Hickok & Cody Script Review
"The best laid plans of mice and men,
Go oft astray,
And leave us nought but grief and pain
To rend our day.."
“And with this appropriate note by the Scottish poet Robert Burns it’s fitting that we get to explore an interesting episode in the business of film making that might otherwise escape our notice altogether. A brief diversion here to note that I managed to get out to the theater this week past and saw Gangs of New York – yes, I liked the film, even with all its difficulties, but that is neither here nor there. Instead it provides an eerie, almost Twilight Zone like background for what happened next. Upon returning from the show I found a packet waiting for me that contained a script for a film that is in what is termed by the Corona Coming Attractions folks as 'Development Hell.' The script itself is titled Hickok & Cody by Ira Behr and, in short, it is a rollicking good time. Now, here’s how we’ll approach this; first I’ll give you a synopsis of the story and my reaction to it. Next will come a very brief appreciation of the setting. Finally, a few words about 'the machine' as in the business of Hollywood and how it affects us.
First, the script! For those who are not entirely familiar with the characters, James Butler Hickok (aka 'Wild Bill') and William Frederick Cody (aka 'Buffalo Bill') were real people and very notable characters in their own day easily -- as recognizable to the general public as Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck are today and possibly more so (and most certainly possessed of more natural talent and personality). Quite an accomplishment in an era which pre-dates radio and television. There is also the fact that these two renowned figures actually knew each other and were friends. The story takes off when in 1876 Bill Cody talks Hickok into appearing in his new stage show 'Scouts of the Plain.' There is a brief introductory where the scene of Cody and Hickok’s misadventures is laid out in the notorious Five Points of New York. Yes, for the truly observant among you, it is the same setting as used in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and some of the same characters are submitted for our consideration – such as the frightening Hellcat Maggie, a beautiful woman but deadly dangerous with her teeth filed to wicked points, and Boss Tweed, the oily politician who runs things behind the scenes – but some of the other players are new to the game and every bit as compelling, perhaps more so, than those in Gangs... These include James Gordon Bennett and Samuel Tilden, but first, back to our story.
Cody is down on his luck and in need of money to support his growing family. While performing in Kansas City he meets up with his old friend Hickok who intervenes in an unfortunate confrontation with cowboy ruffians. Hickok pulls Cody out of a tight situation but both wind up cooling their heels in jail (the ruffians are not quite so lucky). It is at this point that Cody convinces his old friend that the two of them should journey to New York to stage a dramatic telling of Cody’s adventures in the American West for melodrama-loving Easterners. Despite his reluctance, Hickock’s options are fairly limited and he agrees to Cody’s plan.
Once in New York City the two Westerners find themselves immersed in a strange new world of eager but misguided showmen and actors, dishonest politicians, wealthy businessmen, dangerous street thugs, newspapermen, and crusading lawyers. In this intoxicating environment Cody and Hickok are alternately attracted and repelled by their surroundings. The salient event upon their arrival is the corruption trial of Boss Tweed which appears about to collapse for want of hard evidence of Tweed’s misdeeds. A hard case named Johnny Dolan is the key to this little dilemma. Dolan has been concealing the vital evidence that would send Tweed to jail. Tweed, although nominally Dolan’s employer, does not trust the man and would feel safer with the evidence in his own possession. Dolan however sees possession of the evidence as vital to his own well-being and will not relinquish same.
All of this would be of only passing interest to Cody & Hickok did they not find themselves in McGill’s Tavern when Dolan makes his appearance. Dolan, as Boss Tweed’s "muscle", enters the tavern to chastise the owner for refusing to bow to Tweed’s demands. Much against Cody’s wishes, the Westerners find themselves immersed in the situation and within moments three men are dead and Hickok is dragging Dolan and one of his thugs off to jail. Our protagonists are soon being wined and dined by the rich and powerful to include newspaper baron James Gordon Bennett and city prosecutor Samuel Tilden. Before you know it the frontier duo are the hit of the New York theater scene in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- the cheesy nature of their Western melodrama combined with their own notoriety. Shortly Cody and Hickok find themselves wooed by Tilden and Bennett who think these two tough customers can secure the evidence they need to convict Tweed. Cody and Hickok are also approached by the nefarious Tweed who thinks they’ve got what it takes to get the evidence held by Dolan safely back under Tweed’s control. But the two Westerners are not especially impressed by either faction and try to stay out of the controversy. While Cody basks in the limelight of their celebrity Hickok is increasingly uncomfortable in the bright lights and big city – despite the fact that he has fallen under the spell of a beautiful actress. Despite their best efforts to stay neutral Cody and Hickok are drawn inexorably into the middle of a deadly contest. All of these factors combine to set the stage for a rousing denouement of suspense and violence which are today much more commonplace in New York City than in Leavenworth, Kansas (although the reverse was true at the time). Suffice it to say, without giving away the ending, that this is a rattling good yarn which I still hope to see on the big screen.
