WILD BILL is a biographical movie about the life of Wild Bill
Hickok. Amazingly, no one dies in the movie. Well, zillions of people
are shot and forever stop talking, but death involves pain on the part
of the victim and a feeling of emotion by the killer or at least by the
bystanders so whatever it was, it could not have been death.
Perhaps, WILD BILL is famous writer and director Walter Hill's
homage to the grade B Westerns that I saw as a kid. On the other hand,
the pretentious cinematography (Lloyd Ahern) and music (Van Dyke Parks)
of this picture is full of great portents leaving little doubt that the
movie has some significant meaning. What, I still have no idea.
WILD BILL starts in the Nebraska Territory in 1867. In the first
scene, Wild Bill (Jeff Bridges) single-handedly kills four armed men
mainly because one of them messed with his hat. Throughout the show,
many people are killed for touching his hat. Wild Bill stays in most
of the famous gun slinging towns of the Old West from Abilene to
Deadwood, and he usually becomes the sheriff. Being the law, has no
effect on his own lawlessness, and he kills everything that moves if it
offends him. He even accidentally kills his own deputy, again showing
no remorse. His motto seems to be: if it moves, shoot it.
The first act of the show is a live version of the mayhem of a
Hieronymus Bosch triptych. Constant action; constant killing. People
shooting at the feet of prostitutes to make them dance and people's
ears being shot off to make a point. Check your brains at the door
because Bill can annihilate up to six people at once even if they all
have their guns at the ready. You don't want to attempt to analyze the
likelihood of any of the scenes.
In the second act, we have a lot of melancholy looks between Wild
Bill and his semi-girlfriend Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin). We even
have them making love to a loud rendition of The Battle Hymn of the
Republic on a player piano. But, we are told that "a man of action,
Bill found romance perplexing."
In the tragic final act leading up to the aces and eights
confrontation with Jack McCall (David Arquette), there is the
foreboding of doom. Through out the show one of the best parts is the
narration by Charlie Prince (John Hurt). Hurt's acting is mediocre,
but his rich narration adds a lot of atmosphere. In case you care, we
learn that Wild Bill was an actor for many years, but "as a thespian,
he was by all reports terrible," which is okay since he was such a good
murderer he did not need another profession.
The script is the biggest problem with the show. WILD BILL is not
GANDHI, and Walter Hill should have lighted up some. Deadwood is
described thus, "Like the Old Testament, Deadwood had become a place of
prophesy and vision." A little humor would have helped. The
characters are interesting as caricature, but not as real people.
There is no one in the show that the audience cares whether they live
or die. Only Ellen Barkin attempts to breath a little life into her
character. Jeff Bridges, a notorious overactor, is restrained,
interesting, but unreal in WILD BILL. Diane Lane is abysmal as
McCall's mother Susannah, and David Arquette gives a lifeless version
There actually is more good to the show than the narration. The
sets (Joseph Nemec) of the muddy streets, the claustrophobic small
rooms, and the large birdcage style jail are effective in illustrating
the misery of the period. The cinematography is imaginative although
sometimes too pedantic and certainly too repetitive. The rust colored
exteriors and the scary nighttime interiors are good in conveying the
image of importance to the show. The scene transitions are done with
white like the white flash of a gun. All flashbacks are in grainy and
overexposed black and white footage. At first, this worked quite well,
but after a while the images are shown on shifting diagonals, and the
overexposure increases until the images are almost invisible.
The editor (Freeman Davies) loses all control. There is an
incomprehensible black and white opium induced dream flash back that
goes on forever. If you need to go to the restroom, do it during this
scene and take your time. Perhaps you want to visit the snackbar as
well and get a popcorn refill. You will miss nothing, and the scene
will still be going when you return.
WILD BILL runs too long at 1:38, but for some reason the movie is
intriguing, and I never wanted to leave. We saw it on opening night at
a totally empty theater so it does not seem destined to be a
blockbuster. It is rated R for massive killings, general violence, and
sex, but no real nudity. I do not recommend the show to anyone, but it
would be okay for most teenagers since the violence is more cartoonish
than gory. I award the movie a single * for no reason other than it
kept my attention, and I did not totally hate it.
Copyright © 1995 Steve Rhodes