Wild Bill (1995 film)

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Wild Bill
Wild Bill (film poster).jpg
Original film poster
Directed byWalter Hill
Produced byRichard D. Zanuck
Lili Fini Zanuck
Written byWalter Hill
Based onDeadwood
by Pete Dexter
Fathers and Sons
by Thomas Babe
Narrated byJohn Hurt
Music byVan Dyke Parks
CinematographyLloyd Ahern II
Edited byFreeman A. Davies
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • December 1, 1995 (1995-12-01)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$30 million[1]
Box office$2,193,982

Wild Bill is a 1995 Western film about the last days of legendary lawman Wild Bill Hickok. It stars Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt and Diane Lane. The film was distributed by United Artists. It was written and directed by Walter Hill, with writing credits also going to Pete Dexter, author of the book Deadwood, and Thomas Babe, author of the play Fathers and Sons.


A well-known lawman and scout of the 19th Century's western frontier, Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Bridges) has drifted to Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Jack McCall (David Arquette) is a young man whose mother and family have been slighted by Bill in the past, and is out for revenge.

Troubled by his on-again, off-again relationship with a woman called Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin), haunted by the ghosts of his past, and struggling with failing eyesight, Wild Bill faces with grave concern the arrival of this dangerous newcomer to town.




The script was based on several sources. One of them was the play Fathers and Sons which had been on Broadway in 1978, directed by Joseph Papp. It was written by Thomas Babe, and focused on Hickok's last days in Deadwood, placing the action in the saloon where he was killed. Babe says he entirely made up the character of McCall, who he turned into Hickok's illegitimate son.[2] Babe's play was seen in Los Angeles in 1980 by Walter Hill, who had been considering a film on Hickok.[2] Hill optioned the play along with a screenplay about Hickok by Ned Wynn.

Meanwhile, the team of Richard and Lili Zanuck had optioned a 1986 novel about Hickok called Deadwood. They had hired the author to write the script for the movie Rush. The Zanucks said they were interested in the project because it explored the nature of celebrity in a Western context. "Figures like Wild Bill were like rock stars," said Lili Zanuck. "They had sex appeal."[2] Dexter wrote a script based on his novel which was sent to Barry Levinson and Sydney Pollack before going to Hill.[2]

"He's a gutsy director," Zanuck said about Hill. "He's kind of a male-oriented director, and he has great knowledge of the West and all of the folklore and all of the heroes."[1]

Hill wrote a script based on the play, the novel, and Ned Wynn's screenplay. Hill says he took details of the town from the novel but the relationship between McCall and Hickok was mostly from the play. Hill took material from Dexter's novel for the atmosphere of the town and relied on Babe's play heavily for the third act, the last hours of Hickok.[2]

Hill said the script was based on "character rather than incident. Because I think it's not so much the fights, it's his personality, his sense of humor about himself. He seemed to understand his own legend. He both fueled it and was a prisoner of it, that it was his raison d'etre, and at the same time he felt himself very constrained by it."[1]

The Zanucks and Walter Hill took the script to John Calley, president of United Artists, and the film was green-lighted at the end of January 1995. Jeff Bridges and Ellen Barkin signed to star.[1]

Westerns revived in popularity in the early 90s with Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven. However some other Westerns had been box office disappointments including Wyatt Earp and Hill's own Geronimo. Producer Richard Zanuck said, "If you make a good picture and have a compelling story to tell, it's going to work. I don't believe that any genre dies. It just has to be fed with good product."[1]


Hill said that Jeff Bridges was "an actor I greatly love... a very nice man, decent, hard working, got along well, no problems" but that there "was always a kind of tension between Jeff and myself" because "Jeff does a lot of takes, I don't. My focus is very intense, but when it gets to be you just doing it again and again I lose it and I find an awful lot of performers go stale. He would always have an idea he thought he could make something better."[3]



The film received mixed reviews, with a 39% rating on Rotten Tomatoes[4] and a 5.9 on the Internet Movie Database.[5] Roger Ebert gave the film two stars out of four, criticizing its pacing and plot. He recognized the film's ambition, aiming for "elegy" and "poetry" in its final act, but ultimately described it as flawed, writing, "We can see where it's headed, although it doesn't get there."[6] In a positive review, Bruce Fretts of Entertainment Weekly wrote that the movie "succeeds as a character study of a man whose idiosyncratic code of justice eventually catches up with him", and complimented Jeff Bridges' acting as vital to the film's success.[7] Variety, while also praising Jeff Bridges' performance, took a critical stance, observing that the film "comes to a near dead-stop in the final stretch".[8]

Box office[edit]

Wild Bill bombed at the box office. Produced on a budget of $30 million, it took in just over $2 million in the United States alone.

Hill was unhappy with the way the film was released. "I believe in the old adage that when you see the trailer for your movie and it's very different from the movie you've actually made, then you can assume the studio wanted something else," Hill said. However he did add that "I don't think any other company would have made this film, so I'm very indebted to them for letting me do it."[9]


  1. ^ a b c d e Lacher, Irene (3 Jan 1995). "Walter Hill Rides Again `Wild Bill,' the action director's latest effort, breaks out of saloon territory to explore the fields of moral ambiguity". Los Angeles Times. p. 1.
  2. ^ a b c d e Diamond, Jamie (26 Nov 1995). "The 'Wild Bill' of History, Here Mostly Made Up: The 'Wild Bill' of History, Here Made Up Waiter Hill's script told of the last days of the visually impaired, opium-addicted gunslinger Bill Hickok". New York Times. p. H13.
  3. ^ "Interview with Walter Hill Chapter 4" Directors Guild of America accessed 12 July 2014
  4. ^ http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/wild_bill/
  5. ^ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114938/
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger (1995-12-01). "Wild Bill." Film review. RogerEbert.com. Retrieved 2015-01-22.
  7. ^ Fretts, Bruce (1995-12-08). "Wild Bill Review." Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved online from EW.com 2015-01-22.
  8. ^ "Wild Bill." Film review (1994-12-31). Variety. Retrieved online from Variety.com 2015-01-22.
  9. ^ John Ritter opposes TV reunion Portman, Jamie. The Spectator 13 Mar 1997: C6.

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