Wild Bill (1995 film)
Original film poster
|Directed by||Walter Hill|
|Produced by||Richard D. Zanuck|
Lili Fini Zanuck
|Written by||Walter Hill|
by Pete Dexter
Fathers and Sons
by Thomas Babe
|Music by||Van Dyke Parks|
|Cinematography||Lloyd Ahern II|
|Edited by||Freeman A. Davies|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
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.
In a flashback, Bill and his friend California Joe come upon an Indian burial structure with a lone warrior. Joe, who speaks the language, says that the warrior wishes to kill Bill for killing his father and wife. Despite Joe's warning that killing Indians is bad luck, Bill kills the warrior.
The ensuing scenes show Bill killing five men in a saloon after one knocks off his hat; as Marshal he then kills several soldiers after one crushes his hat at the bar. Ultimately he's seen breaking up a riot by killing its leader and inadvertently shooting his own deputy. He then retires from the law and works as an actor in a Wild West show. Years later he sees a doctor who diagnoses him with glaucoma.
Eventually winding up in Cheyenne, an old rival, Will Plummer (Bruce Dern) whom Bill crippled calls him out. To "even the odds," Bill has some men tie him to a chair and carry him into the street. After an exchange, he kills Plummer. Bill and Charley travel to Deadwood, where he is greeted with fanfare. He reunites with Calamity Jane and they go into a saloon. There, a young drifter named Jack McCall (David Arquette) claims he intends to kill Bill. Bill's entourage berate him and throw him into the street. Joe then begins telling an exaggerated tale of how Bill killed several men; Bill grows upset, leaves the saloon and goes to a Chinese opium den.
After smoking, Bill has a dream about a time he and Joe were threatened by Indians for killing Buffalo, which disturbs him. A woman who works at the den tells a whore that knows Jack, Luline (Christina Applegate), that Bill was there, and she tells Jack. Meanwhile, Bill and Jane share a bath, and argue because Bill will not explain his distant and unusual behavior.
The next day a mob brings Jack to Bill; Jack tells Bill that he aims to kill him because Bill mistreated his mother, Suzanne. Despite Charley trying to apologize for Bill and the mob harassing him, Jack does not relent. That night, some men approach Jack and offer to help him kill Bill. He agrees to employ them but admits he has no plan yet. Bill goes back to the den and reminisces about the night he met Suzanne. It is revealed that he left town for 6 months and she married another man, who took his pocket watch. The man draws on Bill and Bill kills him; Suzanne is distraught and a young Jack witnesses the killing.
While incapacitated by the opium, Jack sneaks up on Bill to shoot him, but the den owner attacks Jack and takes him away. Jack and his posse agree on a new plan as Bill recuperates in the opium den, bemoaning his bad luck. That night, he returns to the saloon, which is empty because a gold vein was discovered nearby and everyone left. He and Jane reminisce on their affair and begin having sex. Jack and his posse enter the saloon and apprehend Jane, Bill, Joe and Charley. Jack delays killing Bill because he isn't sure how he wants to do it.
Bill has one final remembrance of visiting Suzanne in a mental hospital who, despite his apologies, refuses his help. Jack offers to let Bill kill himself and hands him a loaded gun; he tricks Bill and hands him an empty gun knowing that Bill will try to kill him. Regardless, Jack claims he has already killed Bill "in his heart," and the posse leave. Jane goes upstairs to retrieve Bill's guns; Bill catches the posse in a barn readying their horses and kills everyone but Jack. He tells Jack he is sparing him out of respect for his mother. Jack asks if he can have one last drink before leaving town, and they return to the saloon.
In the bar, Joe resumes telling stories of Bill's antics. Jack pulls a hidden gun from his sleeve, gathers his nerve and shoots Bill in the back of the head. Back at his funeral, Charley says the whole town attended the funeral, and he was honored to be Bill's friend.
- Jeff Bridges as James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok
- Ellen Barkin as Martha Jane "Calamity Jane" Cannary
- John Hurt as Charley Prince
- Diane Lane as Susannah Moore
- Keith Carradine as William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody
- David Arquette as Jack McCall
- Christina Applegate as Lurline Newcomb
- Bruce Dern as Will Plummer
- James Gammon as California Joe Milner
- Marjoe Gortner as Preacher
- James Remar as Donnie Lonigan
- Steve Reevis as Sioux Chief
- Pato Hoffmann as Cheyenne Leader
- Dennis Hayden as Phil Coe
- Peter Jason as Dave McCandless
- Lee de Broux as Carl Mann
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 nature of Jack McCall, whom he turned into Hickok's illegitimate son. Babe's play was seen in Los Angeles in 1980 by Walter Hill, who had been considering a film on Hickok. 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." Dexter wrote a script based on his novel which was sent to Barry Levinson and Sydney Pollack before going to Hill.
"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."
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.
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."
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."
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."
The film received a 42% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 24 reviews; the average rating is 5.2/10. 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." 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. 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".
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."
- 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.
- 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.
- "Interview with Walter Hill Chapter 4" Directors Guild of America accessed 12 July 2014
- "Wild Bill". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2019-09-22.
- Ebert, Roger (1995-12-01). "Wild Bill." Film review. RogerEbert.com. Retrieved 2015-01-22.
- Fretts, Bruce (1995-12-08). "Wild Bill Review." Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved online from EW.com 2015-01-22.
- "Wild Bill." Film review (1994-12-31). Variety. Retrieved online from Variety.com 2015-01-22.
- John Ritter opposes TV reunion Portman, Jamie. The Spectator 13 Mar 1997: C6.