tough guy with an incurable, degenerative illness that would weaken, and eventually kill him. He had every incentive to take risks. So tough, torn … Val Kilmer? Really?
Okay, I had nothing to do and the movie was on television, what the hell?
And Val Kilmer? What the HELL? If that was not Doc Holliday, it was how Holliday should have been.
I liked the film. I later read up on it. It was a difficult production. One director was fired. Before another was brought in, the studio pretty much decided to close down the project. The cast convinced the studio to look for another director. Kurt Russell, who played Wyatt Earp, took over script editing, casting, and even direction of the movie until the new director could be brought in. He made it work.
What especially impresses me is the extent of research. Details were checked for accuracy wherever possible. Even vocabulary as used during the time period seems to have been researched.
Doc wins at poker, expressing fake amazement at the cards he lays on the table. “Isn’t that a daisy?” “Daisy” has faded with time, except for maybe as in pushing them up. In those days the word referred to something surprisingly fresh or pleasing.
He later approaches a gunfighter. “I’m your Huckleberry!”
“I’m your Huckleberry!” makes sense. Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” had not yet been published in 1881, but the very popular “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and two lessor books about the wayward Tom had Huck as the narrator. And there is some evidence Huckleberry was occasionally used to describe something sweet and a little wild. A surprise treat.
The research goes to at least some of the history of the characters.
Name’s John Behan, Cochise County Sheriff.
Jon Tenney’s appearance as John Behan
As a minor character, John Behan introduces himself to the arriving Earp family. Dialogue could not be verified, of course, at least not for accuracy. Who knows what words were used? But the context played.
Behan was married, frequently beat his wife, and then was divorced after his wife found out about his attachment to prostitutes. He also frequently allied himself with deadly outlaw gangs. Not a nice fellow.
He would not have mentioned any of that part of his background to strangers. But he might have mentioned that he was a successful businessman, the owner of a saloon and a livery stable. As the movie character describes himself, “Yep, a man of many parts.”
John Behan gives to the Earps a brief autobiography that does not include those facts. It is less than complete, although historically accurate.
Besides sheriff, I’m also the tax collector, captain of the fire brigade, and chairman of the non-partisan Anti-Chinese League.
Now why would he include that last part?
It was true. He did indeed help establish Tombstone’s Anti Chinese League. It was partly his enthusiasm in persecuting Chinese immigrants that later persuaded authorities in El Paso to appoint him Chinese Exclusion Inspector after he moved on from Tombstone. “Yep, a man of many parts.”
That last item in Behan’s boastful self-description, chairman of the non-partisan Anti-Chinese League probably says as much about us today it does about Behan back then. It advances the plot, establishing Behan’s credentials to modern audiences as a mean, mean man, a bigot who sees virtue in beating down a vulnerable ethnic minority. It is our distaste for that casual statement of hatred that should tell us something about the development of the American character. It should tell us something hopeful about ourselves, as well as something not so attractive about that part of American culture that was prevalent in those days.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 prohibited any new immigrants from China from permanent residence in the United States, if it was possible for them to be employed in the mining industry. That pretty much excluded everyone from China, since it was impossible to prove you could not work in mining. There were a few exemptions. You could come as a student or a teacher although you had to leave after that. But that’s about it.
Any Chinese immigrant who was already here, was allowed to stay on, but anyone who left the United States for any reason would not be allowed to come back to family and friends.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was supposed to last just 10 years, but it was renewed for another 10 years, then made permanent. In 1917, the ban was extended to all Asians. No more could come in, and those who were already here could not re-enter if they left.
And citizenship was out of the question for any Asian.
Beyond simple ethnic hatred, the main argument against immigration was cultural. The ethnic and cultural values of America must be preserved. If you let in all those Chinese, you’d turn America in a land of pagoda type houses and Asian temples.
The same argument eventually went to other ethnic and religious groups. Jews became a special target. So were eastern Europeans. We had to preserve American culture, American values, and American ethnicity. In 1924, the Quota Act was passed. Immigration would be allowed according to a strict quota system based on the existing racial, ethnic, and other characteristics of the population already here.
The prejudice was accompanied by a common slur. Those immigrants were criminals, a threat to civilized society. In fact, in each case, immigrants were more respectful of the law than any other group in this country, but humans often make a point of not letting facts interfere with opinion.
There was a lot of support for anti-immigrant policies in those days. We had to preserve America as it was, without adulterating it with foreign values and alien races. We had to keep those unruly criminals out. I remember the strength of those arguments well into my youth.
My parents were married secretly. The secret became a non-secret when it became apparent that a new baby was on the way, which is to say me. One relative was especially vocal. She did not want to be related to some little Polack child. She was not mollified when it was pointed out that my grandparents had, in fact, emigrated from the Ukraine. The new relatives were Catholic and they were from Eastern Europe and that was enough to justify rejection.
Memory fades with each decade, but there was one incident that still intrudes.
I must have been little more than a toddler. I remember walking with another family member in a supermarket. I caught sight of one of my mother’s favorites, a brother-in-law. He was married to her sister. I remember Uncle Johnny as a big man with huge hands. He had a deep voice and a friendly smile. His skin was a little darker than mine. I remember calling out to him and running ahead in the supermarket aisle. I turned and introduced him. “This is my Uncle Johnny.” I remember feeling kind of proud.
Johnny smiled and held out his hand, only to see my afternoon guardian turn and walk away. He must have detected my confusion. He continued smiling and his outstretched hand patted my shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said softly, and gently sent me on to follow the family member who was supposed to be watching me.
Times change. The Quota Act was abolished in 1965 with the new Immigration and Nationality Act, over the angry objections of conservatives. Hatred and fear remain. Targets of ethnic and religious hatred seem to turn, slower than the seasons but just as inevitably. Along with that fear, the arguments and rationalizations are constant. They may always be with us. We must be kept safe. We must preserve our culture.
The famous Taco warning has, for many of us, become a punchline.
My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.
Marco Gutierrez, Latinos for Trump, September 1, 2016
We laugh, but many of our fellow citizens take that sort of warning to heart. Cultural acceptance is scary for the more timid among us.
That fear does have a history. It is older than the Chinese Exclusion Act and it is as new as the newest form of current conservative thought. Arguments continue in favor of further restricting non-white immigration, while taking legal steps to make sure immigrants can still come from white countries.
Now, I say to myself, why aren’t we letting people in from Europe? I have many friends, many, many friends–and nobody wants to talk this, nobody wants to say it–but I have many friends from Europe. They want to come in. People I know. Tremendous people. Hard-working people. They can’t come in.
Donald Trump at CPAC, March 15, 2013
Someday this latest season of racial, religious, and ethnic invective will change. Muslims, refugees from the Middle East and their children, immigrants from Mexico and South America will all be accepted.
Hatred and fear will be directed at other vulnerable groups. Some new Donald Trump will turn up to articulate that hatred and fear.
And the fight against bigotry will begin again.
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