WILD BILL: He Lacked a Hero’s Calm and a Coward’s Resolve

Wild Bill (1995) – Directed by Walter Hill – Starring Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, David Arquette, James Gammon, Bruce Dern, James Remar, Christina Applegate, and Diane Lane.

WILD BILL should work – great subject, great cast, great director – but it’s a dull, over-indulgent film that makes you far too aware that you’re watching a MOVIE instead of simply giving you a good movie going experience. It trades in narrative focus for stylistic tricks that add nothing to the movie.

In part, we can lay the blame of WILD BILL’s failure with the time it was made. Mid-90s filmmakers were still aping Oliver Stone’s JFK, meaning they took a straightforward story and made it all splashy and cool with flashbacks and black and white and pretension. Like JFK, BILL also tricks up the historical record, deciding what actually happened wouldn’t make for a good movie, so Walter Hill, like Stone before him, takes aspect of Bill Hickock’s life and alters them for dramatic effect.

I’ll be honest, I don’t really mind that because I go to a movie to be engaged in a gripping story, not for a history lesson. Where I have a problem with history alterations, however, is when what you get from the film isn’t better than what really went done. Such is the case with WILD BILL, which sees Bill’s murder at the hand of Jack McCall changed into some elongated scene instead of what it actually was – a quick and violent end to one of the West’s more famous characters.

I’m not sure why Hill went in this direction, because the truth (or at least what we understand of the truth) is much more compelling than what we get here. McCall apparently kills Bill in real life because Bill whipped his ass in cards and then offered to buy the man breakfast. McCall takes umbrage at the act of generosity and comes at Bill during a card game. Bill was seated with his back to the door (which was not his style) and this didn’t see McCall coming at him.

What we get in the film is a protracted scene where McCall (David Arquette) and his hired thugs (also a fabrication) interrupt Bill (Jeff Bridges) having sex with Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin; their physical relationship also a fabrication), then roust Charlie Prince (John Hurt; the character is a fabrication) and California Joe (James Gammon) from their beds upstairs (fabrication) so they can all sit around and talk for-f*cking-ever as McCal tries to decide if he actually wants to kill Bill for perceived slights against his mother (Diane Lane; that her character is McCall’s mother is also – stop me if you’ve heard this – a fabrication).

McCall is convinced by Charlie to let Bill go (fabrication), so Bill goes to the stables where the hired thugs have tied up their horses (fabrication), kills all of them except Jack (fabrication), and then takes Jack back to the bar to buy him a drink (a fabrication, but the act of generosity actually meshes), where Jack eventually decides to kill Bill by yelling at him: “Sending you home, Bill!” (a … deep breath … fabrication).

Now, none of those fabrications would actually matter if what was put on screen was any good, but it’s not. Hill’s directing of individual scenes is still top-notch, but the film as a whole completely fails to come together. Bill’s end, instead of being sudden, harsh, and violent, is turned into drawn-out melodrama. When Bill growls that McCall should “give me the gun so I can do it myself,” it’s like Bridges is talking about the movie right to Hill.

The worst decision with this movie is the entire tone of the picture, which sees Bill Hickock as a dreary man ready for the end. His eyes are going, he’s drowning himself in opium (likely a fabrication), and McCall’s public challenging of him (fabrication) is getting to Bill. Calamity Jane is reduced to a blubbering, lovesick little girl. I like Barkin, but either she’s awful here or (more likely) the script and director have just given her such a crap character to play.

Bridges is good as Bill, able to fully realize this man who refuses to apologize for anything, yet clearly knows he should apologize to nearly everyone, but most of what the script asks from his is to sit and scowl and mumble. I mean, Bridges can do it better than anyone, but why even have him do it?

The rest of the cast, individually, are all very good, too, especially James Gammon as California Joe. He’s great low-key as the interpreter between Bill and a praying Indian who decides they need to fight to fulfill a religious vision and he’s great hyper as a sort of Wild Bill hype man, enthusiastically recounting Bill’s exploits – much to Bill’s chagrin. Unfortunately, the performances don’t gel together. Instead of opening with a bunch of random scenes of Bill being violent (building the legend he spends the bulk of the film lamenting), and since the filmmakers decided to toss the historical record anyway, they would have been better off building up relationships between the four leads so the final scene has some real emotion to it.

But it doesn’t. Even after 90 minutes of film, it still feels less like Bill, Jane, Joe, and Charley sitting around a table as it does Bridges, Barkin, Gammon, and Hurt.

It’s unfortunate, too, that McCall’s story is more compelling than Bill’s, and a narrative built around his quest might have had more bite to it. Hurt’s line, which I cribbed for the title of this review, that McCall “lacked a hero’s calm and a coward’s resolve to get through the night” is more insightful than anything said about Bill.

WILD BILL has its moments (the showdown between a wheelchair-bound Bruce Dern and Bill is a fabrication and fantastic) but as a whole it’s a tough film to get through. I would have rather seen Hill just tell a story instead of trying to get all stylistic with his edits and disconnected chronology (Pulp Fiction was released the year before) and just tell a good, clear story with one of the best actors in the world. I’m not against cinematic and narrative pyrotechnics and tricks, but it has to be appropriate for the story and they’re not appropriate here. Instead of enhancing the film, they just get in the way.

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4 thoughts on “WILD BILL: He Lacked a Hero’s Calm and a Coward’s Resolve

  1. Much as I love me some Walter Hill, I gotta agree with you about WILD BILL. There are individual scenes I really like such as the gunfight with the Bruce Dern character and the scene with Wild Bill and his partner (James Gammon) parlaying with a band of Indians. But as you accurately point out, a bunch of good scenes does not a movie make.

    Still, there are those Ellen Barkin nude scenes. My Gawd, was that woman nuclear hot back in the 80′s or what?

    • James Gammon is phenomenal. I think I’ll go back and add a James Gammon paragraph because he brings up how a great cast is sometimes not great together. I never feel like Bill and Charley are pals, or that Bill, Charley, Joe, and Jane are in the same movie.

      There are a few good lines, too, such as Hurt’s line about McCall that I took for the title of the review, but none of it comes together.

      As for Barkin – a hundred times yes.

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