fifteen years before he played rooster cogburn in truegrit legacy, jeff bridges played lawman wild bill hickock in walter hill’s wild bill. but this was pre-lebowski/iron man time. though they cost about the same to make, and since it was released by ua/mgm, it made about 85 times less than truegrit legacy.
based on a book AND a play, wild bill is more of a biopic than a straight western. the main narrative focuses on the last days of wild bill hickock in the town of deadwood, which is probably not a good name for a town in the wild west, or any time or place. throughout the film we see flashbacks, in black and white, of his earlier life. the film opens with his funeral where we see his friend, our narrator, played by john hurt (love and death on long island, heaven’s gate, frankenstein unbound). ellen barkin (johnny handsome, sea of love, she hates me) is there too, who’s character is later revealed to be calamity jane. david arquette (the scream movies, see spot run: the movie) is also in town, as jack mccall, someone who intends on killing the famous wild bill hickock for personal reasons.
the first act, while repetitive, is nevertheless pretty fun. these scenes follow pretty much the same structures: something not quite legit happen, wild bill shows up, says something badass, bad guys disobey, wild bill shots everybody. the reasons range from someone touching his hat to a mob creating ruckus by firing their guns into the air. i don’t know if they have ruckus back then, but these scenes show the righteousness and good shootin’ skills of young bill. he’s kinda like a lawman/security guard. and to show that he’s fair and balanced, he even have someone tie him to a chair when he has to have a duel with a dude in a wheelchair, played by bruce dern (the driver, last man standing, the burbs).
by the time he gets to the town of deadwood, wild bill is not who he used to be. sure, he’s still a righteous dude and a good shooter, but he seems tired and ready for retirement. the glaucoma probably didn’t help either. since this was the days before medical marijuana, wild bill starts using opium in the chinatown area of deadwood. in return, we get more black and white flashbacks. this is the part of the movie where it gets kind of boring and starts to set up the plot of the current timeline, when i realized the flashbacks doesn’t necessarily add or develop anything. the film finally gets a bit tedious and implausible in the third act dealing with the inevitable death of wild bill.
though i don’t think walter hill is interested in doing a traditional biopic of wild bill. it’s also not the action western that i was expecting either. maybe that’s last man standing, hill’s next movie. the wild bill in this movie, drug addicted and over the hill but nevertheless righteous, is similar to the coen brothers’ rooster cogburn, minus the humor and the heroics.
and this is the most interesting part of the movie for me. i think it kind of works as a post-modern/revisionist western meditation on the macho heroic archetype that’s common in a lot of westerns/action movies. the parts we don’t see often in manly movies. the golden age of the action hero. like rock stars or celebrities, we see a regretful wild bill trying to live up to his fame and reputation, at the same time dealing with his famous past. he even picked a younger woman as opposed to a more suitable admirer and friend like calamity jane (who’s almost as embrassing for ellen barkin as her character in ocean’s thirteen, but at least this takes place in the 1800s). it’s no coincidence that the main time frame of the movie is the gold rush era, a turning point when materialism trumps ideals, morals, and justice. the arquette character even hire bandits to aid him in a failed plan to kill wild bill. it signaled the end of an era. though the same theme has been done in various action/mafia/spy/triad movies, it’s not one i’ve personally seen in a western. too bad the film has to get back to its plot in the climax.
it doesn’t matter to me one way or another, but according to wikipedia, the film is apparently not historically accurate.