Tag Archives: Wild Bill Hickok

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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Little Big Man

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 3, 2014

Little Big Man—Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway, Richard Mulligan, Aimee Eccles, Jeff Corey, Martin Balsam (1970; Dir:  Arthur Penn)

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“I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers.  My name is Jack Crabb.  And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand.”

This is one of the two most prominent revisionist westerns of the early 1970s, together with McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  Both were made by directors who did not otherwise direct many westerns, and both were concerned more with the “revisionist” than the “western.”  Both were inundated in the social currents of their time and using the western format to express them.

Based on a 1964 novel by Thomas Berger, this is one of those westerns that uses its main character as a ping-pong ball to bounce around the west of the post-Civil War era meeting actual famous characters from history and fictional characters meant to be picaresque (as with some of the works of Larry McMurtry, for example, or Forrest Gump).  Even the actual historical characters in this have a lot of the fictional about them.

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Dustin Hoffman (age 33) as young Jack Crabb, and in heavy makeup as Old Jack Crabb.

As the movie starts, Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), 121 years old and in heavy makeup, reminisces about a period of his life as a young man when he alternated between living among the Cheyennes and white men.  The entire movie is a flashback to that period of his youth.  On the whole, the movie tends to be more successful in its depiction of the Cheyennes than when it deals with white men, who are usually shown as venal, hypocritical, dishonest or crazy.

As a boy, Jack is taken by Cheyennes and raised by Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), whom he addresses as Grandfather.  The most successful single aspect of the movie is its depiction of the Cheyennes, who refer to themselves as the Human Beings, and their culture.  They are not quite as authentic-seeming as, say, the Lakota Sioux in Dances With Wolves, but the portrayal is engaging.  Jack makes friends, but some enemies, and he becomes a warrior despite extraordinary ineptitude and receives the name Little Big Man.

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Crabb is taken for a Cheyenne on the battlefield, understandably enough.

After a battle with white soldiers, he is taken back to white society, where he is adopted by the Pendrakes, an outwardly religious couple in which the wife (Faye Dunaway) seems obsessed with sex.  Jack refers to this as his “religious period,” and he meets his real sister Caroline, a Calamity-Jane type, who teaches him to shoot a gun, whereupon he enters his “gunfighter period” and meets Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey).  Jack seemingly has the skill but not the temperament for gunfighting.  He’s never good at any kind of fighting.

Jack takes a Swedish wife Olga and starts a dry goods store with a partner who turns out to be a thieving scoundrel.  Responding to impromptu advice from Gen. George Custer (Richard Milligan), they head west, only to have their stagecoach attacked by Cheyennes.  Olga is abducted, and Jack goes to the Cheyennes in search of her.  Captured by whites again, he becomes a muleskinner for Custer until Custer’s attack on the Cheyennes, where Custer and his men indiscriminately kill women and children.  Jack discovers a young Cheyenne widow Sunshine (Aimee Eccles) giving birth, and she becomes his wife, along with her three widowed sisters.

Old Lodge Skins has become blind, but he still has prophetic dreams and powers that enable him and Jack to survive another Custer massacre, this time on the Washita.  Sunshine, her child, and her sisters are all killed.  Jack makes his way to Custer’s camp, intending to kill him, but he loses his nerve and becomes instead the town drunk in Deadwood.  Wild Bill Hickok gives him money to clean up but is himself killed.  Jack finds Mrs. Pendrake working as a prostitute.  “Well, Jack.  Now you know.  This is a house of ill fame.  And I’m a fallen flower.  This life is not only wicked and sinful.  It isn’t even any fun.”

LittleBigGunfighter Crabb in his gunfighter phase.

After a period as a hermit and trapper, Jack spots Custer’s cavalry on the move and joins them as a scout.  Custer figures he can believe the opposite of what Jack tells him as they head for the Little Bighorn.

Jack Crabb::  “General, you go down there.”

General Custer:  “You’re advising me to go into the coulee?”

Jack Crabb:  “Yes sir.”

General Custer:  “There are no Indians there, I suppose. 

Jack Crabb:  “I didn’t say that.  There are thousands of Indians down there.  And when they get done with you, there won’t be nothing left but a greasy spot.  This ain’t the Washita River, General, and them ain’t helpless women and children waiting for you.  They’re Cheyenne braves, and Sioux.  You go down there, General, if you’ve got the nerve.”

General Custer:  “Still trying to outsmart me, aren’t you, muleskinner?  You want me to think that you don’t want me to go down there, but the subtle truth is you really *don’t* want me to go down there!”

