Wild Bill

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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Wild Bill
Video Premiere: Wild Bill & the Lost Knobs
Video Premiere: Wild Bill & the Lost Knobs
Romance escapes lovable goofball on ‘She Don’t Say No’

Kevin Curtin, July 28, 2014

Christmas in July – Tonight!
Christmas in July – Tonight!
Wild Bill revs his ‘Honky-Tonk Holidaze’ at Antone’s

Chase Hoffberger, July 10, 2013

More Wild Bill
Sad, Bad Santa
Sad, Bad Santa
Wild Bill has himself a musical

Chase Hoffberger, Dec. 13, 2013

Austin's version of 'Bad Santa' at a bar near you

Kevin Curtin, Dec. 7, 2012

More Walter Hill
AFF Brings Walter Hill for <i>The Warriors</i> and Then Some
AFF Brings Walter Hill for The Warriors and Then Some
Writer/director comes out to play

Richard Whittaker, Oct. 20, 2017

More Walter Hill Films
Bullet to the Head
Sylvester Stallone is back – the action is loud and pulpy, the quips are ever-ready, and the cycle is unbroken.

Louis Black, Feb. 1, 2013

The Warriors
Walter Hill's visually riveting tale about gangland warfare in New York City unfolds like a violent, comic-book Western. Gang colors, desolate streets and subway platforms, ...

Marjorie Baumgarten, Jan. 31, 2002

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
Echo in the Canyon
History of the Laurel Canyon folk-rock scene gets lost in its own winding paths

June 21, 2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
A gentle, poetic look at gentrification that shimmers with the winds of history

June 14, 2019


Wild Bill, Walter Hill, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, David Arquette, Bruce Dern

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle