"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hang ‘em High (UA, 1968)












Better than some later Eastwood stuff





 
This movie came in a boxed set of spaghetti westerns with the Dollars trilogy which is odd marketing because it is not in fact a spaghetti. For one thing, there is an attempt to address a moral question. So that disqualifies it immediately.

For another, the dialogue and sound are recorded in situ and the film is not dubbed. There is no stylized exaggerated violence (apart from the hangings), nor any Leone wide screen ultra-close-ups. It was filmed in New Mexico with American character actors. It was directed by an American TV show director and produced by Malpaso and the Hawaii 5-0 people.  Hell, it even had Ed Begley in it.

In the very first scene we have one of the oldest Western tropes of all as the hero is kind to an animal. Obviously a goody. So clearly we are not dealing with the grunting spaghetti killer we had become used to Clint giving us over there in Europe.
 
Spag titles
 
Yes, it did have certain spaghetti influences but they are kept to a minimum.

So that’s a relief. Clint is hanged before the titles, which is a bit of a surprise. They do The Ox-Bow Incident in 9 minutes, though forget the quality part. Ben Johnson cuts him down alive (just) but then sadly is written out. What a wonderful Western actor Johnson was but how often he was misused.

Ben the Great

Clint is ‘Marshal Cooper’, not called Coop (as the hero is in, say, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here) so we forgive him, and he signs on with Hanging ‘Judge Fenton’ (Pat Hingle) at ‘Fort Grant’ (only the names have been changed to protect the guilty). Of course he uses the badge to hunt his lynch mob, led by Capt. Ed Begley. Lynching is such an appalling, base and cowardly crime that we have no sympathy for the perpetrators, especially when they decide to forestall arrest and try to kill Clint again. That is just plain naughty.
 
Marshal Cooper blasts 'em
 
Just as, in a way, any war film is inevitably an anti-war film (it is enough to show war), so any film that shows a hanging in detail becomes an anti-capital punishment statement. The multiple hangings ordered by Judge Fenton (obviously based on Isaac Parker), with their The Bravados/True Grit-style festive audience, beer vendors, children watching, and, worst of all, a clergyman officiating at the celebrations with hymns and prayers, are enough to turn the stomach of even a fan of the death penalty.

Revolting

In the dialogue Clint compares the judge’s hangings to lynching and you do wonder, especially when two teenage boys found quickly guilty of stealing a few cows but not murder are ritually strangled.
 
Good old Ed
 
We have some excellent actors. Everyone loves Ed Begley and you should see him when Clint comes for his revenge. Fear, panic and terror drip from his pores. Those white eyebrows reach for the sky. He is incompetent evil personified.

And then, oh joy, we have Bruce Dern. Now Bruce Dern has to be a candidate for the Best Baddy in Westerns Award. There ought to be a Western Badman Hall of Fame and if there were, Bruce would reign supreme. Only Richard Boone came close. As soon as I see Mr. Dern in the credits, I know we are in for a good time. Quentin Tarantino knew this too and that is why he included him in his recent Django Unchained and The Hateful 8. The only serious philosophical question for debate is, is he eviler in The Cowboys or Will Penny? My personal favorite is Last Man Standing. Is there a Bruce Dern fan club? There must be. I need to be elected President.
 
Bruce the Great
 
Why is Inger Stevens always a boarding house (or whorehouse) lady? Firecreek, 5 Card Stud, Hang ‘em High, she was always to be seen in a boarding/cathouse. Odd. And she always had 1960s blonde hair. Oh well.
 
Sitting in her boarding house
 
Bob Steele is the only decent member of the lynch party. Good old Bob, we always like to see him. LQ Jones is there in the mob too. And Dennis Hopper is a crazed preacher shot down (reluctantly) by Marshal Ben Johnson. So we have some old friends here. Not like spaghettis.
 
Bob Steele, old friend
 
The photography’s OK (Richard Kline and Leonard South) and the quality of the print very good; the music (Dominic Frontiere), however, is not. When Clint is making out with over-made-up Inger, the music is such romantic slush it could have been lifted from a Doris Day film.

