Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Action,Drama,Romance “Deadwood:” Reconstructing an American Myth

“Deadwood:” Reconstructing an American Myth

Despite the United States being such a young country, it has acquired some pretty interesting mythologies in its paltry couple of centuries. The ideas of George Washington and Abe Lincoln as being unable to tell lies; the courtliness of the Deep South; the Italian and Irish mobsters of the East; Zorro defending the peasants out west; and not least of all, the cowboys of the old west. For decades, different forms of media have tapped into these legends, and with a little bit of tailoring, have turned them into films, books, TV shows, and songs about the mythologies of America.

“Deadwood,” a fairly recent HBO series, is an example of an adaptation of American myths and legends. David Milch, creator of the hit series “The Sopranos,” originally approached HBO with an idea set in ancient Rome about the secret police. Milch was interested in a show where the main conflict is a place with no system of governing; a place saturated in lawlessness. However, he was told that another Roman show was already in the works (“Rome”) and they suggested he set his show in a different locale, and suggested Deadwood, a town that was situated in the Black Hills of Dakota, on land that had been set aside in a treaty for the Native Americans. The settlement was in a precarious position because they were in Deadwood illegally, they had to be careful of their actions, because if they drew the notice of the United States’ government, they would be booted out and harangued. Thus, the hardworking people were left to be walked over by the criminals because setting up their own law system would be a direct affront to the Union’s government.

Because of the wealth of the area, and the fact that it was a blind spot for the American justice system, Deadwood was a hive of colorful characters. One of the most legendary figures that graced Deadwood with his presence was “Wild Bill” Hickock, along with his companions Charlie Utter and Calamity Jane. These, as well as other real life people, are the characters David Milch has arranged for “Deadwood.”

Because of the recency of the Wild West era, the United States has the benefit of actually being able to see the characters its legends are made of. Photographs of “Wild Bill,” Calamity Jane, Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, and Jack McCall exist, so Milch and his crew have good examples to work from. These photographs and biographies are good starting points when turning Keith Carradine into “Wild Bill,” with long, wavy hair, broad-brimmed hats, and heavy, expensive coats. Historians even have letters and diary entries written by “Wild Bill,” and they add to the character’s development. That detail sets the American West legends apart from legends such as Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and Trojan heroes.

The fact that there is proof our legends existed makes “Deadwood” seem much more realistic and intense. Of course, Milch and his co-writers take many liberties in their depictions, as all of Hollywood does. However, there is a striking difference between HBO’s series and former television shows such as “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” and “Have Gun Will Travel.” The show is even different than classic westerns starring John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Jimmy Stewart. There is realism about the show; a dirty, vulgar, unromantic lens the Old West is shown through.

One of the most striking aspects of the show is the character presentations. Each character is realistic in the way that they have redeeming qualities, but are also burdened with some sort of flaw. Al Swearengen, the crime boss slash saloon keeper, (played by Scottish actor Ian McShane) is a hardened man that treats everyone with suspicion. He is constantly on the watch for an easy mark or a possible enemy. When prospective hardware storekeepers Seth Bullock and Sol Star (Timothy Olyphant and John Hawkes) mosey into town and rent out a tent space in front of Swearengen’s Gem Saloon, he drives a hard bargain with them, in order to be assured that they aren’t looking to set up a competing saloon. Swearengen also runs a brothel out of his saloon, and keeps his whores on a short leash, often resorting to beating them in order to get his way. He sets men up for cons and plays them like player pianos, killing them once they have served their purpose. Despite his wickedness, at times he does show pity on his favorite prostitute, Trixie (Paula Malcomson), and at one point feels ashamed of roughing her up.

“Wild Bill” is a legendary lawman and gunfighter, but in the first episode he tells a newspaper man that he is in Deadwood avoiding a warrant in one of the states. The Doc Cochran (played wonderfully by Brad Dourif) kowtows to Swearengen, cleaning up the messes his men and women make, and keeping everything on the down-low; however, he does not agree with Swearengen’s method of controlling the town, and he often tries his best to help the Gem prostitutes. All of the characters are fleshed out and three-dimensional. Each one has pros and cons to their personality. Calamity Jane means well, and is loyal to Bill to a fault, but when the manure hits the ceiling, she crawls into a bottle for a few episodes, and does not reemerge until she is comfortable with herself enough to help others.

What is very interesting about the show, which is different from films like Unforgiven or The Searchers, “Deadwood” does not apologize for or justify the flaws the characters have. It is not fully explained why Jane is an alcoholic, although it s know from history books that she was abused growing up, which caused a whole slew of neuroses; and when the ridiculous, idiotic Jack McCall shoots “Wild Bill,” there is no real explanation, except that Bill humiliated McCall in front of their poker buddies. The characters are not given exact reasons for why they do bad things, which is closer to real life. Real life is not a cut and dry cause and effect chronology.

In an hour and a half film, there must be cause and effect to keep the plot rolling along, but in real life, something can happen in a person’s life that does not resurface again for decades, and it is not always easy to realize the cause of certain actions. It is not to say that the characters in “Deadwood” do not feed on motivation, it is simply that it never dwells on exposition of characters’ histories, which is uncommon in most adaptations of legendary figures. The fact that we simply receive snippets of the back stories of characters draws the audience into the story even more intensely. It is no longer a story read in some children’s book of Old West heroes, but the legends become real people, having real experiences.

“Deadwood” does take liberties, all historical adaptations have to, considering we never know exactly what Seth Bullock’s internal conflicts were about “Wild Bill” being shot. Perhaps the two barely knew each other, they may not have at all; however, it makes for good story-telling if they are friends or father and son type figures. However, it is an excellent way to present legendary figures in a way that makes them more tangible, more human, and more identifiable.

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