Most of us know very little about the history of the American West. The realities of the westward expansion that started in the nineteenth century were overwhelmed by the fantasies from the very beginning. Looking to extend its reach across the continent, the US government encouraged settlers to make the trek with promises of fabulous wealth and unbounded freedom. Pulp novelists spun tall tales about heroic cowboys and bloodthirsty Indians. Later on movies took it even further by recreating these stories on a grand scale. Popular stars rode their horses across the screen, their epic battles for justice set against spectacular landscapes. The truth was overwhlemed by the myth.
Walter Hill’s Wild Bill is about the way myth and reality can become hopelessly tangled. Taking as his subject the soldier, sheriff, gambler, gunfighter James Butler Hickok, Hill shows us a man who can no longer separate himself from his legend. The film starts with Bill’s funeral, then takes us back to his arrival in the wild frontier town of Deadwood, and we follow him through his last few days on earth. Bill is a man adrift, passing the time by drinking and playing cards, haunted by his past, wondering where his life went wrong.
The film is a deliberate mix of fact and fiction. Hill based his script on Pete Dexter’s book Deadwood and Thomas Babe’s play Fathers and Sons. In recreating Bill’s past, the film relies on real accounts of the gunfighter’s life, showing us how he earned his reputation. But the story of the callow young man who haunts Bill’s final days is fiction. Jack McCall is an awkward, angry youth who announces to the world that he’s going to kill the famous gunfighter. No one takes him seriously. In spite of his bravado, it’s clear that he’s troubled and confused. Jack is angry not just because Bill seduced his mother, but also because he promised to be a father, and then abandoned both mother and son. The story has no basis in fact, but by framing it this way Hill takes us into the realm of primal poetry. The film becomes more than just a study of the distance between truth and fiction. It’s also about the distance between fathers and sons.
Bill’s whole life has been defined by violence. A soldier in the Civil War. A hunter fighting for his life on the plains. A lawman with a reputation as a crack shot. He’s survived in a violent world because he’s better at killing than his enemies. But after accidentally killing his own deputy in Abilene, he loses his sense of direction. He drifts from town to town, downing whisky and playing cards. Everywhere he goes, his reputation precedes him. He’s revered as a hero and reviled as a murderer. Bill goes on playing the part of the legendary gunslinger, but more and more he seems to be wondering why.
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Jeff Bridges playing the role. Bridges has a presence that fills the screen, and he’s completely believable as a mythic figure, but he also has the skill to let us know what’s going on inside Bill’s head. He gives us a man who’s proud of his reputation and at the same time uncomfortable with it. A man who displays unflinching self-confidence and at the same time is filled with doubts. The cast in general is remarkable. John Hurt brings a world weary melancholy to the role of Charley Prince, Bill’s best friend. Ellen Barkin plays Calamity Jane with both toughness and tenderness. As Susannah Moore, the woman Bill loved and left behind, Diane Lane has a touching fragility. She knows he’s going to move on and tries to be strong, but inside she’s falling apart. As Jack, David Arquette is a tangle of conflicting emotions. It sometimes seems as though his repeated attempts to kill Bill are actually just his way of trying to get Bill’s attention. Even the small parts are well cast and well played. Karen Huie brings an interesting tension to her role as the proprietor of an opium den. Christina Applegate convincingly plays the hard as nails prostitute who finds herself drawn to the weak and indecisive Jack. And Pato Hoffman displays a fierce pride as the leader of a band of Cheyenne.
Visually the film is rich with shifting textures, moving seamlessly from past to present and back again. It’s easy to see why Hill has chosen to work with cinematographer Lloyd Aherne over and over again. Aherne seems less interested in capturing reality than in creating a visual landscape that grows out of the drama. The saloons are filled with rich, smoky color, Bill’s opium induced hallucinations are shot in stark black and white, and the frontier streets are often bleached into dusty sepia tones.
The score is by Van Dyke Parks, one of the great oddballs of American music. Parks has had a long, eccentric career, working with everyone from the Beach Boys to Grizzly Bear. Here he uses his considerable gifts as an arranger to weave together a tapestry of well worn traditionals, sometimes tapping into the raw vitality of the the Old West and at other times singing a lament for a time that may have only existed in our imagination. Paying close attention to mood and texture, Parks’ music complements the film’s shifting visual tone beautifully.
Wild Bill bombed at the box office and most critics wrote it off as a failure. This isn’t surprising. In fact, it’s happened over and over again to directors who stray from the standard formulas and try to do something unique. Since Wild Bill, Hill has continued to work, but he hasn’t attempted anything nearly as ambitious. Which is understandable. He put his heart and soul into this movie. Audiences and critics rejected it. Sometimes people ask why gifted filmmakers spend their time making routine thrillers. But what’s the point of knocking yourself out when you know you’ll probably get kicked in the teeth?