Movie Monday: Wild Bill (1995)


I’ve always been fascinated by the way history becomes mythology, and what better time and place to study that than the Old West? After all, this is the age of people who were simultaneously real gun-toting frontier characters and self-promoting hucksters who traded on their fame as gun-toting frontier characters, people like Buffalo Bill Cody and, of course, Wild Bill Hickok. So is Wild Bill going to tell us anything we don’t know about the complex nature of these old-timey characters?

It ain’t.

Three things struck me about this film, so let’s take them in order.

1) This movie is a mess. The second half of it has a plot — David Arquette plays the son of a woman Bill (Jeff Bridges) loved and left; convinced that Bill mistreated his mother, he comes gunning for him despite not being much of a gunfighter. But this plot is barely present in the first half of the movie. Instead, we get a whole bunch of scenes supposedly illustrative of Hickok’s character (“liked shooting people, enjoys a drink” is the gist of it) narrated by his pal Charlie (John Hurt). Some of them are in black and white and some are not … because …

Ellen Barkin is Calamity Jane, and she loves Bill, I guess? But, again, she’s not really in the first bit. Also, Bruce Dern, Keith Carradine and James Remar show up in bit parts. Mostly we just get to see Bill stomp around shooting people and making old-timey pronouncements until it suddenly becomes a stage play about fathers and sons. It’s like this story with Calamity Jane and David Arquette got rivetted to the back of this other movie that was Celebrated Incidents in the Life of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok or something.

Also, Hickok was only 39 when he died, which is actually kind of a sobering thought.

2) There is no escaping the shadow of a man’s self-aggrandizement. Or others’ aggrandizement of him. James Butler Hickok was a sort of all-purpose rogue and heavy who wound up shooting some people in various conflicts of dubious justification until himself being shot in such a situation. He’s famous mainly because impressionable Eastern journalists wrote a load of stuff about him and because anyone who wound up in Buffalo Bill Cody’s orbit got a little bit of showbiz glamour from it (although the euphonious Texas Jack Omohundro should be better known — he had an adopted son named Texas Jack Jr. That’s an amazing name).

3) I may not have been very impressed with this film, and audiences at the time certainly don’t seem to have been, but you know who was? Joel and Ethan Coen, or so it seems. I’m not saying that this is a movie where Jeff Bridges plays a grumpy, cussed old west marshal. I’m saying that this is a movie where Jeff Bridges plays a grumpy, cussed old west marshal that ends with a rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Is that a hell of a coincidence or am I missing something?

Unfortunately, it’s like whatsisname’s law, only with a time machine — just like Overdrawn at the Memory Bank shouldn’t keep reminding people that Casablanca exists, Wild Bill suffers from the existence of True Grit, even though it came 15 years later.

I always thought it was Hickock, but he spelled it Hickok except when he called himself Haycock or Hitchcock. Names in the past are just a whole different thing.

Movie Monday: Wild Bill (1995)