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The Plainsman

The Plainsman(1937)

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teaser The Plainsman (1937)

While President Abraham Lincoln is pledging to make the West safe for settlers, unscrupulous businessmen are plotting behind his back to sell repeating rifles to the Indians, enlisting the help of John Lattimer. Meanwhile Wild Bill Hickok, who has just returned from the Civil War, meets up with his old flame Calamity Jane, his pal Buffalo Bill Cody and Cody's new wife Louisa in Leavenworth, Missouri. Cody's plans to settle down with his wife are disrupted when Fort Piney is attacked by Indians and General Custer orders him to lead a party carrying fresh ammunition to the fort. Hickok offers to help by locating his old nemesis Yellow Hand and gathering intelligence. Calamity Jane and Louisa are besieged by Indians at Cody's cabin; thanks to Calamity Jane's quick thinking Louisa manages to escape, but she herself is captured. Hickok spots her on the trail with the band of Indians and tries to rescue her but ends up captured as well. The two are brought to Yellow Hand, who tortures Hickok in order to force Calamity Jane to reveal the route of Cody's party. Calamity Jane caves in, leaving Cody's men vulnerable to ambush. Hickok, once he is free and discovers the source of the repeating rifles that the Indians are using, vows to track down Lattimer. Eventually everyone meets up again in the South Dakota town of Deadwood City, and the rest is the stuff of legend.

With its grandly entertaining mix of patriotic sentiment, aw-shucks romance and rousing battle scenes, the Western epic, The Plainsman (1937), bears producer/director Cecil B. DeMille's signature as clearly as Rio Bravo (1959) belongs to Howard Hawks and The Searchers (1956) to John Ford. DeMille's association with the Western genre dates back to his debut feature, The Squaw Man (1914), which he remade in 1918 and 1931. Other DeMille Westerns include Rose of the Rancho (1914), A Romance of the Redwoods (1917), Union Pacific (1939), and North West Mounted Police (1940), set in Canada. While few would place DeMille in Hawks' and Ford's lofty company, during his career of some 50 years he displayed a consistent knack for turning a profit and made a number of very fine films along the way. The Cheat (1915), for instance, is considered a groundbreaking work in the development of film editing.

DeMille's impressive production for The Plainsman boasts, among other things, a three-acre set for Deadwood City and a recreation of the battle of Little Big Horn which was filmed on location in the Cheyenne Indian Reservation at Lame Deer, Montana, employing some two thousand Native Americans as extras. In order to maintain control over the second unit shoot, DeMille kept a model of the second unit location along with detailed plans for shot setups, which he conveyed to second unit director Art Rosson over the telephone.

One of the key assets of The Plainsman, however, is its cast. The reviewer in The Motion Picture Herald wrote that the film was "[p]layed with spirit and intelligent understanding by principals and entire supporting cast, with class individual performances sticking out all over [...]" Gary Cooper, who plays Wild Bill Hickok, became one of DeMille's favorite leading men, appearing subsequently in North West Mounted Police, The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944) and Unconquered (1947). Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times noted that Jean Arthur bears only a passing resemblance to the traditional image of Calamity Jane: "She doesn't chaw tobacco any more. She doesn't cuss. She doesn't run around with the boys. She just talks low and husky, is cute when she is being tomboyish, and she loves Wild Bill so much she almost faints when the Indians start torturing him to make him tell which way the ammunition convoy is heading." For her role Jean Arthur did, however, learn to use a bullwhip, which she handles impressively. Look for a young Anthony Quinn as the lone Cheyenne who tells Cody and Hickok of Custer's defeat at Little Bighorn. Quinn, incidentally, later married DeMille's daughter Katherine.

DeMille may have taken clear liberties with the story but the Paramount executives, he claims, wanted even more. DeMille recalls in his 1959 autobiography: "As every historian of the Old West knows, Jack McCall killed Wild Bill Hickok by shooting him in the back. It was worrisome enough to the Paramount executives that we were making a picture in which the hero, Gary Cooper at that, was to be killed in the last reel instead of riding off into the sunset with Jean Arthur in the happy ending which audiences are always expected to demand. First the executives asked me not to kill Wild Bill; I told them I could not remake history to that extent. 'Well then,' Adolf Zukor said finally, 'if he has to be killed, don't let him be killed by that little rat, McCall. At least let Charles Bickford kill him!'" Fortunately, DeMille stood firm. While accuracy was obviously never DeMille's strong point--just compare the episode of the golden calf in The Ten Commandments (1956) with the corresponding passage in the Old Testament--his storytelling instincts were formidable and the scene of Hickok's death remains effective to this day.

Producer and Director: Cecil B. DeMille.
Screenplay: Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb and Lynn Riggs, inspired by stories by Courtney Ryley Cooper and Frank J. Wilstach's book Wild Bill Hickok, the Prince of Pistoleers (1926).
Photography: Victor Milner and George Robinson.
Art Direction: Hans Dreier and Roland Anderson.
Editor: Anne Bauchens.
Music: George Antheil.
Principal cast: Gary Cooper (Wild Bill Hickok), Jean Arthur (Calamity Jane), James Ellison (Buffalo Bill Cody), Charles Bickford (John Lattimer), Helen Burgess (Louisa Cody), Porter Hall (Jack McCall), Paul Harvey (Yellow Hand), Victor Varconi (Painted Horse), John Miljan (General George A. Custer), Frank McGlynn, Sr. (Abraham Lincoln).
BW-113m. Closed captioning.

By James Steffen

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