The Plainsman (1936)



Director:     Cecil B. DeMille.

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),  Victor Varconi (Painted Horse),  John Miljan (Gen. George A. Custer), Frank McGlynn Sr. (Abraham Lincoln). 

Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, George Armstrong Custer and Calamity Jane


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"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 plainsman of our West."

Washington, D.C. at the close of the Civil War.  Abraham Lincoln says they will have hundreds of thousands of men returning home from the war.  He says he hopes to attract the men to the hidden treasures of the mountains in the west and the grasslands of the Great Plains.  Mrs. Lincoln comes in and tells Abe that they will be late for the theater.  Before he excuses himself from the cabinet meeting, he says they must make the West safe for settlement.  He leaves the room with Mary Todd Lincoln. 

Some businessmen who manufacture the repeating rifle have a conference.  One of them says he believes the Indians will pay as much as $100 dollars per such rifle.  Some of the other businessmen say that the Indians would use the rifles to kill white men.  The promoter of the idea says that they will get the Indians to sign an agreement that they won't use the rifles to kill white men.  A Mr. Lattimer will be in charge of selling the rifles to the Indians.  As they speak a rider shouts that President Lincoln is dying, that he's been shot at Ford's Theater.  The promoter says it's a terrible thing, but Lattimer is to head immediately for St. Louis. 

There is a Mississippi River steamer and on the dock are large containers of "farming tools".  Besides the boxes of rifles is a Union veteran eating an apple.  A boy talks with him.  The kid talks about Buffalo Bill Cody and the soldiers tells him a tall tale about Cody shooting two buffalo with one bullet and raising up such a dust cloud that the whirlwind wiped out one-fourth of the state of Texas.  He looks at his watch and the boy sees what he thinks is a photo of the soldier with his sister.  The soldier says that ain't my sister, that's Calamity Jane.  Waiting on the dock is none other than Bill Cody.  The soldier knows Cody and hits him with a rock from a sling shot to get his attention.  Cody comes over and is pleasantly surprised to find the man who shot him was none other Bill Hickok.  He wants to introduce Bill to his new bride.  But the whistle blows and everyone has to get on board the steamer.  Bill also gets onboard. 

Onboard Bill meets a man named Jack McCall.  Bill also meets Louisa Cody, the wife of Buffalo Bill.  Bill takes the place of Cody, who has lost $48 dollars at cards.  He catches one of the men cheating and calls him out on it.  The guy is shocked to learn that he is being challenged by Wild Bill Hickok.  He decides it's better not to resist. 

A ship comes into Leavenworth Landing.  Lattimer is there to pick up his "farming tools".  Also there is Calamity Jane.  Hickok and Cody arrive and get off the steamer.  Hickok questions Lattimer about the need for farming tools in Hays City, Kansas.  Lattimer tells him to mind his own business.  Calamity Jane rushes over to Bill, shouting"  "Bill, you mangy coyote!"  Bill isn't very happy to see her, complaining that she has a beau at every stage coach destination.  She sees Bill with Mrs. Cody and is a bit jealous of what she assumes is Bill's girl.  She asks Bill about her and he tells her it's no business of hers.  He walks away from her and she snatches his hat off his head with a whip.  An angry Bill retrieves his hat.

Cody gets read to get onto the stagecoach for Hays City.  He greets Calamity warmly.  She finds out that the woman in question is Mrs. Cody, and Calamity is very relieved to hear it.  Also going to Hays City is Jack McCall and Hickok.  Hickok gets up onto the front seat of the stagecoach and is surprised when Calamity Jane jumps on the seat next to him. 

