For Reel

The Plainsman (1936)
May 1, 2012, 10:00 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Cecil B. DeMille’s flamboyance is on display in The Plainsman, a western that boasts of containing a highly-fictionalized account of the Old West, condensing timelines and bringing together an unusual array of frontier icons in an apparent war against historical accuracy. Ever the showman, DeMille’s centerpiece is a battle against the Cheyenne Indians, which incorporates a reported two thousand Native American extras and some surprisingly convincing rear projection work. If the scale of the warfare is satisfactory, however, the casting of Gary Cooper is a blight that is never overcome. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which was released the same year (earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor), Cooper plays an intentionally dull, laconic leading man, however in comparison to his Wild Bill Hickok, Deeds is a rousing, animated presence. One would be hard-pressed to find a more apathetic western hero, with his wooden line readings carrying all of the authority of a goldfish. His co-star, Jean Arthur, does what she can in the thankless role of Calamity Jane, but even her vivacity can’t quite bring integrity to the worrisome blunderer¬† – take a shot every time that she must whimper “Oh, Bill!” and your liver will never recover. Beyond the miscasting, DeMille is not at all suited to the genre. His busy frames are the antithesis of the brooding landscapes of Ford or Hawks, and as such he loses the sense of mythologizing that is present in the best of the genre, denigrating his heroes to an afterthought amidst the action setpieces.