The screenplay (Leonard Freeman & Mel Goldberg) and direction (Ted Post, the Rawhide guy) are the weakest links. Characters were supposed to develop and show complexity with two scenes and six lines of dialogue. Can’t be done. Post was essentially a TV director, and it shows.

So it’s a proper Western, not a trash spaghetti. It’s just not a very good one. A pity because in the right hands it could have had a lot to say.

It was a million times better than the Leone junk Eastwood had been doing and curiously, after it he went backwards. The Don Siegel-directed Two Mules for Sister Sara that he did two years later, for example, was much more spaghetti than this one. It wasn’t really until Joe Kidd in 1972 that Clint starred in a really good Western and began his climb to greatness via Josey Wales and Pale Rider to the magnificent Unforgiven.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Wild Bill Hickok in fact and fiction, part 1/2: the fact


The Prince of Pistoleers


Pancake hat, Prince Albert frock coat

Even while Wild Bill Hickok was alive, and ever since his dramatic death, tall tales and exaggerations of his exploits have been common. As was the case with all noted figures of the West, be they outlaws, lawmen or somewhere in between, the number of men they fought or killed has been grossly inflated. Just as with Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and countless others, the fictional Wild Bill has so far cast the factual one in shadow as to make the true person unknown.

Hollywood in particular latched onto Wild Bill as a perfect subject for Westerns and his character appeared in silent movies, programmers, serials and major A-pictures. He appeared on the big screen 40 times, that I know of, and in 153 TV shows. That’s a lot of screen Bills. He has been impersonated by actors as diverse as William S Hart, Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers, Wild Bill Elliott, Forrest Tucker, Guy Madison, Charles Bronson, LQ Jones, David Carradine, and both father and son, Lloyd and Jeff Bridges.

Out of all these appearances (I do not count here the TV documentaries), not a single one has accurately shown us the true James Butler Hickok (1837 – 76).

1.    The fact

To get at the real (but no less interesting) Wild Bill, we need to read Joseph G Rosa. Mr. Rosa, an Englishman from Middlesex, devoted his life to the subject and he is by far the most authoritative and reliable of Bill’s biographers. He has written many books but the key text is They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Times of James Butler Hickok, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, which was first published in 1964 and then revised after more research in 1974. It is an admirable book, scholarly yet readable, obviously deeply researched, balanced, clear, factual and fascinating.
 
Fine book - you won't do better
  
Early life

James Butler Hickok was born in Homer (now Troy Grove), Illinois on May 27, 1837, the fourth son of farmers William Alonzo and Polly Butler Hickok. He received schooling (though all his life his spelling was to be basically phonetic) and as a boy developed a passion for and skill with firearms. He was also imbued with his parents’ detestation of slavery and helped southern slaves escape to the safety of Canada through the ‘underground railway’. James was a lifelong anti-slaver.

Kansas

In 1856 James and his brother Lorenzo set out for Kansas to establish a claim on farmland. For some unknown reason, James was often known in the family as Bill. Lorenzo was known as ‘Tame Bill’ and was of a different character. He soon returned home, leaving James to make his way in Kansas. James became involved in the Free State movement and joined James H Lane’s Free State Army, which he stayed with for about a year.

In 1857 he first met William Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, and began their lifelong friendship. He stayed at the Cody home in Leavenworth for several months.
 
Buffalo Bill Cody as a young man
 
In March 1858 James, not yet 21, was elected Constable of Monticello in Johnson Country. It was his first experience as a peace officer. He farmed at the same time and made a claim on land. At the end of ’58 he left Monticello, apparently because of an unsuccessful affair with a girl, Mary Owen.

James got a job as a freighter and coach driver. When in 1860 Cody became a rider for the new Pony Express, James was too tall and big to join him (they only hired youths and slight men) and  instead continued with his transportation work. It is at this time that he was said to have fought a grizzly bear and killed it with his knife, being, however, severely mauled. In September, Indians attacked a station and drove off stock; James led a successful raid to recover the animals, with Cody along too.

