Jean Arthur and Cary Cooper in The Plainsman, 1936. They were also paired in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. http://www.rarefilm.net
The other night I watched a classic black and white western, The Plainsman. Gary Cooper played Wild Bill Hickok, a gunslinger I always get confused with Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp. I was prompted to cybersearch after the movie was over to check how facts played into it.
Facts? Sources concur that reliable information about Hickok (1837-1876), whose real name was James, is sketchy. He as well as Martha Cannary (Calamity Jane) seem to have spread rumors about themselves, which were perpetuated by Eastern publishing companies.
A few undisputed things about him —
- Born in Illinois, he served as a guide and spy for the Union Army in the Civil War.
- He knew George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Calamity Jane.
- He was elected an officer of the law by citizens in Kansas towns.
- He was quick with two pearl-handled revolvers he carried backwards in his belt.
- He died at a poker table with black aces and eights in his hand, in Deadwood, South Dakota.
The Cooper movie and subsequent others used these facts, but wove the plot in imaginative ways.
In 1942 Bruce Cabot played him in Wild Bill Hickock Rides.
In 1995 Jeff Bridges brought raw realities to the role in Wild Bill.
With a masterful blend of music, cast and cinematography, TNT’s 1999 fantasy Purgatory placed Hickok with Holiday, Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Sam Shepard had the main part in his hand.
The most recent version of Wild Bill is played by Jeff Fahey in Wild Bill Hickok: Swift Justice, released just this year. Lee Majors narrates the story.
In these movies we see a bits of truth squeaked out of lives of flamboyant lawmen: they did protect us regular folks and try to uphold justice.
However stretched, it is assuring to hear along with flying hooves from an old movie in a dark room on a Thursday night.
James Butler Hickok. http://www.biography.com