Luke Hemsworth of “Westworld” is impressive as the iconic Wild West gunslinger.
Editor's Note: Throughout March and April, we’re celebrating Great Westerns of the 21st Century — noteworthy movies and TV series with special appeal to C&I readers that have premiered since 2001. Check the Entertainment tab Monday through Friday to see a different recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for our upcoming May/June 2020 print edition, which prominently features the legendary star who looms large in two of this century’s very best westerns.
Luke Hemsworth, currently on view in the HBO series Westworld, plays the title role in Hickok, a far more traditional western drama directed by Timothy Woodward Jr. (Traded, The Outsider).
The 2017 film begins as notorious gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok tries to start a new life for himself, and avoid ending the lives of others, in 1870s Abilene, Kansas. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Al Pacino’s memorable line in The Godfather III, just when he thinks he is out — he gets pulled back in.
Mayor George Knox (Kris Kristofferson) is mightily impressed by Wild Bill’s unparalleled gun skills, and talks him into accepting the job as town marshal. Gradually, reluctantly, Hickok recognizes the need to restore law and order in the wide-open cowtown. But his peacekeeping efforts are quickly challenged by a band of outlaws led by powerful saloon owner Phil Poe (Trace Adkins).
To give him fair credit, screenwriter Michael Lanahan anchors his fanciful narrative in historical truth. Hickok really was marshal of Abilene, for a period beginning in 1871. During his tenure, fellow living legend John Wesley Hardin (played here by Kaiwi Lyman) actually did drop by for a spell. And yes, a corrupt saloon owner did try to have Hickok killed before Hickok sent the varmint off to Boot Hill.
On the other hand, neither Lanahan nor Woodward allow facts to get in the way of a good story. Indeed, they don’t let earlier versions of that story affect them, either. Hemsworth conspicuously eschews the long hair and fancy mustache that adorned the real Hickok — and that have since been adopted by most recent TV and movie Hickoks (David Carradine, Jeff Bridges, Sam Elliott, etc). Instead, he makes do with a neatly trimmed beard, along with an appropriately steely-eyed gaze and gravelly voice, all of which enable him to inhabit the role persuasively. It also helps that Hemsworth doesn’t sound like he’s indulging in empty bluster when he warns someone at the wrong end of his gun: “I need hardly remind you that I never miss.”
“I think the Deadwood version of Hickok was the one that we most steered away from” Hemsworth told C&I in a 2017 interview. “Don’t get me wrong: I thought Keith Carradine was wonderful. But I’m a lot closer to Hickok’s actual age when he died. People forget: Hickok was 39 when he was killed. And also, we wanted to make him a little different — grittier, I guess. Hence the beard instead of a mustache. Most of the versions of Hickok I have seen are Hickok with mustache and long hair. So this was a point of difference rather than trying to emulate anything.”
Hemsworth is backed by an unusually strong supporting cast in Hickock. Chief among the most valuable players: Bruce Dern, who’s perfectly cast as a curmudgeonly doctor who has a thriving practice in Abilene — where, as he cheerfully explains, “Guns are good for business.”
“Dern’s whole approach is incredibly loose,” Hemsworth told C&I. “And I think that’s what I learned — when you’re working with someone like that, you need to go with him, and bounce with them. And if you’re not up to speed, you very quickly get left behind… [I]t was really cool to see the playfulness he still has a veteran. As a veteran, he still has this glint in his eye where he starts to make a joke, and he’s laughing at you, and he’s laughing at everyone else. It’s infectious. Yeah, it was a joy.”
Hickok is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and other platforms.