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I still have the copy my parents gave me of Cecil B. DeMille's
autobiography and he does go into some detail about the research done
for his films. I'm wondering if Paramount decided to save money on the
research for this one.
The action of this film takes place from the end of the Civil War until Wild Bill Hickok is shot dead in Deadwood which was 1876. Now that's eleven years that if you took this film literally is compressed to about three months. I found that a wee bit too much to swallow.
But DeMille knew how to fill the screen with some slam bang entertainment. The battle with the Cheyenne Indians is exciting, almost an early version of 3-D. I'm suspecting a lot is lost by only seeing it on television.
Gary Cooper is at his laconic yup and nope best, Jean Arthur is a fine Calamity Jane. The rest of the cast does well also. One tragic note is that Helen Burgess who plays the bride of Buffalo Bill died shortly after completing this film at the age of 19. I think a wonderful career was cut short.
Good entertainment, but any resemblance to western history is purely coincidental.
There were not a lot of Westerns in the 1930s, at least not in the
A-budget bracket. So why would that canny marketeer and
bandwagon-hopper Cecil B. DeMille decide to make one in 1936? The
answer is simple. After the failure of his few dramas in the early
talkie period, he vowed to make only "big" pictures, and the Old West
was simply another historical arena for grand heroic exploits, just
like the crusades or the high seas.
This being DeMille, the idea seems to have been to do a kind of definitive take on the setting. Waldemar Young and Harold Lamb, DeMille's current hacks-du-jour, along with "Oklahoma" playwright Lynn Riggs have created a screenplay that is not so much a cliché-fest as a cosy, sanitised and highly anachronistic snapshot of Western mythology. So we get Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill and General Custer all cheerfully rubbing shoulders like an Old West version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and banding together against the common enemy (the injuns, of course). DeMille's penchant for historical accuracy may give the sets and costumes a look of authenticity, but does not extend as far as actually portraying Calamity as a drunken prostitute, and Hickok as a kind of 19th-century Lemmy from Motorhead.
The two leads may not look like their historical counterparts, but at least Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur have the rugged demeanour of frontierspeople. They are also good enough performers to do a decent job despite a lack of coaching from DeMille. But as is often the case, the most interesting players are the villains. Charles Bickford looks as if he was chiselled from the buttes of the plains themselves, and gives a performance comparable to Walter Huston's Trampas in the 1929 version of The Virginian. Victor Varconi, once a handsome lead man in the silents, now thanks to his accent and looks reduced to playing all manner of swarthy baddies, is compellingly menacing as Painted Horse. And finally a young Anthony Quinn makes a short but impressive appearance as a Cheyenne warrior, lending a degree of dignity to the natives that is woefully absent in the rest of the picture.
DeMille himself though does not appear to have "got" the genre. Despite the title, we don't really get to see those plains, and there is none of the romance of the outdoor lifestyle that makes classic Westerns what they are. But looking at DeMille's style you can see he is not a fan of empty spaces. Bigness for him means fullness. He really goes to town on the steamboat boarding scene, conjuring up an image of lively bustle with people moving across the frame in layers receding in depth. This is a very effective way of making a place look crowded without having to place the camera too far back or hire out every extra on the books. In other scenes, such as the one where the townspeople threaten to tar and feather Jean Arthur he uses extras to build walls around the action, filling every spare space with people. Even in simpler scenes there tends to be a degree of complexity to the shot, like a classical painting that tries to cram every aspect of an idea onto the canvas. And DeMille's images are often beautiful in a painterly way, but still the lack of "west" on display stops this from feeling like a Western.
Think of this then more as an adventure yarn than a horse opera. It may be silly as silly can be (my favourite daft moment is in the opening scene, when Abe Lincoln's wife bursts into a meeting to remind him he's going to be late for the theatre, followed by a doom-laden chord in the background score), but it is not bad as far as no-brainer entertainment goes. The action scenes are exciting and punchy, largely thanks to the dynamic editing of Anne Bauchens. This is by no means essential DeMille, and certainly not essential Cooper, but is good fun if you happen to catch it.
