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The Plainsman Reviews

Cecil B. DeMille sentimentalizes the American West but still fills the screen with excitement and high adventure as he relates the story of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Of course, DeMille's version of the story has little to do with the facts, but such incidental details never bothered the great showman, who felt it was his right to reshape history any way he wished. Cooper is the quick-drawing plainsman Hickok, and Arthur is the wisecracking, whip-snapping Calamity Jane. (Although the real Jane was an odorous drunk and ugly as sin, DeMille allows Arthur to play her glamorously, with coiffured hair, eye make-up, and lipstick perfectly fixed to her small mouth.) Hickok makes it his business to oppose conniving renegade Latimer (Bickford), who is selling guns to the Indians. In one confrontation with Latimer, Hickok is prevented from gunning down the cur but risks his friendship with Buffalo Bill Cody (Ellison) by breaking the law. Then Jane, thinking she is helping Hickok, makes a foray into Indian territory and is captured. When Hickok comes to rescue her, he is tortured for his efforts. To save him, Jane tells the Indians where and when the ammunition train will be arriving to supply General Custer (Miljan) and his troops. Hickok manages to break free, saves Jane, then races off to find the ammunition train surrounded by Indians. It looks like the end, but Custer arrives with his troops and drives off the savages. (These fast-moving action scenes were later used as stock footage in GERONIMO.) When the smoke clears, Hickok goes after Latimer once more, fending off three cavalry deserters en route to finally killing the renegade. Before the authorities can charge Hickok with the killings, he is shot to death while playing poker by Black Jack McCall (Hall). Hickok dies in Jane's arms, just as Buffalo Bill arrives to do nothing more than mourn the loss of the great gunfighter. Appearing in his first DeMille film, Gary Cooper is convincing as the legendary Hickok, and Jean Arthur is a feisty and colorful Calamity Jane. DeMille paired Cooper and Arthur because they had just scored a hugh success together in MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN. On the other hand, the flamboyant director selected Helen Burgess for the role of Louisa Cody after spotting her in Paramount's commissary, making her the only inexperienced actress he ever "discovered" and cast in a leading role. Sadly, the 18-year-old Burgess died shortly after the film's completion, succumbing to pneumonia, which also claimed the life of screenwriter Waldemar Young only weeks after the film was in the can. DeMille employed 2,500 real Sioux and Cheyenne Indians in the film and hired Anthony Quinn to do a two-minute chant celebrating the Custer massacre. Quinn, who would later become the director's son-in-law by marrying Katherine DeMille (the director's adopted daughter), answered a casting call for a real Indian who could do a war chant in native Cheyenne. Although he made up the words as he went along, Quinn managed to convinced DeMille that he was the real thing. In the interest of authenticity DeMille supplied the extras more than 70 period pistols from his own gun collection. However, when it came to choosing locations for the filming, only the background footage was shot in Montana, with the rest of the film shot on six acres of Paramount's back lot. In 1966 Universal starred Don Murray and Abby Dalton in poor imitation of this rousing original, giving the remake a brief theatrical release before selling it to television.