The Plainsman (1936)

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Written by Waldemar Young & Harold Lamb & Lynn Riggs

The great charm of the Western genre, to me, is the real American West’s greatest heroes and villains. Part of the mysticism and attraction of the west is the knowledge that brave and courageous men and women, Americans, Native Americans and foreigners alike set out to make a new life. Some of them were outlaws like Jesse James, some were lawmen like Wyatt Earp, but they are all names we know. These larger than life personalities have become a part of the narrative fabric of this country and specifically the Western region and frontier time period. Being able to see their stories unfold on the big screen with well known, charismatic actors and actresses portraying them is a great excitement. For films made in the 1930s, that excitement was likely larger, as these folk heroes were in the much more recent past than they are now. I wonder whether Westerns will ever make a full comeback, but the further we are away from when the events actually occurred, the less likely it is to revive.

Two such American West heroes are Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper) and Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur). The two are inextricably linked in history. After the close of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declares that the West must be a safe place for settlers to expand a peaceful nation. However, after his assassination, greedy gun manufacturers take the opportunity to run guns to the Natives in the plains, threatening the president’s dream. When Wild Bill and Calamity Jane meet in Kansas, they uncover the plot and must team with Buffalo Bill Cody to help take down the greedy white men responsible for arming the hostile Native Americans, but any run in with the gang is another dangerous encounter that could end in disaster.

My knowledge of Wild Bill Hickok mostly comes from playing poker and knowing that Aces & Eights is the “Dead Man’s Hand”, or the hand Wild Bill held when he was murdered. Past that fact, I don’t know much about him. The same goes for Calamity Jane. Apart from knowing the name, I’m not sure what she is most well known for. There are, however, other elements of this history with which I am familiar, and I can soundly say that what Cecil B. DeMille is doing with The Plainsman is playing with history. Usually you might think someone with a degree in History would find this offensive, but I don’t. It doesn’t help matters that DeMille contorts the history to help craft a more epic narrative with a melding together of numerous notable figures of American West history, but in my eyes, it doesn’t kill the film either because that’s not what DeMille is trying to accomplish with The Plainsman.

Instead, DeMille shows us the bravado of both Hickok and Calamity Jane, which allows stars Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur to fully inhabit their characters and fill the screen. Cooper is at his deadpan best here, and Arthur finds the perfect balance between hardened Western woman and the sweet feminine. In doing so, DeMille passes many years and many significant events over in favor of the major ones that occur in the life of Bill Hickok. This allows for some exciting sequences like the shootout between US Calvary and Native Americans, which is a truly breathtaking battle scene for its time. So while The Plainsman may be short on actual history and character development, it certainly is not lacking in the elements which often make some of the best Westerns the very best in the genre.

That, however, does not make The Plainsman among the best itself. Instead, it serves as a solid outing with more potential than the end result of the execution from DeMille and co. It’s a fun opportunity to be introduced to these characters and giants of the West. It’s a fun opportunity to see Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur fill the screen. The film tries to cram too much actual history into its run time, resulting in a minor failure which it makes up in pure entertainment. I did appreciate the attempt to focus on this small fictional story about white gun runners and Hickok saving the day. This is the type of focus that could greatly benefit such larger than life characters, as opposed to a sprawling biography. DeMille’s touches are evident, and he is playing with some great elements here. I can’t wait to see if he is able to pull it all together for a truly remarkable Western later in the marathon with Union Pacific.

*** – Good

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