Reeling Backward: The Plainsman (1936)

Sometimes painfully anachronistic, this Western starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok still boats plenty of Old Hollywood action and glamor.

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By any fair reckoning, “The Plainsman” is a pretty anachronistic example of Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking.

It’s a rousing Western adventure movie that, other than accurately using the names of Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Body, is pretty much a complete sham of the historical record, even by the mythological standards of Old West lore. Pretty much the only piece that seems to ring true is the death of Hickock, played by Gary Cooper, shot in the back by a gambler while holding the “Dead Man’s Hand,” aces and eights, that his last poker game would make legend.

And it’s got a fairly typical attitude toward the depiction of American Indians for that time, showing them as murderous savages who must be conquered so the frontier can be, in the words of the film’s ersatz Abraham Lincoln, “made safe” for the white man. And yes, most of the Indians are played by Caucasian actors in dusky makeup.

Still, it shows Hickock, a canny scout and sometimes-lawman, as having a sympathetic attitude toward at least one Indian chief, Yellow Hand (Paul Harvey), an old friend he used to hunt buffalo with. When Yellow Hand justifies his war by pointing out the white man broke his promise not to take their land, Bill acknowledges the truth of this. He doesn’t even seem to hold a grudge that this campaign may include his own death by ritual burning.

But when you put it all together, “The Plainsman” still has a great deal of entertainment value and exciting gunplay, along with not a little glamor from Cooper and co-star Jean Arthur as Jane. 

Besides, as regular readers of this column know, I find the practice of discarding cultural artifacts because they don’t accommodate modern sensibilities to be an unworthy endeavor. You cannot learn from history, even the cinematic kind, by dismissing it.

As a Cecil B. DeMille production, “The Plainsman” was not going to be a rough-and-tumble depiction of these characters like we would get decades later with the doggedly grimy show “Deadwood,” or even the largely forgotten 1966 remake.

It’s got top-notch production values and everybody’s hair is always neatly combed into place. Calamity Jane wears pants and is shown to be a capable horse rider and coach driver, though we never see shoot anybody, relying on her handy whip when she wants to get her point across more forcefully.

And she’s hopelessly in love with Wild Bill, impulsively kissing him a number of times and complaining when he rubs the back of his hand across his lips after. “You ain’t wipin’ it off — you’re rubbin’ it in!” she teases.

Buffalo Bill, played by James Ellison, is relegated to third wheel here, disappearing for large stretches of the picture. As the story opens (screenplay by Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb and Lynn Riggs), Buffalo Bill has mustered out of the Union Army after the Civil War and promptly got himself hitched to a genteel lady from back East (Helen Burgess), while Wild Bill is determined to stay free of any yoke, be it military or womenfolk.

Of course, they soon find themselves roped into the coming Indian war, in which a number of tribes join forces against the U.S. government. The highlight is a battle where a few dozen soldiers bringing ammunition to beleaguered forts are themselves pinned down under sustained assault for six days. By the end the handful of survivors are nearly incoherent with PTSD except for the cool and collected Wild Bill, Coop displaying his usual taciturn, slow-spoken grit.

A 20-year-old Anthony Quinn makes one of his earliest screen appearances playing a rather fetching Cheyenne warrior who is captured by the Bills, Wild and Buffalo, and provides an enthusiastic description of Custer’s Last Stand. Quinn was of Mexican, Irish and Indian (NOT American Indian) ancestry, and played virtually every ethnicity at some point in his varied career. 

The main villain is a fictitious gun dealer named John Lattimer (Charles Bickford) who is selling the advanced new repeating rifles to the Indians. An early scene shows the money-grubbing executives of some unnamed arms company conniving to use the new rules allowing for civilian oversight of the native tribes to choose profits over people. (Ever was it so…)

The first two-thirds of the picture are more or less taken up with the Indian wars, with the romance between Wild Bill and Calamity Jane fitting into the pauses, and the last act is the build-up and outcome of the confrontation with Lattimer. The rifle peddler proves to be wily and cowardly, recruiting a trio of army deserters to go after Bill, knowing that he will probably kill them but be labeled an outlaw himself as a result.

Indeed, this is just what happens, and Buffalo Bill is sent to bring him in, dead or alive. It appears they’re angling toward a confrontation, sharing a campfire meal of coffee and jerky while eyeing their weapons, though it seems doubtful the old comrades would actually draw arms on each other. 

Wild Bill’s final gunfight with Lattimer is rather abrupt and anticlimactic, Bill easily outgunning Lattimer and then, for some reason, taking his henchmen hostage and forcing them to play poker until the army arrives to arrest them. This gives an opening for Jack McCall (Porter Hall), a nervous little twerp who is usually seen smoking one of the effete new “cig-a-reets” from back East, to do Bill in.

This is, of course, not how Wild Bill died, or at least not the reason. The day before he’d offered charity to McCall after he lost badly at poker, and the man apparently took offense. The real McCall was actually found not guilty in his initial trial — in a semi-formal “miners’ court” — but bragged so much about being the man who killed Wild Bill that he invited a second trial leading to his conviction and hanging.  

I didn’t expect to like “The Plainsman.” It’s a very outmoded way of making movies, and certainly the mores of the time don’t line up with ours. But DeMille & Co. knew exactly what audiences of that era liked, and kept them reliably fed with tasty fare. 

Eighty-five years on, it’s still a satisfying cinematic meal.

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