The McCanles affair

In July 1861 Hickok was involved in the first of his several famous shooting scrapes. As far as we can ascertain, the facts, according to Rosa, were these: David C McCanles, whose mistress Sarah Shull had perhaps been dallying with Hickok, came to the Pony Express station at Rock Creek to demand payment of money he was owed by the company, and was fatally shot from inside the building as he entered, perhaps by Hickok or by the superintendent, Horace Wellman.
 
Dave McCanles. He looks a bit like Pavarotti.
 
Two of McCanles’s supporters then rushed the station. Hickok shot and wounded one, James Woods, and then Mrs. Wellman, crazed, screaming, “Kill them! Kill them all!” attacked and killed the injured Woods with a grubbing hoe. She then made a rush at McCanles’s son, Monroe, 12, who ran away and escaped. The other McCanles partisan, James Gordon, received a shot in the body, it is not clear from whom, and staggered away. Two company men, Doc Brink and George Hulbert, pursued him and one of them killed him with a shotgun beside a creek. Thus three men had died, one of them possibly, but not certainly, killed by Hickok. In a subsequent hearing, Hickok was cleared of murder. Mrs. Wellman was not even charged and appeared as a witness.

Immediately, the affair was written up, discussed and exaggerated and Hickok’s reputation as a deadly gunman was established.

The war

Mr. Rosa has uncovered a lot more than was previously known about Hickok’s role in the Civil War. Although he joined the Union Army as a teamster, Hickok soon became a scout and spy behind enemy lines. He was especially active in the Battle of Westport in 1864.

He became celebrated for his daring and it was during the war that he became known as Wild Bill.

Dave Tutt

In July 1865, about a month after being mustered out, Wild Bill got into a gunfight with Davis K Tutt in Springfield, Missouri. They had been on bad terms for some time. One theory says that Bill had got Tutt’s sister pregnant. Another says that Hickok and Tutt were rivals for the affections of Susannah Moore. Owed money by Bill after card games, Tutt took Bill’s watch. Bill warned him not to wear it but Tutt flaunted it the next day on the public square. Bill warned Tutt not to cross the square but he did. They both pulled pistols and fired as one. Tutt’s shot missed but Hickok’s hit him in the heart.
 
Wild Bill fights Dave Tutt in Springfield Missouri, 1865
 
A warrant was issued for Hickok for the killing though the charge was later reduced to manslaughter. Bill was tried and acquitted. Juries held to the Western code of a fair fight. Press reaction was, however, quite negative to Bill.

Added to the McCanles affair of four years earlier, the killing of Dave Tutt made Wild Bill’s reputation grow by leaps and bounds. This surge in notoriety received a huge boost when Bill met a certain Colonel George Ward Nichols, who later wrote up Bill’s life in lurid and exaggerated terms in an article for the widely-read Harper’s Weekly magazine. For years afterwards, Bill was known in the press as ‘Wild Bill, of Harper’s fame.’ He was a celebrity.

Deputy US Marshal

In 1866 Wild Bill was appointed a Deputy US Marshal at Fort Riley and captured deserters and mule thieves. He signed on as a scout for General Sherman and also acted as a guide for tourists on the plains. At this time he got to know California Joe (Moses Milner), scout, gunfighter, trapper, gold digger; the Welsh-American journalist and explorer HM Stanley; and General George Armstrong Custer, for whom he scouted in ’67.
 
 California Joe
 
Henry Morton Stanley
  
In 1868 Deputy US Marshal Hickok escorted some prisoners from Hays City to Topeka, accompanied by Bill Cody. A young boy met him and was enormously impressed: it was Bill Tilghman. Hickok then scouted for the 10th Cavalry but missed the Washita and was snowed up on the Canadian River with General Penrose. He was rescued by Buffalo Bill.

