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In Wild Bill, wildness has taken its toll on Bill. As played by Jeff Bridges in this shifting fever-dream from director Walter Hill, Bill, though not yet 40, is a grumpy old man--mean, dim, unimaginative, indignant over his legend. He's a short-fused galoot, and a more-or-less heartless killer. Yet he is also, rather unaccountably, likable.
This paradox is mainly because Bridges is playing the role. The actor has been charming us for years with his scowly-growly magnetism. Even when he's miscast, as in Fearless, he has impressive bearing; and when he clicks, as in The Fisher King, he can be stunningly good. Properly mustachioed, he resembles photos of the historical James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, and he plays the role with a haunted aloofness, a sense that he's walking with a spiritual wound, which somehow gives stature to this frontier bastard.
That Wild Bill could be a folk hero in his own lifetime and a deadly SOB is the case that Hill is trying to crack with the film. The central running gag of the script, which Hill wrote, is that no one understands this mystery less, or is inconvenienced by it more, than Bill himself.
He thinks of himself as an ordinary guy, but he can't get a moment's peace, because everyone wants a piece of Wild Bill--everyone wants to fight him, or screw him, or kill him, or put him on public display. It's like a Western version of Woody Allen's Stardust Memories.
The historical Hickok was born in Illinois in 1837, and spent part of his youth in the antislavery movement in Kansas. He was a scout and spy for the Union during the Civil War, and for this service he was made a deputy U.S. marshal back in Kansas. His status as a legend began to develop after a shooting in which he was involved during his prewar days; and, by the early 1870s, he was sufficiently famous to appear in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show.
He was a bad and unhappy actor, and after two years he quit Cody's show. He married an older, widowed ex-actress, then headed west (by himself) one last time, ending up in the gold town of Deadwood Gulch in what is now South Dakota. There, he may or may not have made the acquaintance of a prostitute and bullwhacker named Martha Jane Canary, better known as Calamity Jane.
What is certain is that he was shot and killed in a saloon there in August 1876 by a man named Jack McCall, for unclear motives. After Hickok's death, Calamity Jane succeeded in insinuating herself into the Wild Bill story; she, too, appeared for a time in Wild West shows. She permanently welded her myth to Bill's with a brilliant final gesture: When she died in 1903, she left instructions to have herself buried beside him.
Hill's narrative omits Bill's youth and his marriage, and invents plenty of additional incidents. A historically faithful account of Hickok's life isn't what Hill has in mind. By design, the film has an exaggerated tone, yet it's too dreamlike to be a tall tale--there's very little whimsy or jocularity to it. Hill wants to show the effect of celebrity on flesh and blood; he wants us to see his hero crumbling under the burden of legend.
On several occasions, James Gammon, as Bill's grizzled sidekick and interpreter, regales someone with a yarn of Bill's exploits, while Bill is within earshot. Gammon spits out the stories in a hilariously breakneck style, the words spilling forth in torrents too fast to comprehend--he's part raconteur, part auctioneer. The implication is that he must finish talking quickly, or Bill will put a stop to his embellishments.
All of Bill's friends are aware that Bill is impatient with their awe of him--from Gammon to John Hurt, who narrates, as one of those cultured-but-raggedy Englishmen who have become such stock figures in modern Westerns (see also David Warner in Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue, John Cleese in Silverado, Richard Harris in Unforgiven, Ian McKellen in The Ballad of Little Jo), to Ellen Barkin as the sad, infatuated Calamity Jane.
Hill structures his film as a string of flashbacks within flashbacks. Hurt tells us Bill's story from the gunfighter's gravesite as a series of loosely connected anecdotes, most of them culminating in violence--at one point, Bill even has a showdown with a man in a wheelchair (Bruce Dern), first having himself tied to a chair and carried into the street to even the odds.
Other episodes--such as Marjoe Gortner's rant as an evangelist--seem unconnected to anything else in the film; they're free-floating set pieces.
Within the frame of Hurt's narrative, Hill flashes back further by having Wild Bill smoke opium in Deadwood's Chinatown. (Local Old West authority Bob Boze Bell, who read Hill's script prior to production, remarked of these scenes: "I don't know if America's ready to see Wild Bill on the pipe.") Bill's hazy narcotic reveries depict lengthy episodes from his past, shot at elegantly askew angles in beautifully depleted black and white. The most important of these sequences is his ill-fated romance with a lovely woman back home (Diane Lane), revenge for whom, Hill posits, was the motive of Bill's angel of death, McCall.
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