The Plainsman (1936) - Rotten Tomatoes

The Plainsman (1936)





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One is immediately aware that The Plainsman is a Cecil B. DeMille production in the opening scene, wherein President Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.), on the verge of signing crucial legislation which will determine the future of the American West, is dragged away from his Cabinet by a scolding Mrs. Lincoln (Leila McIntyre), who informs her husband that he'll be late for the theater! The story proper picks up in the years just following the Civil War, as crooked arms dealer John Lattimer (Charles Bickford) schemes to sell a huge shipment of repeating rifles to the Indians. Constantly thwarting Lattimer's schemes is lawman Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper), who soon forms a strong alliance with Indian scout Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison). Rambunctious Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur) is crazy about Wild Bill, but he refuses to have anything to do with her, contemptuously wiping his mouth whenever he kisses her. He prefers the company of winsome Louisa (Dorothy Burgess), but gallantly steps aside when Louisa marries Buffalo Bill. Upon learning that a band of Indians armed with Lattimer's rifles have attacked a military garrison, Wild Bill tells General Custer (John Miljan), who in turn sends Buffalo Bill to the garrison with a consignment of weapons. Wild Bill then tries to arrange a peace conference with Indian chief Yellow Hand (Paul Harvey), but is sidetracked when he sees Calamity Jane being captured by two Indian braves. Riding to her rescue, Wild Bill is himself captured and tortured in the hope that he'll reveal the whereabouts of Buffalo Bill and his weapons. He refuses to talk, but Calamity, horrified at the agony endured by Wild Bill, tells all. Her breach of confidence leads indirectly to Custer's death at the Little Big Horn (not seen, but described by a young Indian played by DeMille's then son-in-law Anthony Quinn), whereupon Wild Bill disgustedly breaks off all communication with her. Hoping to make up for her past sins, Calamity warns Wild Bill that Lattimer has come to town a-gunning for him. Wild Bill makes short work of Lattimer, only to be shot in the back by the villain's snivelling confederate Jack McCall (Porter Hall). As he breathes his last, Wild Bill forgives Calamity for revealing the whereabouts of the ammunition; with tears in her eyes, Calamity plants a kiss on Wild Bill's lips that he'll never wipe off. As can be seen, accuracy is not the strong suit of The Plainsman; DeMille, like Buffalo Bill before him, was more interested in putting on a helluva good show than offering a dry history lesson. Unfortunately, the film often promises more than it can deliver, thanks to DeMille's insistence upon filming more of his big scenes indoors and relying far too heavily on grainy process screens. Still, the DeMille version of The Plainsman is infinitely more entertaining than the 1966 remake with Don Murray and Abby Dalton.
Classics , Drama , Western , Romance
Directed By:
Written By:
In Theaters:
MCA Universal Home Video


Gary Cooper
as Wild Bill Hickok
Charles Bickford
as Gunrunner
Jean Arthur
as Calamity Jane
James Ellison
as Buffalo Bill
Helen Burgess
as Louisa Cody
Porter Hall
as McCall
Paul Harvey
as Yellow Hand
Victor Varconi
as Painted Horse
John Miljan
as Gen. George Armstrong Custer
Frank McGlynn Sr.
as Abraham Lincoln
Granville Bates
as Van Ellyn
Purnell Pratt
as Capt. Wood
Pat Moriarity
as Sgt. McGinnis
Charles Judels
as Tony the barber
Anthony Quinn
as Cheyenne Warrior
George MacQuarrie
as Gen. Merritt
George Ernest
as An Urchin
Frank Albertson
as Young Soldier
Harry Woods
as Quartermaster Sergeant
Francis McDonald
as Boat Gambler
Francis Ford
as Veteran
Irving Bacon
as Soldier
Edgar Dearing
as Custer's Messenger
Edwin Maxwell
as Stanton
John Hyams
as Schuyler Colfax
Bruce Warren
as Captain of the 'Lizzie Gill'
Mark Strong
as Wells Fargo Agent
Charles Stevens
as Injun Charlie
Arthur Ayleswofth
as Van Ellyn's Assistant
Douglas Wood
as Van Ellyn's Assistant
George Cleveland
as Van Ellyn's Assistant
Lona Andre
as Southern Belle
Leila McIntyre
as Mary Todd Lincoln
Harry Stubbs
as John F. Usher
Davison Clark
as James Speed
Charles Herzinger
as William H. Seward
William Humphrey
as Hugh McCulloch
Sidney Jarvis
as Gideon Welles
Wadsworth Harris
as William Dennison
Gail Sheridan
as Girl on Dock
Lane Chandler
as Capt. Wood's Trooper
Noble Johnson
as Native American #1
Ted Oliver
as Lattimer's Teamster #1
Jim Mason
as Lattimer's Teamster #2
Bud Osborne
as Lattimer's Cavalry Private #2
Franklyn Farnum
as Man on Deadwood Street
Louise Stuart
as Girl on Dock
Jane Keckley
as Yelling Woman
Wilbur Mack
as Gambler #2
Francis Sayles
as Man on Deadwood Street
Hank Bell
as Capt. Wood's Medic
Hank Worden
as Deadwood Townsman
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Critic Reviews for The Plainsman

