The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

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
was his last. They were all very good.

Walter Hill
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

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

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

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!

6 Responses

  1. Walter Hill may be the best living director of westerns. The Long Riders and Broken Trail are great, and Geronimo is generally underrated. But I have to admit that I find Wild Bill mostly unwatchable, even with Jeff Bridges in the title role. Maybe I should give it another try.

    1. Yes, he has a good record.
      Wild Bill has its faults, especially the rather silly plot, but all in all it's an enjoyable Western, I think.

  2. I'm with you on this one, Jeff, and I agree that the the other Jeff, the one whose Dad was in High Noon, is one of the great western actors. I thought the remake (revisiting?) of True Grit was a trifle superfluous, but that Bridges fella is superb in the Duke Wayne part.

    1. I'm kinda surprised that nothing I've read about WILD BILL mentions that Jeff Bridges was portraying a figure his dad had played in "Wild Bill Hickok – The Legend and the Man," an episode of the historical anthology series, THE GREAT ADVENTURE,in 1964. That episode also portrayed the last days of Hickok's life, and Lloyd, like his son, looked very much like the actual historical figure.

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