This Cecil B. DeMille epic of the old West contains what may be Jean Arthur's finest performance, as a hysterical, eccentric, incurably amoral, but devotedly doting Calamity Jane. She really pulled it off! Gary Cooper is at his most taciturn, but manages some occasional pithy sayings: 'The plains are big, but trails cross ... sometimes.' The story is a pastiche to end all pastiches. All the cowboy heroes of Western lore seem to be in there somehow except for Jesse James. Even Abraham Lincoln opens the story in person (or at least, DeMille would have us believe so). There is no room for anything so evanescent as subtlety, this is a 'stomp 'em in the face' tale for the masses. A remarkable thing about this film however is that it is a very early full frontal attack on what Eisenhower was eventually to name 'the military industrial complex'. It isn't just a story about gun-runners, but about arming anyone for money, and doing so from the heart of Washington. But let's not get into politics, let's leave that to DeMille, who can be guaranteed to be superficial. The chief interest of this film all these years later is that it uses the first film score composed by George Antheil, who has a lot to say about the job in his autobiography, 'Bad Boy of Music'. Antheil seems to have originated 'the big sound' adopted by all subsequent Westerns, whereby the plains sing out with the voices and sounds of countless cowboys in the sky, celebrating the open spaces and interweaving common melodies. That is why it does not sound at all unusual, because we have heard it a thousand times. But he seems to have been the first to summon up the combined rustlings of all the sage brush into this symphony of the open skies which has entered into American mythic lore, and given it a soundtrack which has never varied since then, corny as it may be, but doubtless appropriate. It is amusing to see Anthony Quinn in an early appearance as a Cheyenne Indian. Gabby Hayes is in there somewhere, but you miss him in the crowd. Gary Cooper overtops them all, looming large, - but when did he ever loom small?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Plainsman" represents the directorial prowess of Cecil B. DeMille
at its most inaccurate and un-factual. It sets up parallel plots for no
less stellar an entourage than Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper), Buffalo
Bill Cody (James Ellison), Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur), George
Armstrong Custer and Abraham Lincoln to interact, even though in
reality Lincoln was already dead at the time the story takes place.
Every once in a while DeMille floats dangerously close toward the
truth, but just as easily veers away from it into unabashed spectacle
and showmanship. The film is an attempt to buttress Custer's last stand
with a heap of fiction that is only loosely based on the lives of
people, who were already the product of manufactured stuffs and
legends. Truly, this is the world according to DeMille - a zeitgeist in
the annals of entertainment, but a pretty campy relic by today's
TRANSFER: Considering the vintage of the film, this is a moderately appealing transfer, with often clean whites and extremely solid blacks. There's a considerable amount of film grain in some scenes and an absence of it at other moments. All in all, the image quality is therefore somewhat inconsistent, but it is never all bad or all good just a bit better than middle of the road. Age related artifacts are kept to a minimum and digital anomalies do not distract. The audio is mono but nicely balanced.
EXTRAS: Forget it. It's Universal! BOTTOM LINE: As pseudo-history painted on celluloid, this western is compelling and fun. Just take its characters and story with a grain of salt in some cases a whole box seems more appropriate!
The Plainsman is an entertaining western, no doubt a classic, which is actual even today. Gary Cooper is Wild Bill Hickok, ideal for the role, together with John Wayne and James Stewart, they were the best actors that played western heroes in their generation. Jean Arthur is great as Calamity Jane, nobody that I know played it better than her. Even if might not be historically accurate, the film manages to capture the most important about Hickok and about the time it takes place. Sometimes you have to sacrifice History to make your point and that is what DeMille does here. The friendship of Hickok with Buffalo Bill, the selling of rifles to the Indians by a great manufacturer to compensate for the losses he would have because of the end of the civil war, Custer and Little Big Horn, the uneasy relationship between Buffalo Bill's wife, a religious woman, with Hickok a man who had killed plenty, also the unusual love affair between Hickok and Calamity all this makes 'The Plainsman' a non conventional and interesting film. Anthony Quinn has a very short appearance, that already shows what a great actor he was going to become. A lot of care was taken to show the original guns of that time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film provides the saga of a legendary Wild Bill Hickock. He,
Buffalo Bill Cody, and Calamity Jane, are the central characters.
As the Civil War closes, Lincoln mentions his concern that the country's dynamism would be enhanced if people would follow the advice, "Go West, young man," which, mercifully, the film didn't erroneously attribute to Horace Greeley, as a number of others did. But then, he gets assassinated, and some financiers speculate that they can get rich selling weapons to the American Indians.
