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She’s been played by everyone from a spunky and warbling Doris Day to an expletive-spewing Robin Weigert. Martha Canary, better known as Calamity Jane, crisscrossed the American continent with convention-defying independence, becoming a dime-novel heroine, a World’s Fair attraction and a celebrity member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. Returning to a few of the key locations from her storied life for Calamity Jane: Wild West Legend, France-based actor and filmmaker Gregory Monro aims to separate the folklore, some of which Jane concocted herself, from the tough facts (alcoholism, troubled marriages and motherhood, death at a very old 47).
His documentary is a straightforward work of chronological biography that’s rich in detail and historical context. Combining a well-curated selection of archival photographs and footage; crisp, insightful commentary from historians; and evocative, dialogue-free reenactments, the film is as polished as anything on PBS, and has already screened on French and German television. It would be fully at home on educational programmers’ small-screen lineups, both stateside and wherever Americana maintains its allure.
Through the prism of Calamity Jane’s extraordinary experiences, Monro and his co-writer, Flore Kosinetz, illuminate the struggles and drastically limited options for American women in the late 19th century. As a child on the Oregon Trail with her family, Jane knew firsthand the physical challenges and potentially maddening isolation of the frontier. As an orphaned teen and in later years, she intermittently resorted to earning a living as a “soiled dove,” one of the era’s colorful euphemisms for a prostitute. The effect is eerie and stirring when Monro juxtaposes old photos of Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch, a Wyoming bordello where Jane worked, and new footage of what remains of it, a sizable ruin on the National Register of Historic Places.
The film and its talking heads embrace Calamity Jane’s larger-than-life personality while dissecting her inflated identity as an outlaw. Though she rode into Deadwood with Wild Bill Hickok and her final wish was to be buried beside him, neither took place through any choice of his, and her feelings for him were probably not reciprocated. And though she was frequently jailed for alcohol-fueled disorderly conduct and was known for wearing men’s clothes, there were many more facets to her personality than that of rough frontierswoman. According to one interviewed historian, more photographs show her in a simple, everyday dress than in buckskins.
The reenactments occasionally feel heavy-handed or unnecessary, but by and large they meld well with the historical evidence. Shooting most of the new footage in various parts of Colorado with local actors, Monro establishes a strong sense of the American West as a vast, open territory in the midst of convulsive transformation. The informative voiceover narration, delivered by Lexie Kendrick in the English-language version, ties the pieces together in succinct fashion, marred only by a couple of instances of awkward usage.
Most intriguingly, Calamity Jane emphasizes the role of newspapers in shaping its subject’s celebrity. For much of her life she was the most notorious woman in the United States, and after years of hard living and humble salaried positions, all that was left to her in her later years was her own myth. She did what she could to capitalize on it, and Monro’s film does a fine job of honoring both the myth and the gritty truth.
Production companies: Arte France, Temps Noir
Cast: Kari Liston, Kay Campbell, Alex Golding, Cameron Fikejs
Narrator: Lexie Kendrick
Director: Gregory Monro
Screenwriters: Gregory Monro, Flore Kosinetz
Producer: Song Pham
Director of photography: Nicolas Le Gal
Editor: Constance Lagarde
Composer: Sandy Lavallart
No rating, 82 minutes
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