1995, R, 91 min. Directed by Walter Hill. Starring Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, David Arquette, Bruce Dern.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 1, 1995
Walter Hill presents his personalized take on the legend of Wild Bill Hickok in this new Western. Hill's speculations are hardly the problem here, however. Basic story structure is the more the problem with Wild Bill and for a director as seasoned as Hill (The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48 Hours, The Long Riders), such a jumble is inexcusable. The movie opens with Hickok's funeral and when Calamity Jane (Barkin) turns to Charley Prince (Hurt) and says that no one knew Bill better than he, we can see that we're in for trouble. Thus begins the convoluted string of flashbacks within flashbacks during which people who were not present recall specific events in Hickok's life and we quickly lose track of who's remembering what. What Hill would argue, I suspect, is that the snowball effect of the mythmaking machine is exactly what the film was trying to expose. Heroes cannot chose to become heroes, though individuals can be chosen by others to become heroes. Much was the plight of William Butler Hickok, argues Hill. He did not himself chose to become a legend; people deemed him one through their popular repetition of his deeds. Still, this narrative approach makes for a wildly and needlessly disorienting ride. Hill takes liberties with the Hickok history and I'm not well enough versed in my Western lore to get into discussions about whether or not Hickok was a syphilitic opium fiend or other such weighty matters. The most original shading in Wild Bill is given to Hickok's assassin Jack McCall. Hill has adapted ideas presented in the play Fathers and Sons by Thomas Babe and the novel Deadwood by Pete Dexter. While Hill doesn't go as far as these works and present McCall as the illegitimate son of Hickok, Hill's self-penned screenplay does present McCall as the frustrated son of one of Hickok's former lady loves. As Hickok, Bridges is terrific, conveying the dusty weariness of the Western hero, a man dead at the age of 39 but eternally youthful through the power of myth. It's also interesting to see Barkin cast as the plain Jane frontier legend Calamity Jane. Wild Bill is also a movie that stresses the unpaved muddiness of the frontier. It's a place where everyone has mud on their pants cuffs and skirt hems. Despite its authentic feel for things Western, Wild Bill misses the big picture.