Tag Archives: Bruce Dern

Wild Bill (1995)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 2, 2014

Wild Bill—Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, David Arquette, James Gammon, Christina Applegate, Keith Carradine, Bruce Dern, Marjoe Gortner, James Remar, Steve Reevis (1995; Dir: Walter Hill)

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This film sports an excellent cast with Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok, Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane, and, best of all, one of the greatest living masters of the western movie, Walter Hill directing.  Should be great, right?  It doesn’t seem to be, though.

Jeff Bridges does look terrific as Wild Bill; there is very good production design on this film.  At the start of the movie, there are brief vignettes from his career as a lawman:  battling cavalrymen from the Seventh Cavalry in a bar in Tommy Drum’s saloon in Hays City, Kansas, killing several of them; killing Phil Coe and, accidentally, his own deputy Mike Williams, in Abilene; and jousting with and killing Sioux chief Whistler (Blackfoot actor Steve Reevis) on the plains, at Whistler’s insistence.  All those incidents get him to the rough mining town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in August 1876.  He hasn’t been a lawman for five years, and he’s 39 years old.  He makes his living as a gambler (badly, apparently).  His eyesight is going, thanks to glaucoma.  He may be suffering from a venereal disease.  And he drinks a lot and takes refuge in smoking opium.

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Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok; Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane.  One looks pretty authentic, and one less so.

As soon as he gets to Deadwood, he encounters old friend Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin), who makes it plain she’d like to renew an old relationship and even take it farther.  He doesn’t reciprocate, although he still values the friendship.  Jack McCall (David Arquette) is the none-too-smart son of Susannah Moore (Diane Lane), whom Hickok had once promised to marry.  Instead, he went off to scout for the army and, when he came back six months later, she had a relationship going with Dave Tutt.  Hickok killed Tutt in a gunfight in Springfield, Missouri, in 1865, and Susannah died in an asylum.  McCall announces he intends to kill Hickok, but Hickok, who has already demonstrated that he doesn’t have much fear when it comes to guns, doesn’t seem unduly concerned.

Bill hits the opium den, and smoking the stuff takes him back to other events in his life.  Sometimes those are in color, as with his gunfight in Cheyenne with a crippled Will Plummer (Bruce Dern), with Bill tied to a chair.  Usually, the flashbacks are in black and white, often with a skewed angle, as when Bill encounters a band of Cheyenne dog soldiers.  He remembers the McCandles fight that made his reputation as a gunfighter and almost killed him.  He remembers his brief and unsuccessful theatrical career with Buffalo Bill (Keith Carradine in a cameo).  He remembers Susannah Moore and Dave Tutt, as well.  McCall finds him in the opium den relatively helpless under the effects of the narcotic, but he’s not as helpless as he seems.

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Cheyenne dog soldiers in an opium dream.

Finally McCall and several desperadoes, including Donnie Lonnigan (James Remar) and Jubal Pickett (Stoney Jackson), get the drop on Hickok as he and Calamity Jane are dallying in No. 10 saloon.  Hickok friends Charley Prince (John Hurt, apparently an English version of actual Hickok friend Charley Utter) and California Joe (James Gammon) join them, as well as a prostitute on whom McCall has a fixation (Christina Applegate).  We know how this is going to end, and it takes a while getting there with all these extraneous characters.  Finally, Bill gets some of the desperadoes and chases off the rest.  But he’s holding black aces and eights, and the weaselly McCall shoots him in the back of the head with a derringer, to be hung himself later.  Nowhere does Bill’s recent wife, Agnes Lake, show up, nor is she referred to.

Jeff Bridges is an excellent actor, and he looks good in the part.  He communicates Hickok’s fearlessness and a powerful personality.  But it’s not an attractive period in Hickok’s life, and the performance seems a bit over the top.  The Hickok gunfight scenes are very effective and believable.  Ellen Barkin is much more attractive than the real Calamity Jane, as is usual in a movie about Hickok.  Although there are a number of good character actors (Bruce Dern, John Hurt, James Gammon, Diane Lane), many of them seem extraneous to what’s going on, especially during that overly-extended final sequence in the bar.  Hurt’s character talks too much, meaning the writing isn’t as good as it could be.  Arquette’s McCall is probably intended to be as weaselly as he is here, but he’s on screen too much.

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The real James Butler Hickok and his murderer, Jack McCall, the first person executed by federal authorities in Dakota Territory.

Director Walter Hill has made what may be the best movie to date about Jesse James (The Long Riders), as well as an underrated film about Geronimo (Geronimo: An American Legend) and the really excellent made-for-television Broken Trail.  He has a genuine feel for westerns, but this is probably his weakest.  The movie claims to be based on a good novel by Pete Dexter, Deadwood, and the play Fathers and Sons by Thomas Babe, but it certainly doesn’t keep very closely to the novel.  Hill himself wrote the screenplay, so he has no one else to blame for that.  It was not a success at the box office, costing more than $30,000,000 and making back only $2,168,000 domestically.