Bill Tilghman as a young man (he was a buffalo hunter at 15)

In 1869 Bill was wounded by Indians and left the scouts. He made his base in Hays and in August was elected Sheriff of Ellis County. In August he fatally shot Bill Mulrey (or Mulvey) and in September he killed Samuel Strawhun in a saloon brawl. In October he prevented a lynching in Hays. But in November he lost the election to succeed himself and left for Topeka.

In 1870 he was back in Hays and got into a fight with some 7th Cavalry troopers in which he killed one and wounded another. He left town in a hurry ahead of irate citizens and gambled in Topeka.

Abilene

In April 1871 he accepted the job as marshal of the booming and lawless cattle town of Abilene. Although one of his predecessors was a certain Tom Smith, Mr. Rosa is not sure that this was in fact the famous ‘Bear River’ Tom Smith, as is usually thought.
 
John Wesley Hardin
 
Hickok’s tenure lasted barely seven months but in that period at different times he came up against Texas gunmen John Wesley Hardin, Ben Thompson and Phil Coe. Mr. Rosa discounts the story that Hardin got the drop on Hickok with a ‘border roll’, putting it down to Hardin’s boastful autobiography. There was no love lost between Ben Thompson and Hickok and it is possible that Thompson tried to get Hardin to brace the marshal. In any case, Thompson left for Texas to get his wife but was involved in a bad buggy accident and never returned.
 
Ben Thompson
  
Bill kept the lid on Abilene, enforcing a no-gun ordinance and confining the worst excesses to the area known as the ‘Devil’s Addition’ north of the tracks. He was admired by many grateful Abilene residents but did enough to earn the hatred of the Texans who regarded Abilene as ‘theirs’.

Phil Coe

6 foot 4 inch Phil Coe deserted from the Confederate army after one day, having struck an officer, and went to Mexico to fight for Maximilian. There he met and befriended fellow Texan Ben Thompson. Coe became a saloon man and eventually arrived in Abilene. On October 5, he was with a mob of Texans outside The Alamo saloon. There Coe discharged his revolver. Marshal Hickok came running and demanded to know who had fired in contravention of the no-gun law. Coe said he had shot at a stray dog. The marshal told the mob to disperse and when they roared in protest he shot Coe twice in the abdomen (he died in agony two days later). Just at that moment a friend of Hickok’s, a special deputy (though not Hickok’s deputy) named Mike Williams, rushed round the corner and Hickok instantly and instinctively fired again and Williams was killed.
 
Phil Coe
 
Once again, reports were magnified and erroneous. Hickok had “shot down two policemen in cold blood”, and so on. Texans put a price on Hickok’s head. Bill foiled three would-be murderers on a rail trip to Topeka. Bill was crushed by what he had unwittingly done and it was not long before he left Abilene. In any case the anti-cattle-trade reformers were gaining ground and there was a strong anti-Hickok party forming. He was dismissed on December 13.

In 1872 Bill was in Georgetown, Colorado with his loyal friend Charley Utter and he then went to Kansas City where he met Col. Sidney Barnett who persuaded him to take part in a 'grand buffalo chase', a sort of Wild West show, in Niagara Falls at the end of August. In September he visited the Kansas City Exposition where he enraged some Texans by refusing to let the band play Dixie. Rosa discounts, however, the story that he foiled Jesse James’s raid on the box office – the James gang got clear away.
 
The person on the left has been variously identified but is most commonly thought to be Colorado Charley Utter, Wild Bill's good friend
  
The murder of Chief Whistler

Later that year Wild Bill was blamed for the murder of the Indian chief Whistler and two other Indians but Rosa is clear that the ‘Wild Bill’ concerned was not Hickok. There were several ‘Wild Bills’ on the frontier.

Show business

In the fall of 1873 Hickok was persuaded to join Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro back East on the stage in their enormously popular shows about life on the plains. Hickok was a poor actor and disliked making an exhibition of himself. In 1874 he left the show.
 
