The Plainsman (1936)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

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By Roderick Heath

The Plainsman is bunkum. But it’s entertaining bunkum and one of Cecil B. DeMille’s best films. The Plainsman, fairly well-written, and punctuated by neat verbal byplay reflecting DeMille’s recently abandoned interest in racy screwball comedy after the failure of Madame Satan in 1930, is given special force by two grand performances, from Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, as an incredibly romanticized Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. It’s also a veritable Super Western, beating How the West Was Won (1962) to the punch by nearly 30 years in trying make a vast historical saga out of sprawling, disconnected events and gilded genre clichés. DeMille stretches truth and credibility to near-ridiculous lengths to provide a streamlined narrative leading from Abraham Lincoln’s (Frank McGlynn Sr.) plans for postwar America, outlined just before he goes to a performance at Ford’s Theatre, to Hickok’s being shot in the back in a card game. At least the movie is honest enough in its credits to admit to compressing events for the sake a dramatic narrative, whilst also being vague enough in its changes to disguise the timeline of events.

The oft-recycled, epic plot, follows the efforts of dastardly financiers with investments in repeating rifles who are unlikely to be paid back after the Civil War’s end deciding to sell them to Indians, hiring seedy trader John Lattimer (Charles Bickford) to do so. The Indians, unhappy at the large number of young men following the advice to “go West,” start agitating more aggressively than expected. Hickok, returning from war service, runs into old pal Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), newly married to a dainty, peace-abiding Eastern miss (Helen Burgess) and fretting irritably over ex-flame Jane, who’s working as a stagecoach driver. They’re all soon embroiled in frontier skirmishes, and both Bills are sent off on disparate missions by General Custer (John Miljan) in an attempt to head off a war. But war comes anywhere. At one point, renegade Cheyenne chief Yellow Hair (Paul Harvey!), tortures his captive, Will Bill, to loosen Jane’s tongue about where Buffalo Bill is leading a relief column. Because she’s a girl, she spills the beans, and the two Bills end up holding off a massive assault on the train whilst Jane tries to alert Custer.

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Needless to say, they get out of that scrape. When Hickok attempts to bring in Lattimer, he instead has to gunfight with three soldiers who are his partners, killing them all but suffering wounds himself. Custer, believing Hickok to be a murderer, wants him arrested and sends Cody after him. Both men soon find out that Custer and his men have been killed at the Little Bighorn with guns sold by Lattimer to Sitting Bull. Hickok tracks Lattimer down to Deadwood, takes out the nefarious villain, and decides to wait out Cody’s return with the cavalry to round up the rest of them. He plays a game poker with them, where he draws a hand of aces and eights.

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It’s balderdash, of course, but not quite as big a load of it as I first assumed. Jane, prone to romancing, did claim to have worked as a scout for Custer at the frontier Fort Russell, but was all of 13 when the Civil War started, possibly lending a weird subtext to Hickok’s prewar affection for her. The two Bills were indeed acquainted, having met before the war when Hickok was 18 and Cody 12. But Hickok didn’t meet Jane until a couple of years before his death in 1876. Hickok’s assassin, mining roughneck Jack McCall (Porter Hall), is reinvented as a dapper, craven associate of Lattimer’s. The screenplay is, nonetheless, amusing and clever in how it weaves together vignettes in the legends of all four into a tight story that rockets along. Arthur’s wondrous Jane ought to be more famous than it is as a landmark screen heroine who, in one particularly delightful scene, strips off the sable dress she’s wearing to reveal britches, wields a Winchester, and rides off with rare zest to fetch Custer. The problem is she’s undercut by DeMille; he was fond of willful, rule-breaking heroines but always made sure they were taken down a peg for it, becoming overwrought and eventually either deliberately or inadvertently treacherous (see also Paulette Goddard in North West Mounted Police [1940] and Reap the Wild Wind [1942]; Delilah; Nefertiri). Jane is properly disgraced for being weak enough to spill the beans to Yellow Hair, but it does give Arthur a marvelous moment, when Jane lolls in pure, self-loathing despair.

DeMille was the most famously and proudly chauvinistic of filmmakers, yet also a man of curious contradictions—the devoutly religious, intensely patriotic patriarch whose sex-and-drug orgies were famous in Tinseltown, and with a biting cynicism about the expectations of the American public he went to such great effort to entertain. When they rejected Madame Satan and jazz-age raciness, he turned to religious subjects; when they rejected The Crusades (1934), he abandoned world history for a time, and did it always with a smirk. Despite his strictly conservative bent, sympathy for the oppressed and degraded is a theme in his work: he reassures us of Lattimer’s total villainy when he kicks a black porter in the head for dropping a crate of rifles.

