You can rely on Walter Hill to give you a good Western
Probably the best movie about Wild Bill Hickok was that directed and written by Walter Hill in 1995, Wild Bill.
Mr. Hill is essentially a director of Westerns. Even though he has only done four true Western movies (and some good TV work) as against 33 ‘thrillers’, Hill has gone on record as saying that every film he made was in a way a Western. A look at movies like Extreme Prejudice or Last Man Standing will show you that he was right. After directing and writing one of the best Jesse James movies, The Long Riders, in 1980, Hill produced the Western whimsy Rustlers’ Rhapsody in 1985, then in 1993 he produced and directed Geronimo: An American Legend. Wild Bill was his last. They were all very good.
Part of the TV work he did was the truly excellent Broken Trail (2006), but he was also consulting producer on and directed the first episode of HBO’s outstanding Deadwood in 2004, so he worked the Wild Bill theme again.
You can rely on Hill’s Westerns to look good, have quality acting and strong scripts, move along at a smart pace and be different enough to be interesting. Quality, in other words.
Wild Bill benefits from marvelous performance of Jeff Bridges as Hickok. He looks just like Bill and manages to transmit the sheer power of the man. Even in his last years, Wild Bill Hickok was a dominant force wherever he went. Bridges is dashing, vain and unapologetic. I don’t think there was ever a better Wild Bill on the screen. Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle perceptively wrote that “Bridges makes a perfect Wild Bill, a hulking, sulking, hard-drinking wastrel, tough, flinty-eyed and cold, with the kind of appealing integrity that can come only from fearing no one.”
Bridges as Hickok
There are one or two very good minor parts too, notably James Gammon as California Joe and Bruce Dern as Will Plummer. Accurate history is cast aside and California Joe assumes a much bigger role in Bill’s life than was in fact the case. He is even holed up in Carl Mann’s No. 10 in Deadwood at the end. But Walter Hill makes a point of the exaggerated legend by having Joe (James Gammon, second only to Bridges in acting) tell tall tales and magnify Bill’s shootings out of all proportion. It’s amusing and plausible too. The great Bruce Dern has a splendid short part in Cheyenne and has a Main Street showdown against Wild Bill with both of them in chairs.
Wild Bill with California Joe on the Plains
The great Bruce Dern
I’m afraid, though, that I didn’t think that much of David Arquette’s Jack McCall. He ought to have been greasier and runtier. The writers had invented some nonsense about him being Susannah Moore’s son and he has a thousand dollars to pay some hired killers. (The killers – James Remar and Stoney Jackson - are rather good though). Similarly, Ellen Barkin is unconvincing as Calamity Jane, too pretty and far too clean and her accent sounds contrived. She seems to have modeled her performance on Doris Day's. Of course the screenplay has her be Hickok’s lover and she too is there in the No. 10 at the end. Most Wild Bill movies do that. No mention whatsoever is made of Agnes Lake, Mrs. Hickok.
More Calamity than Jane I fear
Should have been runtier
And since we are on the negatives in the cast, sorry, but John Hurt is hopeless here as ‘Charley Prince’ (the Charley Utter figure); all he does is announce to every character that he is Bill’s friend. I never thought he was convincing in Westerns. Very weak in Heaven’s Gate, he was slightly better in his small part in Dead Man and the best he did was when he overacted in The Proposition. In Wild Bill, he doesn’t carry off the great friend role as suggested in one of the source books, Pete Dexter’s Deadwood, at all. And as he has a narrator’s role and he is in the No. 10 too, we hear him rather too much.
Still, Bridges, Gammon and Dern make up for them. We also have some very good people in smaller parts: Marjoe Gortner is terrific in a tiny part as an evangelical preacher (but he had been one). Keith Carradine (who himself became Wild Bill in the TV Deadwood) is excellent in his cameo as Buffalo Bill. Steve Reevis is the Sioux chief. Karen Huie was very good as the madam of the opium den (Bill likes a pipe).
Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill on the stage
The credits say the film was partly based on Dexter’s Deadwood and partly on Thomas Babe’s play Fathers and Sons (1978). I haven’t seen Fathers and Sons but I have read Deadwood (see review) and, well, let’s just say ‘loosely based on’ and leave it at that. Apparently, Fathers and Sons is set in the No. 10 and Jack McCall is Bill’s illegitimate son. OK. Anything’s possible…
In the movie, McCall is the son of Susannah Moore (Diane Lane), over whom Wild Bill and Dave Tutt quarreled in Springfield, Missouri in 1865. His mother has died in an asylum and McCall announces publicly on Hickok’s first day in Deadwood, “I come here to kill you, Wild Bill!” All Wild Bill movies had to invent something behind the murder, some motive or explanation. What they came up with was often very far-fetched.
I like the way that many of the gunfights and famous episodes of Wild Bill’s past are told in flashback, in black and white. They are sometimes the best bits of the film. There is no mention of his youth and there are no Civil War scenes but apart from the Tutt gunfight, at various moments we get the McCandles fight (Bill kills five of the gang where in reality he may have killed one), then we see him shooting shotglasses off the head of Pink Bruford’s dog (though in Abilene, not Deadwood). On the Plains, Bill kills Chief Whistler (which he probably didn’t). He shoots three unnamed men in a bar and kills two soldiers in Tommy Drum’s saloon in Hays as sheriff (he was not actually sheriff then, but I don’t want to be picky). The killing of Phil Coe and Mike Williams in Abilene is well done.
One great thing is the prominence given to derringers! The whore Lurline shoots a miner with one, Bill has one and pulls it on McCall in the opium den and McCall actually shoots Bill with one at the end (I don’t think McCall shooting Wild Bill constitutes a spoiler…). Whore, gambler, sneaky badman - typical derringer owners.
There’s a running gag about what touching another man’s hat will get you. It's a bit like that Lyle Lovett song, You can have my girl but don't touch my hat.
Calamity Jane, California Joe, Charley 'Prince' and Wild Bill all at the No.10 for the death
The movie was filmed in the Hollywood studios (and a bit up at Big Sky Ranch) but the Deadwood looks great. It’s a real muddy rat-hole, sometimes shown in sepia. The excellent sets are by Joseph Nemec. It’s photographed by Lloyd Ahern (who worked with Walter Hill on Geronimo, Broken Trail, Last Man Standing and also the episode of Deadwood. Visually, the film is a treat. The flashbacks are especially well done. There is (unfortunately) a bit of mumbo-jumbo in the plot where Bill dreams his death under the effects of opium but the black & white scene with the dog soldiers and the dream dog is very well done. It reminds me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (the same year).
The music (Van Dyke Parks) is very enjoyable, a bit like Ry Cooder’s in The Long Riders, mostly a treatment of various folk tunes of the time. Mr. Parks only did the music for three Westerns, the rather weak Goin’ South, this one and Broken Trail. It’s a pity he didn’t do more.
The movie got pretty bad reviews and hardly performed spectacularly at the box office but Jeff Arnold’s West thinks Wild Bill is a good Western and an enjoyable treatment of the Hickok legend. Yes, it plays about with the historical facts but they all do and since when did we watch Western movies to get true history? It’s Western lore we are after and we get that here in spades (aces and eights). It’s my favorite Hill Western and this and the 2010 True Grit mark Jeff Bridges out as one of the great modern Western actors. Go for it!