All Critics (2)

There's good rapport between Cooper as Wild Bill and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane in DeMille's lavish historical spectacle.

Full Review… | September 14, 2012

Plays fast and loose with history.

Full Review… | June 2, 2011
Ozus' World Movie Reviews

Audience Reviews for The Plainsman

The film starts soon after the Civil War with Lincoln conversing with his cabinet members. On his way out for the night he mentions he's going to the theatre. (lol) After he departs, some big-nose guy says he can make money by selling the excess guns from the war to the Injuns. Wild Bill Hickok on his way back West bumps into Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane. (A lot of jokes about Calamity Jane's slutiness.) Once out West the Natives have become restless with their new found firepower, and go on the warpath. They capture Calamity & Wild Bill and tell them they are mad because Whites are in their area (and want a race war). General George Custer saves them. They decide to seek out the source of the Indian's guns which takes them to Deadwood. There the story ends (as any student of history would expect, even with all the Hollywood liberties with the truth). A really good film through and through.


DeMille attempts his standard epic story. Like the opening text states, which scrolls by similarly to Star Wars' opening, the story plays loosely with history in order to condense events and characters that "conquered" the west. It is full of themes of Manifest Destiny, "wild" white men who decimate supposedly savage Native Americans to make the west safe for fragile homemaking women, or even the tom-boyish types like Calamity Jane. The stars Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Arthur as Calamity Jane are both likeable, but have had better roles elsewhere. Ellison as Buffalo Bill Cody (let me tell you, it is confusing with two characters named Bill!) was an unknown to me. He does an acceptable job standing eye to eye with the 6' 3" Cooper. Bickford as a John Latimer pulls off a somewhat menacing villain. I didn't like the racist portrayal of the Native Americans. I liked how both frontiersmen, both Bills, had the skills for tracking and killing because they were veterans of the Civil War and yet they were "long-hairs" who couldn't fit in in civilization. Yet, I don't think this movie explored those themes enough.

Byron Brubaker
Byron Brubaker

Super Reviewer

Cecil B. DeMille tackles the wild west in his 1937 epic THE PLAINSMAN which plays loose and fast with historical facts...and except for some issues here and there - this could have been one heck of a western. DeMille peoples this film with some of the better known names from western folklore. You have Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper), the legendary scout and gunfighter. Cooper reciting dialogue in a DeMille film comes off as wooden as ever but I still think he's fun to watch as Hickok with his quick draw...especially if you like him in HIGH NOON. Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur), the rough and tumble frontierswomen who has a love/hate relationship with Hickok. Arthur wears way too much make-up in certain scenes but I think she has some of the better lines in this. Also here is Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), the indian fighter/scout and future showman. He and Hickok are friends who share scouting duties for General George Custer (John Miljan). I wish DeMille had cast a bigger name here for the pivotal role of Buffalo Bill - just to balance out Cooper & Arthur. Ellison was just okay. This likely was his biggest role as he starred in mostly B westerns afterwards...but he just seemed too young and fresh looking to be the indian fighter and scout. I'm thinking someone like Clark Gable would have been perfect as Buffalo Bill here. Too bad. The story takes place in the days after the Civil War. An unscrupulous arms merchant (Charles Bickford) has surplus rifles and hopes to secretly sell them (more like gouge) to Indians in exchange for animal furs. Since more and more settlers moving westward, arming the Indians living in the west not a good idea - just ask General Custer. The film at least is sympathetic to Indians as chief Yellow Hand (Paul Harvey) explains his mistrust of white men to Hickok in one memorable scene. There is also a nicely staged battle scene between cavalry soldiers who are ambushed by Indians and have to endure a 9 day siege. Great for 1930's standards. My main issue with this film is it's clunky pacing. When it seems the action is about to pick up...for some reason it feels that it actually slows down instead. There are also extended portions that go without a musical soundtrack which doesn't help the matter much. I do feel that the basic story is a good one, though. As I mentioned, this could have been a terrific western. 6.5 / 10

bernard anselmo
bernard anselmo

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