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Wild Bill

Starring Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Ellen Barkin
Directed by Walter Hill

I'll be honest. Pretty much as a rule, Cranky dislikes movies that are told in flashback, even if the ending is a known fact. We all know that Custer is going to get it at Little Big Horn but half the fun is seeing it coming.

Wild Bill is the story of the last days of James Butler Hickock (Jeff Bridges), a living legend of the Old West. Friend to Buffalo Bill Cody, alleged lover to Martha Jane Canarray (aka Calamity Jane), "Wild Bill" Hickock was lionized in the press of his day. His exploits were expanded upon in cheap "dime novels". His reputation as the fastest gun in the West brought every two bit Tom Dick and gunslinging Harry after him, seeking to be the man who gunned him down.

There are so many stories, the facts are shrouded in the mists of time. What is for sure is that Hickock met his end in Deadwood Gulch, South Dakota, shot in the back.

The story fascinated producers Lili and Richard Zanuck, who optioned Pete Dexter's book Deadwood. Director/Writer Walter Hill (The Long Riders, 48 Hrs. I and II; screenplay credit on The Fugitive, and Aliens among other credits) wrote his own script independently, and when the Zanucks approached him to direct Deadwood, those two pieces, and a stage play called "Fathers and Sons" by Thomas Babe were combined to make Wild Bill.

Anything could have been made of the legend. Logical holes in the story have been filled. A love affair with Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin) was affirmed. A reason for Hickock's murder was created. And the ultimate result is an unsatisfying, emotionally distant film.

Where does it fail? It is not in the performance of Jeff Bridges, who does look remarkably like the pictures of Hickock that I've seen. That he is an expert and incredibly fast gunman who still has quirks and emotional depth is presented well. At the Internet site Hill describes Hickock: "He liked a good fight, and he liked to laugh. Lived hard, died young...the kind of guy you make a movie about." But there is no *passion* to the performance. Sequences flash back and forth, present to past to far past to near past. Opium dreams are interlaced with the flashbacks, and the film plods along to the inevitable conclusion.

Comments from the audience: "Another failed Art film."

I just report what I see and hear. Being based in New York, where all the first run films play, I am more than aware that there are certain first run theaters that are higher up the food chain (sic) than others. It is a telling sign that the studio does not support a release when it is put into the local second string, first run theater. Which is where Wild Bill wound up.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for Wild Bill, he would have paid . . .


At the time when all the Oscar wannabe big guns are going up, someone in StudioLand probably suspected that Wild Bill would get squashed. Which is unfortunate. The acting is fine. The story is clear. But the audience doesn't connect to the characters and that is a major failing.

Click to buy films by Walter Hill
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