There’s significantly less Wild Bill Hickok in Walter Hill’s Wild Bill than one might think. While the eponymous Old West lawman is a constant presence throughout the film, Hill opts instead to examine Hickok more as a force of nature than as a character. As such, much of the film is devoted to exploring the people around the legendary gunman. There’s Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin), his on-again, off-again sweetheart who hates her selfless love for him as much as she despises his willfully self-destructive behavior. There’s Charley Prince (John Hurt), a British dandy turned Man of the West who brings a pinch of class and etiquette to every barroom and whorehouse he visits. There’s Buffalo Bill (Keith Carradine), that great mythologizer of the Old West who turns Hickok into a gussied-up circus animal for crowded theaters back East. And there’s Jack McCall (David Arquette), the tortured young man who on August 2, 1876 shot Hickok in the back while playing poker in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.
Some of these characters were real, some were invented. Some were twisted into creatures so different from their historical counterparts that all they share are names. But all these people labor under the burden of being more interesting and developed than Hickok (Jeff Bridges) in this misguided, overly ambitious train-wreck, one of the more baffling Blu-ray releases from the Twilight Time label. The film was poorly conceived, poorly made, and poorly received. I can think of at least a dozen post-Unforgiven 90s Westerns more deserving of a pampered rerelease than this one.
The main problem in Wild Bill is that it seeks—and fails—to balance New Hollywood introspection with B-movie theatrics and action. It takes a non-chronological look at Hickok’s later life, long after he’d made a name for himself as one of the fastest draws in the West. This is a Hickok burdened by a life of fast, violent living, perpetually burned out and hung-over. The film begins with a series of shoot-outs, killings, and barroom fights that establish him as emotionally tortured before prolonged bouts of sulking and brooding. The story is interspersed with truly bizarre flashback sequences shot in black-in-white that look like they were filmed with hand-held Super-8 cameras. I suppose their point was to depict how fragmented and traumatizing Hickok’s past was, particularly a chance meeting with a band of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers in the middle of a snow-covered forest, but they end up feeling like mid-90s music videos.
The film banks most of its ambitions on the relationship between Hickok and McCall, depicted here as a cowardly youth desperate to revenge himself upon Hickok for seducing, loving, and then abandoning his mother. McCall’s mother and personal vendetta were original inventions for the film—in real life he shot Hickok on the spur-of-the-moment after thinking he had insulted him for losing at cards. Hill attempts to portray Hickok and McCall as parts of a symbiotic relationship of mutual self-loathing, a relationship that would only be properly captured in the context of the Western genre with Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Here, it seems like Hickok is too stupid to see the vengeful McCall as a threat or too suicidal to care. The latter view might work if Hickok were shown to be suicidally conflicted. But Hill keeps Bridges’ Hickok too much of an enigma for us to explore his psyche. What a waste of a great legend like Hickok; what a waste of a great actor like Bridges.