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With Custer at the Last Stand.  Note the large back pad on Richard Mulligan as Custer.  He’s about to get a couple of arrows in the back.

Jack is standing next to the demented Custer during the last stand and is saved by a Cheyenne friend-enemy.  Back at the Cheyenne camp, Jack accompanies Old Lodge Skins to a mountain top, where the old man intends to die. 

[Old Lodge Skins, who has laid himself down to die, wakes up as it starts to rain.]

Old Lodge Skins [opening his eyes]:  “Am I still in this world?”

Jack Crabb:  “Yes, Grandfather.”

Old Lodge Skins:   [groans] “I was afraid of that.  Well, sometimes the magic works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.”

They return to dinner.  And Jack dismisses the oral historian with whom he has been sharing all this, to be left alone with his memories.

This has been a long synopsis, but it’s a long movie at 139 minutes, with a lot of back-and-forth between Indians and whites for Jack.  Dustin Hoffman is good as Jack Crabb, and his old-man makeup for the framing story was innovative for its time.  The best performances in this film are by Chief Dan George (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and Aimee Eccles as Sunshine.  (Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield and Lawrence Olivier had turned down the Old Lodge Skins role, according to reports.)  Chief Dan George was even more excellent as the Cherokee Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Aimee Eccles was cast as Bert Lancaster’s young Apache wife in Ulzana’s Raid, although she hardly appears on screen.  While this movie’s depiction of the Cheyennes is not entirely authentic, it is entertaining and more real than movies had tended to be previously.

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Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins and Aimee Eccles as Sunshine.

Its treatment of Custer and the flow of events generally is much more cavalier.  Washita (1868) and Little Bighorn (1876) appear to be only months apart.  In fact, they were eight years apart.  The lunatic Custer on the battlefield is intended to be satiric, not accurate.  The anti-military feeling is pure 1970s, although it is surprisingly similar to Dances With Wolves more than twenty years later.  How much you enjoy this movie will depend on how you feel about the 1970s as a film era generally. 

This and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) are generally seen as the high points of Arthur Penn’s directing career.  Little Big Man‘s revisionism was not universally well-received on its release.  Vincent Canby of the New York Times complained that the film “wears its social concerns so blatantly that they look like war paint.”  Pauline Kael, who had championed the violent Bonnie and Clyde, thought that Little Big Man was a “hip epic” and “just crude, ideological filmmaking.”  However, it was generally a critical and box-office success in 1970.  More than 40 years later there seems to be a little creaking in the Vietnam-era joints.

In the novel, the old Indian dies at the end.  Penn deliberately decided against playing it that way.  “We thought long and hard about this and in the first draft of the script he does die, but this death would have introduced an element of sadness into the film and we didn’t want this.  The film would have become dramatic, even melodramatic, instead of being picaresque.  I also wanted to show that not only were the Indians going to be destroyed, but they were also condemned to live.  On the whole, audiences like their entertainment dramatically compact and homogenous, but I want the opposite.  A film should remain free and open, not with everything defined and resolved.”

LittleBigAuthentic The real Little Big Man, Oglala Sioux.

Historical Note:  The real Little Big Man was not a Cheyenne or a white man, but an Oglala Sioux, related to Crazy Horse and involved in his death at Fort Robinson in 1877.

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Purgatory

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 30, 2013

Purgatory—Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts, Donnie Wahlberg, J.D. Souther, Randy Quaid, Peter Stormare, Brad Rowe, Amelia Heinle, R.G. Armstrong (Made for television, 1999; Dir:  Uli Edel)

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Much more watchable than the premise and the fact that it was made for television would suggest.  Despicable outlaw Blackjack Britton (Eric Roberts in his evil mode) and his numerous gang rob a bank in the town of Sweetwater, killing a number of citizens and soldiers in the process.  Pursued closely by a posse into the desert heading for Mexico, they get lost in a storm and emerge into a green valley and a small town.  They enter the town of Refuge and are welcomed, bemused by the fact that the sheriff (Sam Shepard) doesn’t wear a gun and asks them not to curse.  Meanwhile, they get free booze and accommodations, but, given their predilections, that’s not enough for them.