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Despite that, it’s not exactly PC in terms of its portrayal of Native American interests. Like many films of the period (They Died with Their Boots On [1941]; She Wore A Yellow Ribbon [1948], etc.), the blame for the Indian Wars is put more on irresponsible arms dealers, sharklike profiteers both individual and corporate, and renegade bigots of both races, clearing guilt away from government policies, callous military ventures, and endemic racism. As in They Died with Their Boots On, Custer is the perfect cavalier forced into a war and final destruction by forces beyond the ken of both him and the Indians, rather than the crazed, messianic butcher we’d be getting by the time of Little Big Man (1970). Far more so than John Ford’s films, which, even when portraying Native Americans at their most villainous, bestowed a certain dignity on them, DeMille is happy shopping out patronizing attitudes, for example, showing them behaving with childish fascination when Jane distracts a war party by interesting them in Mrs. Cody’s hat collection, and then moving to destructive tantrums and grotesque torture sessions. You can see variations on the same plot, each time tweaked a little further around the dial in meaning, through Rio Grande (1949) to Major Dundee (1965) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972). Whereas Ford found the theme of former enemies of the Civil War fighting together on the plains intriguing and volatile enough to generate several movies, for DeMille’s it’s a throwaway comedy touch, as if the war was an automatically healed wound in the great march of American history.

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But The Plainsman feels like a generic textbook for other reasons. DeMille had the classical director’s understanding of how audiences respond to detailed flourishes of action, and Cooper, at his youthful best, is the catalyst. His Hickok is a study in rest and motion, situating himself in easy poses with an unassuming expression, tersely measured motions, and reactions until driven to action. He becomes a blur of brilliance—riding between two horses through a battle, picking off pursuers with a one-handed Winchester shot, spinning his pistols on his fingers and slipping them back in their holsters without taking his steely gaze off the men he’s challenging. Cooper’s Hickok is the perfect Western hero, and perhaps better than any other film, this one shows off Cooper, the lean, sexy, innately physical actor, supremely confident in controlling a scene. One throwaway gesture exemplifies Cooper’s style—trying to avoid discussing Jane’s betrayal with Cody, he ends with a slight move of his head, a momentary parting of his lips, as if to say something more, but then demurs, clamming up, ending the scene with an unspoken tension. It’s the sort of telling, barely noticeable flourish that affirms Cooper as both an intelligent actor and a fascinating star.

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Cooper’s innate sense of subtlety is particularly cool when contrasted with DeMille’s complete disinterest in it. He pursued a kind of illustrative ideal to the point his final—and greatest—film, The Ten Commandments (1956), achieved a kind of perfection in its total, depthless stylization. The themes and characterizations in The Plainsman practically stand on a table and shout, and his schoolbook sense of pictorial history results in some hilariously museum-diorama scenes of Lincoln and Custer’s Last Stand. Yet DeMille warrants more respect as a filmmaker than he generally gets today. Like a relative handful of Hollywood directors of the time—Ford, Hawks, Walsh, Wellman, Dieterle, Capra—he had a recognizably individual style of framing shots, more vivid than the standard, dull, medium group shots of the average studio hand and usually handled with the care of a Victorian academic painter. He specialized in finely detailed and composed tableaux vivant, such as those of the battered soldiers hunkered down, but never let such fussiness spoil his sense of high action.

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Moreover, though intended as thundering entertainment, The Plainsman is not stupid. It’s a film that actually manages to be about ethical growth. Hickok, so Buffalo Bill assures his wife pleasantly, has no rival as a “corpse-maker.” He’s the distillation of the violent West’s quick-draw wits and an angry misogynist. He even considers killing Cody when he comes to arrest him. But Hickok’s also decent man, who had taken Lincoln’s utterance about the need to bring order to the West to heart. Hickok eventually comes to the realization that a life of casual extermination is getting old, and begins learning to forgive Jane her failure of nerve and Jack McCall for their sins. The irony being, of course, that McCall will shoot him in the back for his newfound pacifism.

(Trivia note: A very young Anthony Quinn [above], in his fourth movie appearance, plays a Cheyenne warrior who tells Hickok and Cody about the Little Bighorn battle. He bluffed his way into the role by pretending to speak authentic Cheyenne, whilst speaking pure gibberish. Quinn would later marry DeMille’s daughter Katherine and continue a long association with him, directing a remake of his The Buccaneer in 1959. ) l

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