Cinematography, mostly in color but also occasionally in sepia tones and black and white, is by Lloyd Ahern (Broken Trail).  Music is by Van Dyke Parks, who also did the music for the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010).  Perhaps that’s why the song over the opening and closing credits is the same as that used as the theme music for True Grit:  the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”  Jeff Bridges starred in that one, too, as Rooster Cogburn.  Wild Bill is only 98 minutes, but it feels longer, which is not a good sign.  However, if you’re particularly interested in cinematic versions of Wild Bill Hickok, Jeff Bridges’ work in westerns or the career of Walter Hill, you’ll want to watch this, too, if only for the sake of completeness.  This doesn’t keep particularly close to the facts of Bill’s life, but neither do most movies featuring Wild Bill Hickok.  In particular, McCall had no relationship with Hickok.  He was just someone who had lost money to Hickok the night before and killed him opportunistically by shooting him in the back of the head with a .45 (acting alone).  The movie is rated R for violence and seaminess in language and sexual matters.

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Walter Hill directing Jeff Bridges.

Hill was also involved in the making of the cable television series Deadwood, which had some of the same gritty feel, directing the first episode (2004).  That one featured Keith Carradine as a world-weary Wild Bill for several episodes.  For an earlier and more adulatory version of Wild Bill’s myth, see Gary Cooper as Bill in The Plainsman (1936).  The definitive Wild Bill movie probably has yet to be made.

If you want the real historical background on James Butler Hickok, look for the biography by Joseph Rosa, They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok (1974).

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Hard Ground

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 20, 2014

Hard Ground—Burt Reynolds, Bruce Dern, Amy Jo Johnson, Seth Peterson (MfTV, 2003; Dir:  Frank Q. Dobbs)

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A variation on a frequently-used theme:  two old-timers, a lawman and an outlaw, join forces to use their experience and old-time skills to deal with a gang of more modern (and nastier) bad guys.  In this case, John “Chill” McKay (Burt Reynolds) is a former bounty hunter serving twenty years in the Arizona territorial prison in Yuma.  He is released to the custody of his brother-in-law Nate Hutchinson (Bruce Dern) to track down psychotic bandit and prison escapee Billy Bucklin (David Figlioli), who has a new gang and is heading south toward the Mexican border to pull off some kind of nefarious job. 

The wrinkle is that Hutch’s deputy is McKay’s son Joshua (Seth Peterson); he’s tracking the bad guys out ahead of McKay and Hutch.  He rescues Liz Kennedy (Amy Jo Johnson) from a couple of the gang and leaves her at a remote trading post, for Hutch and McKay to send her back.  She won’t go back, predictably enough.  So now she’s following along with Hutch and McKay; she doesn’t have their survival and violence skills, but she gets by on spunk.  There’s an undercurrent of tension between McKay and his son.  Will there be some sort of rapprochement between the two, and, if so, how?  How many of them will survive the upcoming confrontation with Bucklin?

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Brothers-in-law, former antagonists and now partners:  Nate Hutchinson (Bruce Dern), lawman (for a change), and Chill McKay (Burt Reynolds), convict and bounty hunter.

Bucklin and gang hit a U.S. army gold shipment, slaughtering the soldiers escorting it.  Undeterred by the border, Hutch, McKay, Joshua and Liz head into Mexico after Bucklin, and there is a climactic shootout in a Mexican town.  It’s better than many of its made-for-television type, although Burt Reynolds’ facelift is distracting.  He’s actually not bad in the role, though.  The screenplay isn’t great.  One wonders it the director’s name, Frank Q. Dobbs, is a pseudonym.  He has apparently been involved in other television westerns and western minseries, mostly as a producer:  Streets of Laredo, Dead Man’s Walk, Rio Diablo, Johnson County War.

Burt Reynolds had a promising career in westerns beginning in the mid-1960s, when he became part of the cast in the late portions of the long-running show Gunsmoke on television.  He appeared as the protagonist in Navajo Joe (1966), a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Coliima.  (Reynolds supposedly signed on thinking the director would be another Sergio–legendary Sergio Leone.)  He did well enough in a couple of big budget westerns in the early 1970s:  the comedy Sam Whiskey and the more serious and underrated The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, based on a best-selling novel of the time.  He seemed like he might have had a robust career in westerns, especially those requiring a comedic touch but not too broad an edge–perhaps the sort of thing James Garner did well.  But the genre was dying out for the next couple of decades, and he drifted into such high-box-office-but-low-prestige good-ol’-boy fare as the Smoky and the Bandit and Cannonball Run movies.  He’s pretty good here, in the twilight of his career.  He and fellow old pro Bruce Dern carry the film, although supporting players Amy Jo Johnson and Seth Peterson are fine in their roles, too..