The gang’s segundo, Cavin Guthrie (Peter Stormare, recognizable from Fargo), is if anything even more despicable than Blackjack, but he’s hampered by his green nephew, Sonny Dillard (Brad Rowe), an avid reader of dime novels.  Sonny fancies he starts to recognize some of the town’s characters.  The sheriff bears a resemblance to Wild Bill Hickok; the town doctor (Randy Quaid) seems like he could be Doc Holliday; the storekeeper (J.D. Souther) seems like Jesse James; and the impetuous deputy (Donnie Wahlberg) like Billy the Kid.  And Sonny is taken with Rose (Amelia Heinle), a young lady of the town.  They all seem to spend an unusual amount of time in church. 

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Eric Roberts as the loathsome Blackjack Britton; Brad Rowe as Sonny Dillard.

[Spoilers follow.]  Not seeing any viable resistance, Blackjack loosens the controls on his men and they start tearing the place up.  Among them, Cavin develops plans to molest Rose.  Meanwhile, Sonny finds himself identifying more with the townsfolk than with the miscreants he rode in with.  He discovers Rose has a hanging scar around her neck; she was Betty McCullough, the first woman hung in Arizona Territory, at age 19 for killing her father with a meat cleaver after he had molested her for seven years.  [Note:  Betty McCullough seems to be a fictional creation, not an actual historical character.]  She does not encourage Sonny’s attentions, and describes the setup of Refuge:  they are there as a place of repentance and reformation after living questionable lives.  If they succeed in reforming, they get to move on to heaven in due course.  In fact, the sheriff is due to leave in a couple of days after ten years in Refuge.  But they can’t return to their former vices and violence, or they’ll go the way of the truly damned.  And they’ve spent years reforming in Refuge.

Finally, the gang plans to leave in the morning and burn the town down, having their way with whomever they feel like.  Sonny tries to get the sheriff and townsfolk to resist, but that would be violating the rules of their probation.  Finally, he declares that even if they won’t help him, he’ll defend Rose and the town the best he can.  There are more than 16 in the gang against him, and he’s not that good with a gun.  The question is less what will happen than how it will happen, and what will follow from it.  

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The uneasy sheriff (Sam Shepard) and his impetuous young deputy (Donnie Wahlberg).

This is about choices, and not easy ones.  Sonny has drifted into some bad choices in the past, and he’s choosing where (and with whom) his future will lie.  He chooses to give Rose something she’s never had:  somebody to stick up for her.  For the four, it’s different.  They made bad choices in the past as well, or at least some that played to their violent skills and strengths, and they’re having to choose where they want their strengths to be long term.  Ultimately they go, as we knew they must, with what feels right in the moment, despite having lost some of those skills they valued in life.

Hickok concludes that he’s been thinking too much about his own good and shortcomings, and straps on his two guns, handles forward.  Even Blackjack recognizes that.  Similarly Jesse and Billy put on their guns, and even Doc takes a hand.  Unlike Sonny, they probably can’t be killed (since they’re already dead), but they have just put themselves in line for eternal damnation and given up any hope for redemption.  In the extended shootout all the outlaws but Cavin and Blackjack are taken out (these four defenders are really good, and they move well). 

Sonny stands up with his dime-novel heroes and plays his part, but he’s clearly out of his league, both with his deceased colleagues and against his former outlaw friends.  Finally, it comes down to just Hickok, who is putting away his guns after the showdown, and Blackjack, who won’t take no for an answer.  It isn’t even close.  Sonny discovers that he has mortal wounds but somehow isn’t dead—or if he is, he’s now a resident of Refuge like everybody else.

The four and Sonny present themselves at the cemetery, where they expect the old Indian Chiron figure (Saginaw Grant) will conduct them to hell.  As they prepare to enter, the eternal stagecoach pulls up.  It is driven by R.G. Armstrong, who says that the Creator takes their self-sacrifice for what it seems to be, and they can now all get in.  Sonny, too, but he declares he wants to stay.  Hickok passes the badge to him, and the coach takes off.

purgatory4 Taking on the bad guys.

This is better done than we have any right to expect.  The writing is good, by Gordon Dawson, a long-time television writer with experience on The Rockford Files and Bret Maverick, among many other things.  The pacing is good while the premise develops, presumably the work of the director Uli Gellen, a German television veteran.  The social attitudes are not unbearably anachronistic.  We could wish that this were in widescreen, but mostly made-for-television westerns weren’t in 1999. 

