Review: Cecil B. DeMille Takes on the Homoerotic in Uneven 'Plainsman'

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 20, 2021

Review: Cecil B. DeMille Takes on the Homoerotic in Uneven 'Plainsman'

The great Cecil B. DeMille has become synonymous with epic filmmaking (usually, but not always, the biblical kind). He helmed "The Sign of the Cross" (1932), "Samson and Delilah" (1949), and "The Ten Commandments" (both the 1923 silent film and the more famous version in 1956).

"The Plainsman," a western that borders on epic, is set right after the civil war. The film brings together Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper), Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), and Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur) in a wildly fictionalized look at the Old West by chronicling a U.S. Cavalry battle with Native Americans.

The chock-full-of-plot narrative begins literally on the eve of Lincoln's assassination, with the president leaving for the Ford's Theater with Mary Todd, and then shifts gears to a few years later as Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill, and his new wife journey to Hays City, Kansas. Before long, Wild Bill is called upon to hunt down a dastardly gun seller about to supply the Indians with a new kind of rifle. Meanwhile, General Custer asks Buffalo Bill to supervise getting ammunition to a military garrison. So much more happens, including the Battle of Little Bighorn (although we don't really see the battle), and in the midst of it is a lackluster love story between Wild Bill and Calamity Jane.

I thoroughly enjoyed "The Plainsman," despite the lack of historical accuracy and the shameless rewriting of real events. I found it fascinating that Wild Bill kept wiping away Calamity Jane's kisses and seemed more annoyed with her than in love. Instead, Wild Bill seemed enamored with Buffalo Bill. A definite homoerotic element to Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill's relationship felt palpable to this gay viewer. And with Cooper and Ellison in the roles, a gay can dream.

Cooper is sexy, charismatic, and cool, but slowly we start to realize the psychological complexity amidst the DeMillian spectacle as he begins to re-examine his murderous tendencies.

Ellison is also quite strong. It's a head-scratcher that he never went on to much more than playing featured roles, primarily in westerns.

Arthur spends most of the film pining for Wild Bill in a gratingly overdone manner.

Anthony Quinn makes an impression in a tiny role as one of the Cheyenne.

The Blu-ray preserves the awe-inspiring filmmaking as best it can, with an impressive, if grainy, visual and decent aural transfer.

Author and critic Simon Abrams provides a comprehensive audio commentary.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • New Audio Commentary by Film Critic and Author Simon Abrams
  • Theatrical Trailer

    "The Plainsman" Blu-ray is available July 20, 2021.

    Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.