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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).