The cast is very good for such an enterprise, especially Sam Shepard as Hickok.  Brad Rowe is also surprisingly good as Sonny; if we don’t care enough about him, this story loses a lot of its punch.  Eric Roberts can do evil in his sleep, and he does exactly what’s required of him.  Peter Stromare is a little over the top as the evil Segundo uncle, but it works.  Randy Quaid is a little broad as Holliday; we’re aware that others, including his brother Dennis, have played Holliday more elegantly.  Souther is lacking in charisma as Jesse James.  Given the balances of this, the film has to depict horrible evil convincingly without showing it too explicitly, and it does that well.  It’s one of the best things of its kind, although it’s hard to think of very many other things of its kind.  Usually a high concept supernatural premise like this would find a lot of ways to be irritating, and this is actually quite watchable and involving.  One could quibble about Billy the Kid and Jesse James as candidates for redemption, but what the heck.  This deserves to be better known.

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At the cemetery: Holliday (Randy Quaid), James (J.D. Souther), Hickok (Sam Shepard), and Billy (Donnie Walberg).

There are a couple of echoes of other westerns, particularly Ride the High Country.  There is a reference to Hickok’s upcoming “entering his house justified.”  And of course, the presence of R.G. Armstrong, often cast as a religious fanatic in Peckinpah films (High Country, Major Dundee), here used as a much cheerier sort of quasi-religous figure in his last western.

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The Plainsman

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 14, 2013

The Plainsman—Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, James Ellison, Charles Bickford, Helen Burgess, Porter Hall (1936; Dir:  Cecil B. DeMille)

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In Belgium, Hickok wasn’t even billed as the main character.

Two or three years later, and this large-scale western would have been made in color.  This may be Gary Cooper’s best pre-High Noon western, although many of his earliest efforts in the genre (The Winning of Barbara Worth, The Virginian, Wolf Song, The Spoilers, Fighting Caravans) can be hard to find now.  It is better than The Westerner, a 1940 version of the Judge Roy Bean story.  This and the 1936 version of Last of the Mohicans are probably the most watchable pre-1939 westerns of the 1930s.

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Cooper plays Will Bill Hickok, the long-haired plainsman of the title, although that could also be his friend Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), newly married to easterner Louisa (Helen Burgess) as this film starts at the end of the Civil War.  The events between 1865 and Hickok’s death in 1876 are compressed seemingly into just a few months, and the movie is an overt exercise in myth-making.  Still, it can be fun to look for the actual history when it shows up.

Bill heads to Hays City, Kansas, where he finds miscreants led by Jim Lattimer (Charles Bickford) planning to sell surplus repeating rifles to the Sioux and Cheyennes.  Trying to prevent that, Bill gets into trouble both with the Indians and with Custer’s Seventh Cavalry (the historical Hickok did have run-ins with Custer’s brother Tom and other soldiers as a peace officer in Kansas in the late 1860s).  Meanwhile, Cody’s new wife Louisa tries to get him to settle down and start a hotel with her.  The third principal character is Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur, considerably more blond and much better-looking than the historical character), who has an ambiguous relationship with Bill but would obviously like to make it more romantic.

PlainsmanYellowHand Captured by Yellow Hand.

After capture by Indians, a couple of battles and attempts by Custer to find and arrest him, Bill’s pursuit of the gun peddlers takes him to Deadwood, where he kills Lattimer and holds the rest of Lattimer’s gang for the army, until Jack McCall (Porter Hall) shoots him in the back, leaving a beautifully unmarked corpse.  Cody arrives with the Fifth Cavalry, Bill is posthumously exonerated of any wrongdoing and America goes on to conquer Indians, evildoers and the frontier generally.

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Two frontier Bills (Wild and Buffalo) holding off the Cheyennes under desperate circumstances.

Cooper plays one of the most attractive Hickoks on film, tall and lean with restrained humor and wearing two guns with butts facing forward (he’s convincingly good with them).  Arthur is quite good as well, although she looks very little like the historical Calamity Jane, and Ellison is adequate if a bit wooden in a good-looking way.  Director De Mille reportedly hated Ellison’s performance and wanted to ensure that Ellison never had as good a part in quite as good a film ever again.  If so, he was successful.  The historical Cody marriage was troubled, as this one starts out.  Young Anthony Quinn shows up toward the end of the movie as an unnamed Cheyenne.  

Jean Arthur began her career in silent movies, and she was in some very good movies in the 1930s and early 1940s.  But they were mostly in urban settings working with great directors–Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, George Stevens–in such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Only Angels Have Wings, The More the Merrier, etc.  She wasn’t bad in three westerns, though:  The Plainsman, Arizona (1940), and Shane (1953), her last movie.

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DeMille directs Ellison and Cooper in The Plainsman.

In black and white.  DeMille hired famous Indian photographer Edward S. Curtis to shoot some stills and film for this movie.

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