THE PLAINSMAN (1936)


THE PLAINSMAN (1936)
   Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, James Ellison, Helen Burgess, George Hayes, Cecil B. DeMille (director)
   This high-budget epic begins with the end of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and ends with the killing of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, South Dakota. DeMille and crew worked hard to be authentic in everything except history and character as he takes the barest elements of the historical narrative and glorifies them.
   According to historical accounts, Lincoln, on the afternoon before he died, profoundly pronounced, “The frontier should be secure” (a remark repeated in the film). This new “doctrine” gave permission to some of the baser sorts to head West and begin their ruthless quest for power. DeMille probably intended that this would be how we interpret the actions of the wily merchant, Lattimer (Charles Bickford) — the man who takes out crates labeled farming implements that are actually full of guns for the Indians. According to classic Western values, one of the vilest characters in the old West is the gunrunner who trades guns to Indians. New Western history, however, requires a different interpretation of this classic version of the Western myth. According to this new history, gunrunners are not the bad guys in the West. Instead, the postwar despoilers of the West are the baser sorts such as Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, and even Calamity Jane (who sells her soul to be male and yet desperately wants Bill to love her).
   The interpretation DeMille wanted to show the 1930s audience was probably this: The divided nation comes together after the war to finish the business of taming the West and ridding it of savagery. Brave men like Wild Bill Hickok (Cooper), Buffalo Bill Cody (Ellison), General George Armstrong Custer (John Miljan), and even brave womenlike Calamity Jane (Arthur), albeit always weaker than men, were needed to tame the rugged West. Men needed to separate themselves from feminizing influences, but here, Buffalo Bill has made the mistake of getting married. His new wife, Louisa (Helen Burgess), will destroy his character unless she can learn that her values are false and his are noble. Even Wild Bill must beware of giving in to his feminine side by falling in love with the masculinated (although gorgeous blonde with flawless Hollywood complexion) Calamity Jane. The minute he counts on her, she gives in to natural feminine weakness and reveals the location of an army troop in order to save his life. She redeems herself, however, by riding through withering gunfire in search of reinforcements. This is the story DeMille wanted for his audience. And, no doubt, the audience approved. Add to that the kinds of sets, outdoor scenery, stunts, and special effects impossible for B Western budgets, and we have one of the great Western spectacles of the pre–World War II era. The Plainsman exemplifies a problem that many contemporary viewers have with older Westerns and thus shows the sharp contrast between postmodern values and the values of Cecil DeMille’s audience. In the film, as DeMille evidently intended it to be viewed, the savage Indians who have captured Wild Bill confront Calamity with a choice: tell where the army troop is camped or the man she loves will be promptly killed. Which choice would serve the greater good? Wild Bill hisses, “Do not tell.” She tells. The original audience surely condemned her and probably attributed her “failure” to feminine weakness. Many typical viewers today would not condemn her. They might ask whether choosing the greater good is a better choice than saving her lover. Many today might also note that Calamity does not even consider whether the greater good for the army is morally a greater good than for the Native Americans. Also, Lattimer the gun merchant, as DeMille portrays him, sneaks out West to sell guns to the Indians. Original viewers would have seen his activity as a basic evil. Yet many viewers today might question whether the historic selling of guns to Native Americans was necessarily bad. In the movie, had the white gunrunner not sold the guns, the Sioux could not have fought and destroyed Custer and his men. The film presents conflicting values, as if the values of the whites are superior to the values of the Native Americans. For many viewers today, this historical conflict of values makes a film like The Plainsman hopelessly dated and explains in part why audiences turn away from the older Westerns.
   See also BATTLE OF LITTLE BIG HORN; MANIFEST DESTINY.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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