Wild Bill Hickok, Texas Jack Omohundro and Buffalo Bill Cody at the time of their theatrical collaboration
  
Agnes

Bill had first met Agnes Lake Thatcher, an accomplished circus equestrienne, in Hays but while she had been enthusiastic, he had been less so. Now, however, they took up together, and they continued a long correspondence when Bill left again for the plains. He acted as guide for rich tourists and by 1875 was gambling in Cheyenne. There his name appeared on a list of those liable to arrest for vagrancy. His eyesight was giving him trouble and Mr. Rosa discusses all the possible causes. Bill appears to have been photophobic and he started wearing tinted glasses.
 
Agnes Lake Thatcher, Mrs. JB Hickok
  
In March 1876, Bill and Agnes were married by a Methodist minister in Cheyenne. They honeymooned in Agnes’s home town of Cincinnati and then Bill, eager to make money, left again to make a strike in the Black Hills. Together with Charley Utter and Charley’s brother Steve, they set off for Deadwood, where they arrived in July ’76. Bill wrote genuinely tender letters to Agnes while there.

Calamity Jane

Mr. Rosa completely discounts the story of a romance between Martha Jane Cannary, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill. Still less is it likely that they married. There is no evidence at all for any relationship and it is improbable in the extreme. In any case Jane was not in Deadwood when Bill was killed (as many movies show).
 
Calamity Jane
  
Murder

On Wednesday, August 2, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head while playing cards in Nuttall & Mann’s No. 10 saloon by one ‘Bill Sutherland’ whose real name turned out to be Jack McCall. Wild Bill was supposed to have been holding aces and eights, ever after known as the dead man's hand.
 
Dead man's hand
 
No one will ever know the complete truth about why Wild Bill was killed. Jack McCall took the secret to the gallows with him. But it seems likely that he was paid to do it, possibly by one John or Johnny Varnes. At one point McCall named Varnes, who had once fallen foul of Hickok in Denver and the animosity was increased by a confrontation over a game of poker in Deadwood when Bill had interfered in a dispute between Varnes and another man. A marshal was sent to find Varnes but he had disappeared. The matter was never pursued and no one knows what happened to Varnes. After being acquitted by a miners’ kangaroo court in Deadwood right after the murder, McCall was properly tried in Yankton and hanged there in March 1877.
 
The only known picture of Jack McCall
 
Bill received a proper funeral in Deadwood paid for by his pardner Charley Utter.

The Prince of Pistoleers

Wild Bill Hickok thus lived a short but remarkable life and one wonders why it should be necessary to invent nonsense about him in movies. Scout, spy, lawman, gambler, marksman supreme, his life was charged with excitement, danger and action.

We still await the true Wild Bill on the screen. Sadly, it is too late now to have Joseph Rosa as historical consultant on the set.

In a later post, Wild Bill Hickok in fact and fiction, part 2/2: the fiction, we’ll look at how Wild Bill has been presented to us in serious novels, pulp fiction and on the screen.

 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

No Country for Old Men (Paramount, 2007)


Book and film leave you with a hard knot of coldness in your stomach




 
 
Set in West Texas (as was the Coen brothers’ first movie, Blood Simple) in 1980 – a piece of dialogue about a coin situates it exactly in that year - No Country for Old Men tells, faithfully, Cormac McCarthy’s story of a drugs deal gone wrong which develops into a complex pursuit Western noir. It’s a stunningly good book. I remember I bought it in 2005 the day it came out in Borders in Flagstaff, AZ and I read it while staying at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, NM. Little did I know that the very same hotel (called the 'Eagle' and on the Mexican border) would figure in the movie only two years later. It's a great hotel, by the way, and I recommend it.
 
The hero (of a kind), Llewelyn Moss, excellently played by Josh Brolin, is a tough, independent cowboy. He's a trailer-park rube but he manages some pretty Western maneuvers and he goes his own way. 
 
The ordinary guy who is out of his depth
 
Ed Tom Bell, the decent country sheriff who is after him, as much to protect him as jail him, is marvelously interpreted by the actor who dominates, Tommy Lee Jones. Mr. Jones is a Texas man and a rancher and was the perfect choice. The role moves seamlessly on from his wonderful Pete in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada of two years before. He is an actor capable of great subtlety, as this part required.
 
