“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” is an
often-quoted line from John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” And if director
Walter Hill had stuck to that idea, his “Wild Bill” (1995) would be a great
movie, instead of a near miss. Unfortunately, he mixed legend with pure hogwash
and the result is a confusing hodgepodge of scenes connected only by the fact
that James Butler Hickok (Jeff Bridges) hated it when somebody messed with his
You know a director intends to make a “serious” western
when he starts the film out by showing the central character’s funeral. “Wild
Bill” begins not only with a funeral, but a funeral shot in high-contrast,
grainy black and white. In fact the film keeps switching from color to black
and white for numerous flash back scenes, depicting “events” from Bill’s early
life, some of which are complete fiction.
Attending the funeral are his on-again-off-again
sweetheart Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin) and Charlie Prince (John Hurt), an
Englishman who has drifted out West for the excitement. Prince narrates the
story. The first act of “Wild Bill” is the most interesting section of the
film—a series of famous episodes from Hickok’s life shown very briefly in quick
tableau. We see Bill shoot it out with half a dozen buffalo hunters intent on
robbing him of his hides. The fight is triggered when he steps up to the bar
and one of them lifts the hat off his head. He turns and smashes him with the
back of his hand and next thing you know, guns are blazing. When it’s over and
the buffalo hunters are all dead Bill goes back to the bar and says: “They need
to understand. You never touch a man’s hat.”
Another scene depicts the famous incident in Abilene, Kansas
when Hickok as sheriff tried to stop roundup revelers from tearing up the town
and accidentally killed his own deputy. (For a nice treatment of that true
incident check out the half-hour “Gunsmoke” episode called “The Roundup,” with
Matt Dillon killing an old friend who had substituted for an ailing Chester). Another
scene shows Hickok giving an embarrassing performance in Buffalo Bill Cody’s
(Keith Carradine) Wild West show.
Problems with the story really start soon after Hickok
arrives in Deadwood Gulch, Dakota Territory, where, as we all know, it’s just a
matter of time before he stares down at those aces and eights (the Dead Man’s Hand),
and gets shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall. In Deadwood he’s reunited
with his old flame Calamity, Charlie Prince and an old traveling companion named
California Joe (James Gammon). The reunion with Calamity is a sad one, however.
Bill no longer has any interest in rekindling the flame. In another flashback
we learn he is going blind from glaucoma that was probably caused by syphilis. Their
relationship is a portrait of sadness, anger and frustration.
Hill’s screenplay is based on Pete Dexter’s “Deadwood”
(the basis of the HBO series) and “Fathers and Sons,” a play by Thomas Babe. Where
it goes wrong is in the fabrication that Jack McCall (David Arquette) was the
son of a woman named Susannah Moore (Diane Ladd), whom Hickok had loved and abandoned.
McCall wants to kill Hickok out of revenge for his cold-hearted treatment of
his mother. There are more flashback scenes showing what happened between Bill
and Susannah, but none of it ever happened in real life. It makes for
interesting, if sentimental, drama but it’s unnecessary and only muddles the
story. The fact is that McCall was just a tinhorn drunk who had lost all his money
to Wild Bill in a poker game and was humiliated when Bill took pity on him and
gave him some money to get something to eat. The next day he came back in the
saloon in a drunken rage, called him a name and shot him from behind. McCall,
in one of two trials that were held on the case tried to argue that Wild Bill
had killed his younger brother, but the truth of that allegation was never
Hill’s version of the story is partly ruined by Arquette’s odd performance, playing McCall as some kind of oddball with a mother fixation—a man who lacks the skill or courage to take on someone like Hickok. There are scenes that border on theater of the absurd. When Bill offers to shoot himself in the head. McCall takes all the bullets out except one and hands him the gun. Bill turns the gun back on him and pulls the trigger. Guess what? No bullets. Still McCall can’t bring himself to shoot Hickok and a gang of killers McCall had hired to back him up simply walk out. But of course, one of them can’t resist taking a swipe with this hand at Bill’s hat on his way out, which prompts him to arm himself and follow them out to the livery stable. Afterward, another chance to use the “never touch another man’s hat” line.
It’s an eccentric film, and it’s probably its eccentricity that make “Wild Bill,” a fascinating, if frustrating, movie to watch. Bridges is good in this the first of his droll western character portrayals, followed by Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” (2010) and Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton in “Hell or High Water” (2016) He adds a nice comic touch to some of the scenes. When a girl runs into a saloon and tells him a man is calling him out in the street for being a horse molester, Bridges pulls out his Colt and says, “Did he say what horse?”
Hill, a disciple of Sam Peckinpah, has the same respect for legendary, larger than life characters that Bloody Sam had, but his artistic pretensions this time around only served to undermine the film as a whole. The continual shift from color to black and white, the invention of characters and incidents that never happened, and turning Jack McCall into a screwed up kid with an Oedipus complex, changed the story into an artsy revenge tale rather than a monument to one of the great legends of the west.
Twilight Time’s 1080p Blue-ray presentation of “Wild Bill,” is first rate. The 5.1 Dolby soundtrack is exceptional with a lot of detail, allowing significant contrast between the explosive gun fire and Van Dyke Parks subtle music score, featuring lots of banjos, fiddles, and Jew’s harps. The only extras on the disc are an isolated music soundtrack, and the original trailer. Julie Kirgo provides an informative essay included on a booklet that accompanies the disc. “Wild Bill” is a limited edition release, with only 3,000 copies made. If you’re a fan of westerns it’s a curiosity worth seeing.