They have been driving for three days.  Hickok stops the stage when he sees his friend Breezy.  Breezy has been hit by an arrow.  He says 2 or 3 thousand Sioux Indians have been "cayoodlin' around" Fort Piney with war paint on.  In Hays City, Hickok goes in to see Gen. Custer.  He brings news that the Indians have just wiped out half the garrison at Fort Piney.  The besieged Col .Carrington needs help immediately.  Custer gives the order.  He can only spare one troop.  At Hays City he is faced by Satanta's Kiowas and the whole Sioux nation.  And Yellow Hand and his Cheyenne are on the loose.  He says Hickok can go talk with Yellow Hand.  But Custer also wants to use Bill Cody as a scout.  Hickok says that Cody has got himself a wife now and he's only thinking of her and starting a hotel.  Custer says he doesn't care.  There's an Indian war starting and white women are lying on these plains with Indian arrows in them.

Louisa is having a heck of a time keeping dirt out of her new home.  The winds keep blowing dust into the place.  Calamity Jane brings the newlyweds some food.  A little later Hickok arrives wanting to take Bill Cody with him.  Cody is needed to take 48 cavalry men through Deep Valley and the upper ford of the Republican River.  Louisa pleads with her husband not to go.  Hickok says the decision is up to Cody.  Cody decides he must go.  The two men leave together. 

Alone together Louisa gives Calamity Jane a dress and hat.  As they talk a group of six Cheyenne come into the house.  Jane stalls them so Louisa can get away on a horse.  The Cheyenne are mad that Jane fooled them and start wrecking the place.  They all gather around Jane in a threatening manner. 

Hickok sees a larger group of Cheyenne pulling a walking Jane along behind them.  Bill trades his watch and guns for Jane, but then the Indian in charge says he still has to take them to see Yellow Hand.  So the both of them are tied to a strong stick and have to walk along with the Indians on horseback. At the Indian village tThe Cheyenne are handing out the rifles they recently acquired via Lattimer.  Yellow Hand speaks to Hickok.  He wants to know where the soldiers and ammunition are headed. 

Alone Calamity and Hickok have to find some way to get away.  She tells him that she loves him and talks to him every night.  And now she wants Bill to tell her that he loves her.  They are interrupted by the Cheyenne.  Before being taken away from Calamity, Hickok tells her that he does (love her).  Yellow Hand tells Calamity that if she doesn't tell him which way the ammunition train is going, he will kill Hickok.  The Cheyenne place Cody over a fire pit.  Calamity breaks and tells Yellow Hand the direction the men are headed. 

The Cheyenne wait for the arrival of the soldiers.  As soon as Yellow Hand confirms that Jane did not lie, he frees Hickok and her.  Jane asks for Bill's forgiveness and that he look at her, but he says he hopes he never has to look at her again.  Hickok yells down to Cody, but he can't hear him.  The Indian attacks and start knocking off the soldiers.  Hickok knocks off the last Cheyenne in a column.  He puts Jane on the horse and sends her to Gen. Custer. 

Hickok gets two more horses and rides between them to get to the lines of the cavalry.  He confers with Cody.   Cody wants to know who told the Cheyenne which way they were headed?  Hickok avoids the question by telling Cody that his wife is pregnant.  Cody gets a flesh wound in the head. 

The men have been there now for seven days. The Indians attack again.  The cavalry men are down to just a few soldiers.  Custer and the 7th Cavalry ride to the rescue. 

The townspeople are mad that Calamity Jane told Yellow Hand where the cavalry detail was.  She grabs a whip to chase them away.  Hickok sees what's going on and comes to the rescue.  Jack McCall and the others were just about to run Calamity out of town on a rail.  Hickok turns the talk away from Calamity Jane and on the subject of who supplied repeating rifles to the Indians?  At this Jack McCall slinks away.  Hickok says he's going after Lattimer. 

Some army deserters are telling Lattimer that they found gold in the Black Hills of the Dakotas.  They also warn him about Hickok.  McCall comes to warn Lattimer that Hickok is coming for him right now.  Hickok comes in to see Lattimer.  He tells Lattimer he has three minutes to meet him outside.   Lattimer asks the army fellows to help him with Hickok and then he'll stake them for their gold prospecting in the Black Hills.  The three come out and go in three different directions.  One of the soldiers wounds Hickok, but then Wild Bill kills all three soldiers. 