In the meantime, we see Wild Bill Hickock, who interacts with a small boy, while a steamboat is loading at a dock along the Mississippi. Wild Bill uses a Bowie knife, which he eventually gives to the boy, calling it an "Arkansas Toothpick," which in reality was a different type of knife, though both were used throughout the frontier.
Hickock eventually meets Buffalo Bill Cody, who looks close to the photographs and paintings of the actual man. Cody has just gotten married, and is bringing his bride to the Old West to settle down.
When they arrive at their destination, they run into Calamity Jane, who has a crush on Hickock. She looks at Cody's wife, and asks Buffalo Bill, "Is this your mopsy?" The line was one that caused the Hayes Board some problem, since one definition of "mopsy" was prostitute. Demille wanted the line in, and one of his aides pointed out that in Beatrix Potter's books about Peter Rabbit, three of the rabbits were Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. He pointed this out and asked the censors to identify "the rabbit of ill virtue." It worked; the line stayed in.
The Indians were getting restless, in part because of the superior weaponry they got from the agent of the Eastern financiers. Cody and Hickock were asked to help scout the area, so that troops could get safely through to a beleaguered area. Cody led the troops; Hickock went to check out the activities of an Indian chief, who was an old acquaintance, and who was leading some of the hostile Indians.
Calamity Jane gets captured, and Hickock gets captured trying to save her. They are brought to the chief, and although neither would talk, torture applied to Hickock breaks Calamity Jane's willpower, and she tells the route Cody is using.
The two are released, and Hickock joins up with Cody and his forces, in part to alert them they're walking into a trap. With Hickok's help, they hold off the Indian attack.
Hickock decides to go after the gun runners, and finally takes them prisoner. As they're waiting for authorities, Hickock is gunned down by being shot in the back while playing cards.
There are numerous historic anomalies in the film, but it retains the flavor of legend. Pretty good for the 1930s.
After the failure of "The Crusades" at the box office, Cecil B. DeMille
stopped doing films about non-American history. His films for the next
thirteen years were about our history from Jean Lafitte to World War II
(Dr. Wassell). The first in order of production was this film, starring
Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok, with Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane.
James Ellison was Buffalo Bill, John Miljan (not a villain as usual)
was General George A. Custer, and Anthony Quinn was one of the Indians
who fought at Little Big Horn. The villains were led by Charles
Bickford (selling arms to the Indians) and Porter Hall as Jack McCall
(who killed Wild Bill Hickok).
Basically the film takes up the history of the U.S. after the Civil War. Lincoln is shown at the start talking about what is the next step now that Lee has surrendered. Lincoln talks about the need to secure the west (more about this point later). Then he announces he has to go to the theater. That April 14th must have been very busy for Abe - in "Virginia City" he grants a pardon to Errol Flynn at the request of Miriam Hopkins on the same date.
Actually, while Lincoln was concerned about the West, his immediate thoughts on the last day of his Presidency were about reunifying the former Confederate states and it's citizens into the Union as soon as possible. It was Reconstruction that occupied his attention, not the west (except for the problems of Maximillian and his French controlled forces in Mexico against Juarez). But he had been involved in actual problems with the West. In 1862 he sent disgraced General John Pope, the loser at Second Manassas, to Minnesota to put down a serious Indian war by the Sioux (the subject of McKinley Kantor's novel, "Sprit Lake". Pope, incompetent against Lee and Jackson, turned out to be quite effective here, and the revolt was smashed.
However, with all Lincoln's actual attention to western problems, it is doubtful that he says (as Cooper repeats at least once), "The frontier should be secure." There is nothing to say he could not have said it, but it is hardly a profound pronouncement by a leading statesman. Like saying, Teddy Roosevelt said, "Eat a good breakfast every morning for your health." It is not a profound statement of policy. It is, at best, a statement of recognizable fact. Cooper turning it into a minor mantra, like Lincoln's version of the Monroe Doctrine, is ridiculous...typical of the way DeMille's scripts have really bad errors of common sense in them.