Now, a few historical notes of interest. Cody and Hickok, as noted previously, were real figures and every bit as flamboyant and dangerous as painted by Ira Behr in this fast-moving screenplay. They did indeed know each other and they did indeed appear together on the New York stage in the performance of Cody’s 'Scouts of the Prairie' (the real name of the show) which was a smash hit. In real life Hickok, if anything, suffered from stage fright even more debilitating than as wonderfully portrayed here and soon made his getaway for parts west –- he ended up in Deadwood, South Dakota and the infamous Number 10 Saloon where, before 1876 ended, he would be gunned down holding the infamous "Dead Man’s Hand" of aces and eights. Bill Cody would continue to play to the footlights in that Centennial year until the disastrous events on the Little Bighorn known commonly as "Custer’s Last Stand." Immediately after that battle Cody would leave the New York stage and rejoin the 5th US Cavalry in pursuit of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. In a wonderful example of "life-imitating-art-imitating-life" (however tautological this sounds) Cody goes into action against the Sioux wearing the stage costume he wore in New York. In a one-on-one fight he kills and scalps a Sioux warrior named Yellow Hand and, by the end of the year, has a new play on the New York stage entitled "First Scalp for Custer" and starring himself. A wonderfully bizarre twist to an already bizarre story and pre-dating the famous 'Wild West Show'. Now, as far as I can see, even the usual complement of factually constipated historians should be delighted with Behr’s take on a remarkable vignette in American history. The movie-goer however should love this film simply for the high-spirited and engaging romp that it is.
Now, on to other interesting matters. I have found that the author of this piece, Ira Behr, is the respected Executive Producer of the current Twilight Zone series and was also a major force in the productions of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine -- now who knew that Executive Producers were even literate let alone good writers? Go figure. It has to be said right up front that as evidenced by this script Behr is a great writer and I would like to see more work by this marvelous wordsmith. It is especially disheartening to see that the Hickok & Cody project was originally optioned by a major studio and supposed to star Harrison Ford in one of the lead roles. Ford, from what I understand, loved the screenplay. Unfortunately the original 'producer' (I use that term loosely) and he shall remain nameless in this account had visions of this being morphed into a less serious and a lot more campy than originally written - which would have doomed this project to ignominy. So began the wrangling over the script which resulted in a walk-out from Ford who liked the original and a consignment of the Behr version to the studio’s vaults and now priced well out of the recapture reach of the writer. Oh, what a tangled web! The sad result for the film going public is that a wonderful piece of work sits dusty and forlorn (imagine the closing scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark as the crated ark is wheeled into a vast warehouse of similarly crated objects) while the public is offered lovely stuff such as Swept Away (which it should have been even before it got off the ground... ahh, if only film stock had some value as a garden fertilizer). What is rather disturbing is that this disastrous series of events occurred about 10 years ago ( I believe this is about 70 years ago in Producer Mind Years) and thus the movie-going public has in the interim been offered countless bits of fluff and nonsense. One can only hope that some of the principals involved in this affair get beyond the foolishness which shelved the project. Well, as long as we’re at it, in my next installment I suspect we’ll talk about why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings... ”
Frederick J. Chiaventone, an award-winning novelist and screenwriter, is a retired Army officer and Professor Emeritus of International Security Affairs at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. His most recent book, Moon of Bitter Cold, a novel of Red Cloud’s war, has just been nominated for the Pulitzer. His most recent piece for American Heritage magazine (October 2002) is on Native American leadership.
That's all folks...