World-weary, wry, out of time
  
As Anton Chigurh, the enigmatic, scary hitman after Llewellyn, with his sinister air cylinder, Spanish actor Javier Bardem, in his 70s haircut, is superb. He is creepy and chilling. When he was approached by the Coens, he said "I don't drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence." The Coens responded, "That's why we called you."
 
When he learned about the haircut he had to wear, Javier Bardem said he wouldn't get laid for months afterwards. The Coens high-fived their success, for the hairstyle adds wonderfully to the weirdo effect.
 
Curiously for the narrative and unusually for a Western, these three principals never meet. On one level you’ve just got a druggy crime story with an amoral bad guy, a decent cop and a dumb redneck - the ugly, the good and the bad, you might say - and you root for Llewelyn, the ordinary guy doing his best but out of his depth. But with writers and directors as sensitive as the Coens and with a base novel as truly great as Mr. McCarthy’s, this film goes far beyond that. Book and film leave you with a hard knot of coldness in your stomach.
  
 The greatest living American novelist
 
The West Texas country of the title (a lot shot in New Mexico) is harshly beautiful and there are wide exteriors finely photographed by Oscar-nominated Roger Deakins (who did outstanding work on The Assassination of Jesse James… the same year). He paints with light.

Carter Burwell’s lean, low-key music is subtle and sparsely used, underlining the aridity of the landscape and theme.

Of the support actors, all are top class. As Moss’s wife, Kelly MacDonald, a Glaswegian, has a completely convincing West Texas accent (it comes as a real surprise to hear her real voice). The great Barry Corbin is Bell’s aged mentor, and a scene where Sheriff Bell visits with him is reminiscent (deliberately or not, I don’t know) of Gary Cooper talking to his elderly predecessor Lon Chaney Jr. in High Noon. Woody Harrelson, who was so fine as Big Boy Matson in The Hi-Lo Country, is the hitman sent after the hitman. In the novel, Sheriff Bell says of the dope-dealers, Here a while back in San Antonio they shot and killed a federal judge. (No quotation marks. It's McCarthy). In 1979, Federal Judge John H Wood Jr. was in fact shot and killed in San Antonio, Texas. Free-lance contract killer Charles Harrelson, Woody’s father, was convicted of the crime. I suppose this was deliberately Coenesque casting, clever, apt, slightly creepy.
 
Woody Harrelson, son of a hitman, as the hitman sent after the hitman
 
There are the scariest motel scenes since Psycho.

In some ways it’s a kind of Texas Fargo, with small town folk swept up into major crime, but really it’s an anti-Fargo, hot and southern, not snowy and northern, with chilling, inexorable, lethal criminals rather than comically inept hitmen.

There's a fine portrayal of courage when Ed Tom Bell enters a darkened motel room at night, fearing that the killer is within. He demonstrates that true courage is not the absence of fear but being afraid and doing it anyway.

This is a dark film and the humor (for there is humor) is appropriately black. Actually, the America they show is no damn country for anyone. As is to be expected from the Coen brothers, the direction, writing and editing are outstanding. The picture won four Oscars (best picture, best direction, best writing and best supporting actor for Bardem) and was nominated for four more.

The movie is very violent but it is essentially about violence. From Ed Tom Bell’s opening speech on, there is a lack of comprehension how anyone can be so violent and evil and why.  It is also about aging and the passing of time, as the title suggests. WB Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium put it poetically, That is no country for old men. Sheriff Bell says, "It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin' 'sir' and 'ma'am’, the end is pretty much in sight." He sounds kinda like your grandpappy and you nod tolerantly at the old boy. But we very soon realize that it’s gone way past that.  Chigurh’s depredations are beyond all hope for decency, and Ed Tom Bell comes to understand that. Later, Bell and his old El Paso counterpart (Rodger Boyce) put it more earthily: “It’s just goddam beyond everything.”