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Posse (1975)

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 14, 2014

Posse—Kirk Douglas, Bruce Dern, Bo Hopkins (1975; Dir:  Kirk Douglas)

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A 1970s revisionist western—anti-establishment, anti-authority, anti-military, anti-railroad, although more watchable than most such.  The message, when we get down to it, is that there is a very fine line between the outlaws and the men who hunt them—perhaps no line at all. 

Howard Nightingale (Kirk Douglas) is a Texas marshal with political ambitions, leading five uniformed men as his regular posse.  At the movie’s start, they are in pursuit of Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern) and his gang.  They burn down the barn in which the gang is sleeping (also burning down $40,000 in loot in the process), but Strawhorn escapes.  He quickly recruits another gang as the posse closes in on him again.  In the ensuing battle, the others in the gang are killed and Strawhorn surrenders. 

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He is taken to the town of Tesoto, where Strawhorn earlier had killed the town sheriff who tried to arrest him.  With Strawhorn in custody, Nightingale takes the opportunity to give a campaign speech for his election as senator, and his men make free with the local women.  The local newspaper is run by Harold Hellman, missing his right arm and leg (James Stacy, who’d lost them two years earlier in a motorcycle accident), who doesn’t much like Nightingale.  Nightingale is self-serving and too cozy with the railroad but doesn’t seem overtly bad or unduly corrupt. 

As they take Strawhorn away on their private train, he contrives to escape and, as they pursue, he takes the train and Nightingale as a prisoner and heads back to Tesoto.  With Nightingale as hostage he demands the posse pay $40,000 for Nightingale to remain alive.  They ruthlessly take all the money in the town, about $30,000.  Strawhorn hands it back to John Wesley (Bo Hopkins), head of the posse and invites them to mount up and join him.  All but one do, and they ride out of town as Strawhorn’s new gang. 

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One of Douglas’ last westerns, this cynical film should be compared with the anti-authoritarian There Was a Crooked Man from 1970, with greater ambitions, a bigger budget and bigger cast.  This is better, although very much a creation of the 1970s.  Douglas produced, starred and directed.  Dern is pretty good as Strawhorn.  The plot reversal at the end isn’t entirely believable, but it’s well done.  Shot in Old Tucson.  A movie with the same name was made by Mario Van Peebles in 1993 with a mostly ex-slave black posse.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 4

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 6, 2013

Glenn Ford as Ben Wade and Van Heflin as Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma

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The two are inseparable, because it’s the tension between them and the opposite ideas they represent that make this movie work.  In large part, that’s because neither of them is quite what he seems.  Ford’s Wade claims to be an unrepentant outlaw, but he’s drawn to the decency he sees in Heflin’s Evans.  Evans is decent, but by the end of the movie he has shown the development of a quiet heroism that no one else in the movie will step up to.  And that makes a difference even to Wade.  For other really good performances by these two, look for Ford in Cowboy, Jubal (both with excellent director Delmer Daves) and The Sheepman and Heflin in Shane.

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Christian Bale as Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma

It’s somewhat the same story, but there are differences, especially in how things end.   Russell Crowe is excellent as the captured outlaw leader Ben Wade, but the Dan Evans role as a desperate honest rancher is harder.  How do you make quasi-ineffective decency attractive, both to the movie audience and convincingly to the other characters?  Evans gradually becomes less ineffective and more heroic, to us, to Wade and to his own son.  He doesn’t ask for their admiration, but by the end of the movie he has it.                        

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Alan Ladd as Shane in Shane

Movie roles don’t come any more iconic than Shane, the mysterious gunfighter in the film with his name as its title.  The entire movie revolves around him, as its title implies.  As an actor, Ladd has some drawbacks to overcome:  his small size works against him in a couple of fight scenes; his urban-seeming reserve nevertheless works to lend him some mystery as a western gunman; and he was not a natural either with guns or horses.  Maybe some of his success in this role is due to brilliant direction by George Stevens, who was into an amazing string of movies at the time Shane was made.  But when the film ends, it’s Ladd as Shane that we remember.  He makes almost as big an impression on us as he does on young Brandon de Wilde in the movie.  Ladd made a number of westerns during his career, although none of them are as strong as Shane.  The next best is probably Branded; after that try The Badlanders, Red Mountain and Saskatchewan. 

