It's not exactly the shootout at the O.K. Corral, but this showdown is even more of a classic--the hallowed war between the sexes.
On one side is a particularly grizzly Jeff Bridges, huddling over a bar table in his Wild Bill Hickok best, or worst, as the case may be--droopy mustache and stringy Western coif. He's being stalked by Ellen Barkin, who has developed some fancy gunslinging moves for her role as Calamity Jane in the spring film "Wild Bill."
"It's better to forgetcha than regretcha," she twangs at Bridges' hunched back, then seconds her emotion with gunfire (it misses).
For a low-life saloon, the Warner Bros. sound-stage resembles something much loftier. The set and cast are all swathed in the faded ocher of memory, providing the sort of visual feast that has earned Walter Hill a reputation as a stylish director.
And if Hill were not today in director's blues--jeans and cotton shirt that are at odds with the sepia set--you might take him for one of those buzzards of the Old West who've lassoed his imagination. As Bridges loads his pistol, the bearish and bearded Hill looks on, idly shuffling a deck of cards. Between rehearsals, Hill tucks a poker chip into a barmaid's green satin bosom. And when everyone breaks for lunch, Hill looks up in triumph at a bar balcony full of foreign journalists.
"Did I exaggerate how much he looks like Wild Bill?" he says.
Authenticity may be in the eye of the beholder, but it's key to Hill's latest New Western, a genre that has been reinventing itself by roping in reality. "Wild Bill" breaks out of saloon territory to such real-life frontier settings as a doctor's office, a sanitarium and an opium den. The white hats and black hats have turned shades of gray as the latest crop of films becomes infused with moral ambiguity and gunslingers turn out to be made of not just blood, but flesh too.
But for tests of bravery, look no further than the filmmakers: They're making the $30-million film of the frontier lawman's legendary life just as signs of Western burnout are tailing the stampede of post-"Dances With Wolves" movies. Lawrence Kasdan's $60-million "Wyatt Earp," released in June, roped in a paltry $25 million. And TriStar pushed back the release of Sam Raimi's "The Quick and the Dead" from the fall to February, in part to separate the Sharon Stone vehicle from the rest of the Western pack.
Hill's last Western, 1993's "Geronimo," took in only $18.4 million at the domestic box office in the face of tepid reviews. Hill, 52, says he was disappointed by the anemic showing of "Geronimo," a revisionist epic that peeled back the complex moral layers of both the cavalry and the Chiricahua Apache leader. But he writes it off to bad timing. The film was released a week after the TNT cable network unveiled its own "Geronimo."
"I don't think there are a hell of a lot of movies where you can take basically the same story, show it to 50 million people and bring yours out a week later and think that you're going to do great. What can you say, 'My Geronimo has better locations?' "
Hill and "Wild Bill" producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck are betting against burnout.
"I don't believe it's true," says Richard Zanuck. "If you make a good picture and have a compelling story to tell, it's going to work. I don't believe that any genre dies. It just has to be fed with good product."
Hill says: "I think that anybody who says they can predict how something's going to do, I haven't met the person yet who had any real degree of accuracy. The only thing for sure is that (Steven) Spielberg's films do well. He's the most consistent commercial director in the history of movies, and everybody else is fairly problematical."
Indeed, Hill's own career has been spotty ever since his 1984 buddy action hit "48 HRS." catapulted Eddie Murphy to stardom. His earlier films had already crowned him the critics' action darling for his poetically choreographed sequences of chase and confrontation. The bloody Minnesota Northfield raid sequence of "The Long Riders," the first Western that Hill directed, is considered a classic. Michael Sragow, writing in American Film, called it "the most ambitious slow-motion shootout since (Sam) Peckinpah's 'Wild Bunch.' "
Pauline Kael raved about Hill's gritty gang spectacle "The Warriors" (1979), a fantasy retelling of Xenophon's "Anabasis," likening the film's atmosphere to that of "The Third Man."
But the string of films that followed--which included "Crossroads," (1986), "Red Heat" (1988) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and "Another 48 HRS." (1990)--didn't live up to that early critical and commercial promise, prompting some critics to paint the director with such adjectives as "underrated" and "neglected." Hill defends his films as leaning "well into the profit side," but he's philosophical about the turn his career has taken.