Cody brings Hickok to his place because he was shot in the left arm.  Louisa goes a little crazy about her husband bringing a killer into her home.  So Hickok says he will be leaving.  Louisa relents and says she will bind up his wound before he leaves.  While she works on his arm, she suggests that he put away his guns.  Hickok says he can't do that.  Calamity Jane arrives.  She tells Hickok that Custer has ordered him brought in dead or alive for killing the three soldiers.  Moreover, Lattimer has pulled out with his wagons and no one knows where he's going.  Hickok says he will find him.  

A soldier arrives to tell Cody that Custer is moving against Sitting Bull and the Sioux up in the Big Horn country.  Calamity has brought a horse for Hickok.  Hickok says he will be up around Deadwood someplace.  She says she'll be up in the same area.  He says he'll see her again sometime wherever trails cross. 

Lattimer wonders if the Black Hills are filled with Indians.  Hickok is following Lattimer and Cody is following Hickok.  The latter two meet up again.  They both have lost their horses to the Indians.  Cody says Custer sent him out here to bring Hickok in and he is determined to bring Hickok in alive.  Just then they are interrupted by the noise of an Indian singing.  They grab the Indian and ask him where he got the flag of the 7th Cavalry and the officer's jacket?  The Indian talks about the Custer massacre at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  He also says that Yellow Hand is going to join Sitting Bull and that will be the end of the white men.

Cody says Gen. Merritt is moving up through Deadwood to join with Crook.   The Indian says a white man is bringing them rifles.  Hickok says that will be Lattimer.  He tells Cody to tell Merritt to get between Sitting Bull and the Cheyenne.  Hickok leaves saying he will see Cody in Deadwood. 

In Deadwood Calamity is a bartender.  Jack McCall comes in for a drink.  He brags to Calamity that he is going to become a big man in the area.  McCall leaves.  Lattimer arrives in town and speaks with McCall.  They head into a different bar.  Hickok goes into the other bar and sees Calamity.  She's glad to see him.  McCall comes in to tell Calamity something, but sees Hickok and gets scared.  Hickok tells him he doesn't care about him now.  He throws a coin to him and tells him to buy himself a drink.  McCall runs out of the bar. 

Lattimer's wagons arrive in town.  McCall warns Lattimer that Hickok is in town.  Hickok confronts Lattimer and his men.  He tells the bad guy to take off the buffalo hides covering the boxes.  Lattimer tries to shoot Hickok, but Wild Bill kills him instead.  Under the buffalo robes are the boxes of repeating rifles.   Hickok forces McCall and the drivers into a bar.  He makes McCall the bartender.  He is waiting for Merritt and the 5th Cavalry.  While they are waiting, Hickok wants to play cards.  While getting the cards and chips, McCall finds a pistol. 

The soldiers arrive.  The men try to run out, but Hickok pulls his guns and makes them sit back down.  McCall gets out the pistol.  He shoots Wild Bill in the back of the head and they all run out of the bar.  McCall is caught by the cavalry.  Calamity holds Hickok's head in her her arms.  She kisses him.   Cody and Gen. Merritt come in and find Hickok dead. 

"It shall be as it was in the past.  Not with dreams, but with strength and with courage, shall a nation be molded to last."


The movie itself is interesting, but it is poor history.  Wild Bill Hickok gets out of the Civil War (ended 1865), goes out west and gets involved with Gen. Custer.  Custer was really Col. Custer after the end of the war.  Nothing is mentioned of Bill Hickok becoming a law officer.  Instead, the time period switches to 1876, the centennial of the United States and the Custer Massacre at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  About ten years were taken out of the narrative.    It is, however, true that shortly after Custer's Massacre, Wild Bill Hickok was assassinated by Jack McCall (August 2, 1876). 

Hickok and Cody knew each other.  The friends worked together in the 1874-1874 theater season doing a play called "The Scouts of the Plains".  But Cody was certainly not there at the death of Hickok in Deadwood. 

The three were artificially put together in the movie as working together against the Indians and gun runners.  So it is very misleading to say the least.  It doesn't change the fact that the movie is interesting to watch. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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