The Messieurs Coen

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The White Buffalo (UA, 1976)


Semi-amusing but pretty dire really
 
 
 
 
 
 
Jaws meets Moby Dick on the Plains. Great white shark, a white whale, a white buffalo? White elephant more like.

The Quint-Ahab figure is Wild Bill Hickok, no less and he partners up with Crazy Horse to hunt down the albino buffalo. So it’s obviously based on fact, huh. The “white spike” is haunting Mr. Hickok’s dreams and so he has to kill it. Mr. Horse needs to kill it because it gored his daughter to death and she cannot rest in the spirit world unless he does. Or something.

Although I make an exception for the great Dead Man, I dislike mumbo-jumbo Westerns. Quite good ones, like The Last Hunt (also about a white buffalo) or The Missing, come close to being spoiled by stupid magic and hocus-pocus. The White Buffalo isn’t half as good as those movies and the mumbo-j. effectively sinks it.

Charles Bronson is Wild Bill. We are in 1874 and apparently Hickok, fresh from his appearances on the stage with Buffalo Bill, took the name James Otis and set off to the Dakotas by train to track down and kill the white buffalo that charges him in his nightmares. He is aging, has syphilis and his eyesight is failing. He wears cool shades. He wears long hair, dandy clothes and has two large pistols in the red sash around his waist. He was obviously traveling incognito.
 
He looks so like Wild Bill
 
Amazingly, he is recognized and there is some bunkum about Tom Custer (Ed Lauter), the general’s brother, wanting to kill him. Still, it gives the excuse for a gunfight in which soldiers can be shot. Tom makes a run for it.

Will Sampson, a Creek, is Crazy Horse (renamed Worm until he kills the buff) and is quite good, as far as the script allows anyway.
 
Crazy Horse aka Worm
 
One problem is the buffalo itself, which is too evidently in those pre-CGI days a lumbering mechanical device on hidden tracks with smoke blowing from its nostrils. The shark was scarier. Actually, it rather resembles a cuddly toy. They do all the charges in slo-mo, maybe to make it look more ‘realistic’ (because as we know buffalo always charge in slow motion) but all that does is give us more time to notice how fake the beast is. Maybe it was more impressive on the wide screen in a theater. Maybe.
 
Rather like an angry lamb
 
The slogan on the posters was “You won’t believe your eyes!” Well, indeed, they were right, we didn’t.

The movie was expensively filmed in Colorado but a large amount is done in the studio and that looks even faker.

So I’m afraid it’s not awfully good.

It does have its points though. There’s a good scene in a crowded saloon where Bill and his old-timer pard, one-eyed Charlie Zane (Jack Warden, rather good) take on a band of hide hunter toughs and blast them to hell. These toughs are the henchpersons of Whistling Jack Kileen, an excellent Clint Walker, meaner and heavier than usual and quite convincing. You wouldn’t want to tangle with Whistling Jack Kileen, though of course Wild Bill doesn’t mind.
 
They seem to be having fun. I fear it won't last.
 
We have good old Douglas Fowley as the train conductor in his last Western movie of 64 (and countless TV shows). Slim Pickens drives the stage and actually I think he is on the same run he was on in the remake of Stagecoach. They put an undertaker in the story and of course only John Carradine, typecast in that role, would do. Stuart Whitman (Marshal Crown from Cimarron Strip, also in The Man from the Alamo, Seven Men from Now, The Comancheros, etc) is there, and Kim Novak, in her second Western of two, plays Poker Jenny with whom Bill declines to, er, canoodle on the grounds of the ‘dose’ he says one of Jenny’s ‘scarlet sisters’ gave him (her fault, obviously).
 
Cadaverous Carradine (left)
 
So there are a few familiar faces to enjoy.

But Englishman J Lee Thompson, the Guns of Navarone and King Solomon’s Mines fellow, couldn’t direct Westerns, as the other one he did, Mackenna’s Gold, proved.

The movie justly bombed.