The establishment of a legend can strike like a bolt of lightning. The maintenance of a legend – and the freedom to operate that it promises – can be exhausting and unforgiving. The gray areas wherein truth and tall-tale converge were the preoccupations of filmmaker Walter Hill, who had directed The Long Riders (1980) – about the post-Civil War criminal enterprises of the notorious James-Younger Gang consisting of two Jameses, three Youngers, two Fords and two Millers – and the John Milius-scripted Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), which explored the dueling urges of devotion to duty vs. admiration of an adversary experienced by U.S. soldiers charged with reining in the restless Apache leader. For his third big-screen Western project, Hill gravitated toward another larger-than-life figure, James Butler Hickok (1837-1876), famously known as Wild Bill (1995). “I’ve been reading about Hickok my entire life,” Hill asserted at the time of filming. “If you study the characters of the Old West, Wild Bill has more of a legitimate claim to living up to the legend than many of the others, but with the exception of DeMille’s The Plainsman [1936, embodied then by Gary Cooper], no movie has ever seriously portrayed his life as drama or history. He was a remarkable American character. But unfortunately, he’s the kind of character we don’t often celebrate anymore. He liked a good fight, and he liked to laugh. Lived hard, died young…the kind of guy you make a movie about.” Hill had prepared a draft script based on his own personal research, and then found kindred spirits in the vision of Hickok portrayed by playwright Thomas Babe in his 1978 Fathers and Sons (played in its original Public Theater New York staging by Richard Chamberlain) and by novelist Pete Dexter in his 1986 book Deadwood; he would incorporate material from both works into his own revised and enriched screenplay. For his Hickok, Hill chose Jeff Bridges, a veteran leading man who had already began morphing into an astonishingly good character player before the camera lens after 25 years in movies. Hill knew Bridges’ formidable body of work but, he said, “none of us realized how unbelievably closely he would resemble the real Wild Bill when we got him into full make-up. There’s an astonishing resemblance. More importantly, he had a very instinctive understanding of the script and what the movie was going to be about,” i.e., the wear and tear of a boundary-pushing life at the edge of civilization as well as the ultimate cost of living up to an inflated reputation. Bridges remarked at the time: “I think he enjoyed the fame, but he was also a prisoner of it. Those dime novels written about him led people to believe he was the fast gun to beat, so he had a lot of guys coming after him to make their name.” Because of that, Hill concluded, Hickok “captured the public’s fancy. He certainly inspired many writers who crossed his path, and he didn’t duck the interviews. He had a rather show business personality, but I think he very clearly saw that the kind of notoriety he was getting might, in the end, cost him his life…which it did.”
Legendary figures tend to gravitate toward each other, so other intriguing talents were assembled to play them, like Ellen Barkin as Martha Jane Cannary, aka Calamity Jane; Keith Carradine as showman William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody; David Arquette as Hickok’s young challenger John “Jack” McCall; and Diane Lane as Hickok’s one-time lover Susannah Moore. Also on board playing fictional characters who add color and commentary to the investigation of truth vs. fiction in Hickok’s life are John Hurt, James Gammon, Christina Applegate, Marjoe Gortner and Bruce Dern. For The New York Times’ Janet Maslin: “This imaginatively offbeat Western, on a par with Mr. Hill’s The Long Riders, tries to embrace the full range of pride, sorrow and doubt prompted by Hickok’s exploits. Along the way, it assesses the glare of celebrity that made Hickok both star and target, ruefully calculating the price of fame. Wild Bill doesn't always measure up to its own ambitions. Mr. Hill's blend of Thomas Babe's play Fathers and Sons, Pete Dexter's historical novel Deadwood and his own brooding on the Hickok mystique can make for a stagy and awkward mix. But however hamstrung it occasionally becomes, Wild Bill is impressive for a thoughtful, daring spirit and a charismatic hero, so unapologetically larger than life. One of the film's accomplishments is in revealing Hickok's tender side without compromising that appealing gruffness or developing a mile-wide sentimental streak. Something that comes to puzzle him, late in his relatively short life, is his failure with women. But the source of that failure (as illustrated through flashbacks with a radiant Diane Lane) is Wild Bill’s own cruelty, which the film regards as fundamental to his character. For audiences who like their heroes neat and resolute, the chanciest aspect of Wild Bill is its refusal to tame this man’s raging contradictions.” Capture Hill’s tribute to an untamed American original October 17 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open October 4.