The Plainsman (1936)

The Plainsman (1936), directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

At the end of the Civil War the arms merchants are facing a collapse in demand. Maybe sell repeating rifles to the Indians in exchange for furs? Lincoln would never allow it. But: now Lincoln is dead. Nothing can stop the gunrunning scheme, unless stalwart men of the Great Plains are on the job, Lincoln's agents in spirit...

As the film admits in the opening titles:


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.

In other words, it is a fantasy built from the mythical exploits of Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane and Custer. I think by this time audiences expected nothing else; you don't go to Hollywood for history lessons.

DeMille has always seemed a stiff director, more interested in pageantry than character, but this one flows much more naturally. The richness in detail and busyness of the crowds made me think of John Ford.

Gary Cooper has magnetic eyes; how he projects so much from his laconic aspect is a great acting mystery. He has good chemistry with Jean Arthur; they return from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), made the same year.

By comparison, James Ellison is a wooden Buffalo Bill. I last saw him in The Undying Monster (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943).

Helen Burgess, playing Louisa Cody, was a discovery by DeMille, a rare instance where he used an unknown actress in a lead role. She made only four films and died of pneumonia at age 20:

Also in the cast: Charles Bickford provides his reliable unsmiling villainy as the chief gunrunner. Anthony Quinn is an Indian. He was 21 and in his first year in film.

The other Indians: not much to their characters.


Look at Gary Cooper's lipstick on the poster; who painted this?

Photographed by Victor Milner. George Antheil's score uses a lot of Civil War songs.

Available on Blu-ray from Kino. Contrast is good. The whole film has a rough texture, either large grain or just age. Some amount of damage.

The commentary by Simon Abrams gives a surprising amount of historical detail for what is really a fantasy adventure. He reads many passages from memoirs of the period, showing how the mythology of each character was created, sometimes grounded in reality.