The Plainsman (Cecil B. DeMille, 1936) 🇺🇸

The Plainsman |

November 20, 2021

“Where sun rises, white man’s land. Where sun sets, Indian’s land.” The two “Pale Faces” don’t seem to have understood Indian law and appear on the wrong side, bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun. This 1936 western takes place in the mythical period spanning the life of the legendary Buffalo Bill. The film whisks us away on an extraordinary ride across the Great Plains.

Its Italian title, La Conquista del West, takes possession of the land as it spreads its yellow letters across hills teeming with vengeful Indians brandishing their arrows. Their hunger for expansion echoes the opening credits when we see words scroll up (in the same way as Star Wars), disappearing into a distant horizon that holds the promise of unconquered lands. 

“Conquest”, however, is far from easy, meeting with stern resistance as illustrated by the Cheyenne on the poster. Wearing the traditional Indian attire of feathered headdress, bead-embroidered bracelets, leather loincloth and quiver slung across his chest, he’s on the warpath. In the film, the Indians, armed with rifles sold to them by various unscrupulous businessmen (including Charles Bickford, alias Lattimer, who often played tough guys), want to take advantage of the rest of the weapons left over from the American Civil War. For once the two sides find themselves on equal terms, unlike other westerns where the Indians inevitably find themselves at a loss when faced with armed men who methodically massacre them. The film doesn’t spare us the violence of fight scenes in the grandiose settings so wonderfully filmed by Cecil B. DeMille, known for biblical epic movies such as The Ten Commandments). Although showing little concern for his stuntmen and horses, he did, to his credit, always take care to check that weapons were loaded with blanks, avoiding accidents like with the recent tragic shooting by Alec Baldwin on the set of the western Rust. The two sides trade shots in a hail of (pretend) bullets as terrified horses rear up, whinnying in terror, and their riders fall to the ground, bodies broken. 

A certain Wild Bill Hickok has arrived to lend a hand to General Custer’s soldiers and displays his sharpshooting talents as he fires both his Colts simultaneously. We cannot help admire Gary Cooper, of course, who never turns down an opportunity for some shooting (in addition to his love of fishing, riding, women and taxidermy!), as he himself admits: “Once in a while, I like a good western. Gives me a chance to shoot off guns”. He is just as skilled with a knife, an absolutely enormous tool he uses to peel an apple as well as a projectile thrown at a hat. At the beginning of the movie, amidst the hustle and bustle of the Saint Louis quays swarming with pioneers, he’s practising with his whip as a kid looks on in astonishment, and flicks a stone off the hindquarters of none other than Buffalo Bill! Played by James Ellison, Buffalo Bill is in fact his friend, newly married and resolved on opening a hotel and settling down. Despite the promise of the film’s French title which tells us we’ll be following Buffalo Bill’s adventures, the story focuses on his partner, Hickok. When he goes to the aid of his kidnapped sweetheart, the movie’s real hero only just escapes being roasted alive in the Indian camp. He goes on to die during a poker game he is losing as he holds two pairs of black aces and black eights (a combination now known as “the dead man’s hand”). Killed by a cowardly shot in the back by one of the gun runner’s sidekicks, he sums up his sad fate with the words: “A man’s bound to lose, sooner or later”. 

But he doesn’t die in the company of enemies alone. The fiery Calamity Jane gives him one last, loving kiss. Jean Arthur offers up a marvellous interpretation of the iconic figure of the Far West, as expert in handling a lasso as in unleashing a stream of nonsensical remarks – a true tomboy! If he hadn’t kept her picture in his pocket watch, we might well wonder if Hickok has a heart at all. The man who wiped away each of her kisses on the back of his sleeve cannot refuse this last proof of her love. On the poster, he seems to love her. In real life, she was buried next to him.

It is hard to separate truth from the fiction of rumours and invention. I prefer to opt for the romantic version imparted by this poster with its aura of legend. You can enjoy contemplating it from your couch as you mediate on Carlos Zanón’s words: “Reality outstripped fiction. Then fiction outstripped reality, at which point everything became no more than a copy of a copy with the original forgotten”.

Check out the French version of this article.