Memorable Movie Lines II
Bill Long 9/26/08
The Latin Dialogue in Tombstone (1993)
There is something about the "Old Wild West" movies that appeals to me. I think it is that these movies are so "easy" to watch. You have a simple plot, predictable characters, familiar scenes, (frequently) bad acting, flimsy unreality of the sets, and the ultimate victory of the "good guys" over the "bad guys." It is a genre that tries hard to present and preserve a myth of the late 19th century, a myth rooted in the tiniest kernal of historical fact, and a myth that refuses to die even in the midst of 21st century urban and suburban life. I love the ways that myth informs all of our lives; Westerns bring the subject back to mind.
The movie I write on tonight, Tombstone (1993), describes the life of Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, after they "retire" to Tombstone AZ in 1879. Wyatt made a name for himself in Dodge City, KS in the preceding few years and now, along with his increasingly laudanum-dependant wife, was setting up for "retirement." Only thing is, Wyatt, in real life, was born in 1848 and would not die until 1929 in CA. Thus, his "retirement" began at age 31: the time that most men today are just beginning their careers.
The story begins in an attractive-enough fashion. The Earp brothers, with their wives, meet up in Tucson and then travel to Tombstone where they can get away from it all. But we know, just as certainly as the reader of the Book of Job knows, that ch. 1 is going to be followed by ch. 2 and all hell will break lose. Job's Sabaeans are replaced by Tombstone's outlaw Cowboys, but the result is similar; the Earps have to call on all their powers to try to tame a situation that has gotten out of hand.
A Preliminary Dialogue
The good guys face bad guys, and the bad guys here are the Cowboys, where one of the leaders is the hothead Johnny Ringo. Ringo is said to be the fastest draw in the West, and he has no compunctions about threatening, terrorizing and otherwise brutalizing innocent lives. So, one day when Ringo and his buddies, led by "Curly Bill" Brocious, an unsavory character with crooked teeth, greasy hair, and the telltale red sash around his waist, enter a saloon that had been "saved" by the Earp's (by throwing out the bad guys), there is an initial confrontation between Ringo and one of Earp's men. Well, Earp's man is none other than "Doc" Holliday, who in fact was born in Georgia in 1851, educated classically at Valdosta Institute, and graduated (DDS) from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in the early 1870s. "Doc" first met Wyatt in Dodge City in the mid-1870s but had moved to AZ the better to deal with his tuberculosis ("consumption" in 19th century terminology).
The bloodless confrontation (of course, the first encounter between two "big" stars in a Western has to be menacing but not fatal for either) between Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo began with each sizing the other up. Here is how the conversation opens:
[Ringo steps up to Doc]
Ringo: And you must be Doc Holliday.
Doc: [Careless, drunk, and not looking very well] That's the rumor.
Ringo: You retired too?
Doc: Not me. I'm in my prime.
Ringo: [Dubious and insulting] Yeah, you look it.
Doc: And you must be Ringo. Look, darlin', Johnny Ringo. The deadliest pistoleer since Wild Bill, they say. What do you think, darlin'? Should I hate him?
Kate: You don't even know him.
Doc: Yes, but there's just something about him. Something around the eyes, I don't know, reminds me of... me. No. I'm sure of it, I hate him.
Wyatt: [To Curly Bill and Johnny, holding up hands in placatory gesture.] He's drunk."
Moving to Latin!
Wyatt will be unable to defuse the growing confrontation because Doc raises the challenge to a new level--dialogue in Latin. I don't know of another film that tries this, but I was delightfully impressed. Let me give the Latin that each speaks (where was Johnny Ringo trained?), and then translate. Here is a video of the scene.
DOC: "In vino veritas.
JOHNNY: Age quod agis.
DOC: Credat Judaeus Apella, non ego.
JOHNNY: Iuventus stultorum magister.
DOC: In pace requiescat."
Here is a translation, with a few explanatory words along the way.
"In wine there is truth." A common enough Latin aphorism, meaning that alcohol consumption is like a truth serum. Doc is therefore overruling what his 'darlin'' has said; indeed, he hates Johnny.
The next line literally means, "Do what you do," but is better translated, "Pay attention to what you do" [i.e., you had better watch yourself]. Thus, Johnny responds that Doc ought to watch what he is saying.
"Let Apella the Jew believe, not I." Horace's Satires, book 1, satire 5, lines 100-101. Doc's response is to quote the ancient satirist, who in this case is making fun of Jews who believe that there is divine power behind the gurgling action of a fountain. Horace, the "secular" Roman is suggesting the Jew is a fool to believe something like this is of divine origin. Thus, Doc's use of the line would suggest that Johnny Ringo is a fool to think that he can warn Doc to watch out for himself.
"Youth is the teacher of fools." Johnny tries to be equally insulting by saying that Doc's youthful inexperience makes him foolish.
"May he rest in peace." Doc's final words, a common enough phrase in Latin of all ages, suggests that Doc is just about ready to put an end to this conversation by finishing off Johnny. But a deadly result is averted for now. We know, however, that the die has been cast [that is "Alea iacta est" for those keeping score], and there will be a confrontation between the two before the end of the movie.
So, the movie lumbers on to its predictable conclusion. We have the gunfight at the OK corral; people falling off balustraded upper floors after being shot; strong resourceful women who are never quite as strong as the men; and, finally, the inevitable confrontation between Doc and Johnny. I won't "ruin" it for you by telling you who won that fight. But, if you don't know by now, well, maybe you aren't really meant to enjoy these movies!
In any case, people like this movie for lots of reasons (the "Rotten Tomatoes" rating on it was "79%"), but I like it because of the incongruity of the Latin dialogue in the Old West. It adds a note of unreal hilarity to the movie, even as it tries to be deadly serious. Makes me want to go watch Silverado (1985) again...