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Bruce Dern as Asa Watts (Long Hair) in The Cowboys

The role of demented ex-con Asa Watts gave Bruce Dern the chance to both kill John Wayne and to chew the scenery in one of the best bad-guy performances ever in a western.  He’s exactly what’s needed in this role—never quite convincing in his belated attempts at sincerity, and clearly psychotic as he takes on Wayne and his boys.  In Dern’s long career as a supporting actor, this is one of the roles that defines him.  For a similar role, see him as a villain fighting Charlton Heston in Will PennyFor a comedic variant on this role, see him as ne’er-do-well miscreant Joe Danby in Support Your Local Sheriff.  He plays an outlaw who may be more sympathetic than any of the lawmen in the revisionist PosseIn a more sympathetic role late in his career, catch him as an aging lawman on a manhunt south of the border in the made-for-television Hard Ground.

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Gary Cooper as Will Kane in High Noon

Cooper was too old for the part, and presumably for the young Grace Kelly as his romantic interest, when he played Will Kane.  But his particular style of underplaying worked magnificently in this role, and it revitalized his career.  Besieged on every side by a resentful deputy, by old relationships, by evasive townspeople, and most of all by the advancing hour with its approaching confrontation with evildoers, Kane takes the strain and steps up to do what a man’s got to do.  This, Alan Ladd’s Shane and John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards are the iconic roles of the western in the 1950s.  A westerner from Montana himself, Cooper always had both a good feel for playing western roles and a Gregory Peck-like way of projecting a basic decency.  See him also in Man of the West, a later role for which he was also too old, The Hanging Tree, Vera Cruz and Garden of Evil.  For a younger Gary Cooper, see him as Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman and as a friend of Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner.  He’s even good as a quasi-comic singing cowboy in Along Came Jones, although he clearly can’t sing.

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Yul Brynner as Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven

One of the most memorable roles in Brynner’s long and varied career is as the enigmatic Chris Adams, the leader of the Seven.  His accent is hard to place, and Brad Dexter refers to him, not entirely convincingly, as “You old Cajun.”  In the end, we go with him, though, through the tryouts, the planning, the initial confrontations with the bandits, and the outright battles.  We don’t really know him any better as he and Steve McQueen ride out of the village they have saved, though.  But there’s a reason he reprised this role at least twice—once in the first of the sequels and again as a robotic version of his character in Westworld.  And it’s a version of this role he plays in the spaghetti western Adios, Sabata and in Invitation to a Gunfighter.  The role had become iconic, although Brynner didn’t make many westerns.

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Steve McQueen as Vin in The Magnificent Seven

This was McQueen’s breakthough role in movies, although he had become a television star of sorts as the moral bounty hunter Josh Randall in Wanted:  Dead or Alive.  Seemingly a natural for westerns, he nevertheless didn’t make very many of them; his career flowered as the genre was going through one of its numerous fades.  Vin is a rootless cowboy who steps up to help Chris Adams drive a hearse with an unwanted Indian corpse to Boot Hill, in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes.  It’s even more interesting if one considers that McQueen didn’t get along well with Brynner and was looking for ways to make Vin more noticeable with bits of business (shaking shotgun shells, taking off his hat to scan the horizon, etc.).  It works for him; he pretty much steals the scene, and it’s interesting to watch from that perspective.  Notwithstanding the lack of personal chemistry between the actors, the relationship between the characters works, too.  The only other westerns in his body of work were Nevada Smith (1966) and Tom Horn (1980, when the actor was already dying).  McQueen and director Sturges would have another significant success with the non-western The Great Escape,1963.

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Kevin Kline as Paden in Silverado

Silverado is really an ensemble movie, but the character most at the heart of it is Kevin Kline’s Paden.  He never actually loses his temper or composure, even in the most threatening or dire circumstances.  He has a native elegance and competence, but we never learn as much about his backstory as we do about the other major chatacters.  We discover that Paden rode with Cobb’s outlaws for a time and has a quixotically humane streak along with a fondness for saloons, but that’s all we know.  The result is that he’s a bit enigmatic.  For all we know, after the action shown in the movie, Paden lives out his days as a saloon proprietor with Linda Hunt in the town of Silverado, although he’s been instrumental in wiping out the largest rancher in the area.  The character works, although in a way it cries out for a real romantic relationship, aside from his friendship with Hunt’s character.  There’s an allusion to an attraction to Rosanna Arquette’s settler character, but it’s not very developed or persuasive, with the feeling that much of it was left on the cutting room floor.  Kline’s film career largely took place during a period when not many westerns were made, and this may be his only such movie.  For other roles showcasing his sly humor, see Soapdish, Princess Cariboo (in a minor role with wife Phoebe Cates as the lead) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention The Big Chill, another ensemble movie by Lawrence Kasdan from the early 1980s.

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