WILD BILL. United Artists, 1995. Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, Keith Carradine, David Arquette, Christina Applegate, Bruce Dern. Director: Walter Hill.

   It’s not exactly as if Will Bill Hickok was an unfamiliar figure in history or that his story hadn’t been told before. So one reason why Walter Hill’s frustratingly uneven, yet compelling Wild Bill bombed at the box office might have been that it was a case of the public being generally uninterested in yet another cinematic study of an Old West dime novel legend.

   Another may have been that the film isn’t exactly a Western. It’s more of a character study, one that was based in part on playwright Thomas Babe’s “Fathers and Sons” (1978). This gives the film, especially in the last half hour, a stagey feeling. What begins as an action film with Wild Bill (Jeff Bridges) blowing away men who dare touch his hat ends on an elegiac note, reflective and somber with lots of subtext buried in Wild Bill’s recollection of his legendary status.

   Indeed, Wild Bill works best when its focus is on Wild Bill’s burden. He realizes that his fame is based on his prowess for killing and little else. What does this do to a man’s psyche? If Hill’s film is any indication, he takes comfort in drink and opium.

   Although Wild Bill didn’t deserve to fade away at the box office, it’s not as though the movie isn’t without its noticeable flaws. There are moments when the cinematography gets too ambitious and ends up looking artificial. Three fine character actors familiar to genre fans – Bruce Dern, Keith Carradine, and Marjoe Gortner – appear in the film, but for such limited running time that the viewer ends up feeling a little bit cheated. And Ellen Barkin seems out of place as Calamity Jane. And John Hurt, as Wild Bill’s friend Charley Prince, seems bored.

   But don’t let this stop you from watching this ambitious, downright quirky, biopic about a man’s last days. It’s not a great film, but it’s one that deserves a wider audience and is ripe for rediscovery.