Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur in The Plainsman (1936)


(director: Cecil B. DeMille; screenwriters: Waldemar Young/Harold Lamb/Lynn Riggs/inspired by stories by Courtney Ryley Cooper and Frank J. Wilstach’s book Wild Bill Hickok, the Prince of Pistoleers (1926); cinematographers: Victor Milner/George Robinson; editor: Anne Bauchens; music: George Antheil; cast: Gary Cooper (Wild Bill Hickok), Jean Arthur (Calamity Jane), James Ellison (Buffalo Bill Cody), Charles Bickford (John Lattimer), Helen Burgess (Louisa Cody), Porter Hall (Jack McCall), Paul Harvey (Yellow Hand), Victor Varconi (Painted Horse), John Miljan (General George A. Custer), Frank McGlynn, Sr. (Abraham Lincoln), Porter Hall (Jack McCall), Paul Harrvey (Yellow Hand), Anthony Quinn (Lone Cheyenne); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Cecil B. DeMille; MCA Home Video; 1936)
“Plays fast and loose with history.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cecil B. DeMille (“Carmen”/”Cleopatra”/”The Ten Commandments”) plays fast and loose with history in this overly romantic depiction of Westward expansion that comes with a sticky domestic scenario and fortunately with robust action scenes of cowboys and Indians fighting that overcomes the melodramatics. The big-budget epic tells of historical characters such asWild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper), Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur), Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison)and General George A. Custer (John Miljan).It’sinspired by the stories of Courtney Ryley Cooper and Frank J. Wilstach’s 1926 book Wild Bill Hickok, the Prince of Pistoleers, and is written by Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb and Lynn Riggs.

After President Abraham Lincoln, at the close of the Civil War, vows to make the West safe for settlers, unscrupulous profiteering businessmenbecome gun-runners of repeating rifles to the Indians.They are led by John Lattimer (Charles Bickford), who bases his business out of Leavenworth, Missouri.

Meanwhile, in Leavenworth, Wild Bill Hickok is back from the Civil War. He reunites with his old flame Calamity Jane and his old pal Buffalo Bill Cody and Cody’s new wife Louisa (Helen Burgess). When near-by Fort Piney is attacked by Indians and half the fort is massacred, General Custer orders Cody to organize a scouting party to carry fresh ammunition to the fort. Hickok is to go after their Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hand (Paul Harvey). But a Cheyenne raiding party attacks the Cody home, where Jane and Louisa are talking about her pregnancy. Jane’s quick thinking allows Louisa to escape, and Jane flees to join Hickok. But both Jane and Wild Bill are captured by the Cheyenne and taken to their camp, where the Indians torture him at the stake and threaten to kill him unless Jane tells them Cody’s whereabouts. Jane, in love with Hickok, saves his life, but gives up Cody’s men. They are ambushed by Cheyenne using Lattimer’s rifles. Once free of the Indians, Hickok joins Cody and the remaining soldiers at Fort Piney in trying to turn back the Cheyenne. They are saved by the arrival of Custer and his men, whom Jane rode to for help. After the battle Hickok follows Lattimer into the Black Hills, as Custer orders Cody to bring to justice Hickok dead or alive for the murder of the soldiers.

Hickok learns from a lone Cheyenne (Anthony Quinn) that Sitting Bull’s Sioux nation massacred Custer’s U.S. 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn and the Sioux and Cheyenne are uniting for war against the white men and will be using Lattimer’s rifles. In Deadwood City, South Dakota, Hickok and Cody hook-up to stop Lattimer’s shipment. Hickok kills Lattimer in self-defense, and arrests his partners in a saloon. While playing poker in the same saloon, the cowardly Lattimer cohort Jack McCall (Porter Hall) shoots Hickok fatally in the back.

All the characters are idealized, and history is fictionalized. But it’s a decent western, now revered as a classic, featuring impressive sets and an eye-catching big-scale production.