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The Plainsman

Black and white, 1936
Paramount Pictures
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Runtime: 113 minutes

Starring: Gary Cooper (Wild Bill Hickok), Jean Arthur (Calamity Jane), James Ellison (William "Buffalo Bill" Cody), Charles Bickford (John Lattimer), Helen Burgess (Louisa Cody), Porter Hall (Jack McCall), Paul Harvey (Yellow Hand), George 'Gabby' Hayes (Breezy)

From the introductory screen text:
"Among the men who thrust forward America's frontier were Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. The story that follows compresses many years, many lives, and widely separated events into one narrative-- in an attempt to do justice to the courage of the plainsmen of our west."

The opening scene of The Plainsman shows Abraham Lincoln discussing the nation's needs at the end of the Civil War. Lincoln is concerned that the soldiers coming home from the war may overwhelm their communities and local industries. One advisor suggests that these men should go west to the frontier, despite the Indian troubles to contend with. Lincoln agrees with the westward notion, and declares that the frontier must be made safe. He excuses himself to leave for his ill-fated evening at Ford's Theater.

The scene cuts to a group of gun manufacturers who are unsure where to sell their new repeating rifles now that the war has ended. One of the men suggests selling the rifles to Indians, which raises some concern about the guns being used against white men. The group nevertheless hires a man named Lattimer to haul and sell the rifles to the Indians in the west. Word comes during their meeting that Lincoln has been assassinated; Lattimer is dispatched with haste to St. Louis to begin moving the guns.

Some time later, a ferry boat is waiting in the St. Louis harbor and Wild Bill Hickok relaxes nearby a boxed shipment of Lattimer's guns, labeled "farming tools." At the dock, Hickok recognizes his old friend Buffalo Bill Cody, who is dressed in a fancy suit and accompanied by his new wife, Louisa. The two friends reunite and board the steamer to Leavenworth. Lattimer and his guns are also passengers on the boat.

When the boat arrives at Leavenworth, Calamity Jane is waiting to drive a stagecoach to Hayes City. As he disembarks the steamer, Calamity reunites with Hickok. The two were once lovers but had a falling out, and Hickok remains angry with her while she attempts to make amends. Nevertheless, he travels next to her in the driver's seat of the stage. The Codys come along as passengers to Hayes City, where the newlyweds hope to manage a hotel together.

Along the road, the stage comes across a guide named Breezy, who is injured badly by arrows. He tells Hickok the Sioux have attacked nearby Fort Piney, and are preparing for war.

At Hayes City, Hickok meets with General George Armstrong Custer to bring him the news from Fort Piney. Custer is concerned not only about the Sioux, but also about Yellow Hand's Cheyenne who are also threatening war. Hickok says that he knows Yellow Hand personally and volunteers to search him out. Meanwhile, Custer needs to bring ammunition to Fort Piney and assigns Cody to act as a guide. Though Cody is reluctant to leave his new wife, he and Hickok both feel a sense of duty, each declaring that they must do their part to make the frontier safe.

Calamity Jane stays behind with Mrs. Cody, who, unbeknownst to her husband, is pregnant with their first child. While the men are away, a group of Cheyenne swarm the cabin. Calamity distracts them long enough for Mrs. Cody to escape, and is then taken prisoner (it is strongly suggested that she is raped, as a group of Indians surround her in the cabin and smash out the lamp light before the scene fades).

In the next scene the Indians are shown pulling Calamity on a leash, her dress torn. Hickok spots this from a distance, and approaches in an attempt to buy Calamity from the Indians. They agree to sell her, but insist that Yellow Hand must approve the transaction. They are both taken prisoner and walked to Yellow Hand's camp.

While in the camp, Hickok spots familiar boxes filled with guns and labeled "farming tools." He quickly realizes that Lattimer has been dealing guns to the Indians. Yellow Hand expresses anger that the white man has killed the buffalo and not kept their promises. He tells Hickok he has bought the guns to fight the white man.

Yellow Hand knows the army is moving ammunition to Fort Piney, and tortures Hickok in front of Calamity to find out the army's traveling route. Though Hickok begs her not to tell, Calamity is unable to watch the man she loves being burned alive, so she relents. Upon learning that Calamity told the truth, Yellow Hand lets them both go free.

The Cheyenne ambush the ammunition party led by Cody. Hickok joins their fight as they are held under siege for a week. Calamity rides back to Hayes City to bring Custer's reinforcements. When the reinforcements finally arrive, 18 of the original 48 men survive.

Back in Hayes City, the townspeople are angry with Calamity Jane for telling the Cheyenne the army's travel route. She does not attempt to explain the situation in her own defense. They threaten to tar and feather her. Hickok interrupts this scene to re-focus the town's anger onto Lattimer, the man who is selling guns to the Indians. Hickok declares he will find Lattimer and kill him.

An ambitious yet cowardly man named Jack McCall warns Lattimer that Hickok is coming for him. Three soldiers, looking to desert from the army, agree to shoot Hickok if Lattimer will stake them in the Black Hills gold mines. In the ensuing confrontation, Hickok is shot in the arm and is forced to kill all three men.

Because the men he killed were soldiers, Hickok is forced to flee Hayes City. Cody and Calamity help him to escape, and he plans to continue looking for Lattimer. As he leaves Hayes City, Hickok makes his peace with Calamity, and indicates they may meet again in Deadwood.

While Hickok trails Lattimer, Custer orders Cody to track Hickok and bring him back to face his punishment for killing the soldiers. After some time on the trail, Cody finally meets Hickok in the woods. Their personal conflict nearly comes to a head when an Indian rides to their camp carrying a battered Seventh Cavalry flag. The Indian tells of a major defeat against Custer and his army, and declares that Sitting Bull and Yellow Hand plan to meet to buy rifles from a man in Deadwood. Cody leaves to find General Merritt and bring troops, while Hickok goes straight to Deadwood to stop Lattimer.

In Deadwood, Calamity Jane is tending bar. Hickok visits with her, ominously declaring that the west is changing, and that he might need to change with it. He indicates that Deadwood might be his final stop.

McCall, who now works with Lattimer, visits the bar and spots Hickok in town. McCall tries to warn Lattimer, but when they meet face to face Hickok outdraws Lattimer and kills him. Hickok takes the rest of the men as prisoners and awaits the arrival of Cody and the army. While waiting, Hickok and his prisoners play poker in the bar. McCall finds a pistol in a drawer behind the bar and shoots Hickok in the back; Hickok's final poker hand showed black aces and eights, now commonly referred to as a "dead man's hand." Hickok dies just as Cody arrives with General Merritt.

Plot keywords: Wild Bill Hickok, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Calamity Jane, General George Armstrong Custer, General Wesley Merritt, Abraham Lincoln, Sitting Bull, Yellow Hand, end of the Civil War, U.S. Army, cavalry, Cheyenne Indians, Sioux Indians, Indian attack, stagecoach, gun running, shootout, taming of the frontier, poker, dead man's hand

Scenery: open prairie and grass, some mountains, woods

The Plainsman is available on DVD.

Classic Westerns on TCM

Westerns on Fox Movie Channel


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