However, this is not a ruinous mistake. "The Plainsman" is an adventure film, and as such it has the full benefit of DeMille the film creator of spectacle. As such it is well worth watching. But not as a textbook on Lincoln's political ideas or his quotable legacy.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Reading previous reviews of The Plainsman, some are not impressed with
its lack of historical accurately. As one member stated in reference to
the narrative, "now that's eleven years that if you took this film
literally compressed to about three months. I found that a wee bit too
much to swallow". They seemed to have missed the point, The Plainsman
was never made with the intention of being historically accurate, it
was made as a piece of wild western fantasy as Cecil B. DeMille said "I
make pictures for people, not critics". It is obvious from the opening
credits which state, "the story that follows compresses many years,
many lifes and widely separated events into one narrative". So the
spectator watching The Plainsman should know it is not be a realistic
portrayal of the individuals involved, just a grand spectacle of
Western adventure which is one of enjoyment.
At the core of the narrative is Wild Bill Hickok, played with rugged masculinity by Gary Cooper, who when thrown into a war against hostile Indians comes up against John Lattimer, the antagonist who has been selling unused rifles to Indians on behalf of military industrialist. Finding out about his actions, Hickok as the typical Western hero brands his sense of justice by taking on Lattimer. Confronting him for his actions Cooper gives to the character of Hickok a strong sense of certainness regarding his position, using his presence to intimidate the immoral Lattimer. Being the hero of The Plainsman, Hickok has a great essence of masculinity which he enforces to rightfully seek justice. The subject of masculinity is a recurring motif in many Westerns and The Plainsman is no exception.
The masculinity element comes into play in the subplot of Hickok's friend Buffalo Bill attempting to settle down with his new wife, who is unfamiliar to the ways of the Wild West. Hickok from time to time teases Bill about his desire of modern living and when Bill is called upon to serve his country against war raged Indians he hesitantly does his duty to prove his masculinity. Yet even though masculinity is at the core of Hickok's personality he is also human in the ways of love. As in their previous venture in Frank Capra's Mr Deeds Goes to Town, Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur (as Calamity Jane) share a wealth of mesmerising chemistry that is a great dynamic to The Plainsman and each scene they share is of excellent standard in terms of drama, comedy and romance particularly their reunion scene with Calamity Jane kissing Hickok with such passion and with equal enthusiasm stating "you're not wiping it off, you're rubbing it in!".
In battle sequences The Plainsman does not disappoint with the scenes delivered to the audience with fast pace and the music accompanying the scenes to such a degree that you become completely engaged with Hickok, Bill and others ferociously firing upon the enemy to save the day. If there is a downside to The Plainsman it is that of the typical portrayal of the Indians as simple idiots who may offer some comic value but is a worn out cliché, even by 1936.
Despite this small negative criticism I still believe The Plainsman is an enjoyable piece of cinema which entertains us with its fast paced action and intimate character relationships in equal measure.
At the close of the US Civil War, girl-shy Gary Cooper (as "Wild" Bill
Hickok), fellow frontiersman James Ellison (as "Buffalo" Bill Cody),
and feisty blonde Jean Arthur (as "Calamity" Jane Canary) battle Native
American Indians and greedy gunrunner Charles Bickford (as John
Lattimer). Mr. Ellison handles himself exceptionally well alongside Mr.
Cooper, already a huge box office star, and young Helen Burgess (as
Louisa) does well in the debut of her unfortunately brief film career.
Speaking with forked-tongues, young Anthony Quinn and George "Gabby"
Hayes have small but notable roles as an Injun and victim.
The film starts by helpfully disclaiming, "The story that follows compresses many years, many lives, and widely separated events into one narrative - in an attempt to do justice to the courage of The Plainsman of our west." This film is far from historically accurate. While mannered and obvious, the handsome production benefits from beautiful visual framing by director Cecil B. DeMille and the Paramount studios crew.
****** The Plainsman (11/16/36) Cecil B. DeMille ~ Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, James Ellison, Charles Bickford
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This a rip roaring western and i have watched it many times and it entertains on every level.However if your after the true facts about such legends as Hickcock,Cody and Calamity Jane then look elsewhere, as John Ford suggested this is the west when the truth becomes legend print the legend.The story moves with a cracking pace, and there is some great dialogue between Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur two very watchable stars who help to make this movie.The sharp eyed amongst you might just spot Gabby Hayes as an Indian scout, also there is a very young Anthony Quinn making his debut as Cayenne warrior, he actually married one of Demilles daughters in real life.Indeed its Quinns character who informs Cooper of the massacre of Custer told in flash back, the finale is well done and when the credits roll it fuses the American west with American history.So please take time out to watch this classic western.
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