Plainsman, The (1936)

“A man’s bound to lose, sooner or later.”

Synopsis:
As the American Civil War comes to an end, an unscrupulous business man (Charles Bickford) facilitates the sale of repeating rifles to Native Americans, leading to an uprising. Soon Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper) and his pal Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison) find themselves on the frontlines once again, with Cody leaving behind his pregnant new wife (Helen Burgess), and Hickok’s secret love for Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur) causing unexpected challenges.

Genres:

Review:
Cecil B. DeMille directed this “highly fictionalized” (!!!) account of various Wild West figures coming together in improbable ways, all culminating in the infamous death of a lead character. Refreshingly, it’s greedy white military industrialists rather than the Native Americans themselves who are positioned from the beginning as the true “bad guys”, making it a little easier to watch the elaborately staged warfare and killing of Indians. Unfortunately, the creative mixing of storylines and characters focuses too much on the love lives of the leads, with Hickok and Calamity Jane’s would-be romance coming across as particularly strained; we’re meant to root for them as they tentatively make their feelings known to one another, but Jane is put in an egregiously unfair position at one point, forcing her to choose between love and loyalty. Cody’s beautiful young wife is nicely played by 19-year-old Helen Burgess, whose sudden death from pneumonia the following year ended her chances for a promising career. Watch for Anthony Quinn in a thankless role as a Cheyenne Indian.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Victor Milner’s cinematography

  • Impressive historic sets and art direction

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.

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One Response to “Plainsman, The (1936)”

  1. First viewing. Not must-see.

    Nicely produced overall, but one of DeMille’s less-successful flicks. It’s (at times needlessly or awkwardly) talky and, therefore, is longer than it needs to be.

    Indeed, one does tire of the number of times / ways Calamity tries to get Wild Bill to tell her he loves her – in the middle of a crisis! Zzzzzz…..

    Oh, and there’s also, for example, Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill having a chummy chat re: the news that the latter is going to be a new daddy – while the two are in the middle of an Indian attack!

    Gunrunner Bickford’s angle is an interesting one but it suffers from the unwieldy nature of the film in general. Still, Bickford takes the acting honors – probably because he has about the least of amount of dialogue, so his delivery comes off as effective.

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