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The Independent Culture
Her buckskins can stand up by themselves, and she can take your eye out with a bull-whip, but beneath Calamity Jane's sweat-crusted, manly exterior lies a big girl's blouse. Any viewer who had the prescience to bet on the rapid arrival of a bubble-bath scene, that genre fixture in which the tomboy discovers she's actually "maahty purty", could have collected big-time on Buffalo Girls (C4). The writing was in the sand the moment Calamity - introduced to us as a ceegar-smoking mule skinner - turned all flappy-eyed at the appearance of Wild Bill Hickok, who appeared to have come straight from a prairie therapy session. "What do you want?", he asked Calamity penetratingly. "All these years I never could quite figger you out." "Ah, shoot," says Calamity, blushing like a schoolgirl as he gallops off. Minutes later she's up to her neck in soap-suds, confessing all to her best friend, Dora.

Most good westerns recently have followed the course of disenchantment - a recognition that the frontier was not so much a refuge for untamed heroes as a playground for sociopaths. Buffalo Girls, which is set in the fag-end days of the Wild West, with the railroad pushing across to lace the country into its stays, is a lot more nostalgic than that, wistful about the conversion of its legends into sideshow entertainers for Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, a cheerfully mendacious version of a vanishing truth. But this hardly solves the problem for the film-makers, who still have to pay the necessary obeisances to the distinctly un-Western virtue of getting in touch with your vulnerability. As much time is spent on Calamity's heartache about the baby she gave up for adoption as on whip-cracking action - indeed, what action there is is narrated through poignantly awkward letters to that unknown child.

The script meanders between tin-plated cliche and rather wayward passages of invention which have you begging to go back to the cliches. Musing over whether he should join the Wild West show on its tour to England, Calamity's Indian mentor No-Ears (he would probably be called Hearing Impaired in these more sensitive times), produces a standard bit of native- speak about the Great Water, then suddenly gets all bureaucratic: "It is because people fail to gather precise information about life-threatening matters that many of them are no longer alive." Presumably Sitting Bull gathered his braves before the Battle of the Little Big Horn and explained that "it is vitally important for our long-term strategy to radically downsize the Custer subdivision". The script is also very high-minded, or reckless, about the way in which contemporary slang can undermine period details. When one of the grizzled old trappers who provide comic relief explains that he could use Buffalo Bill's money to "buy beaver", you have to remind yourself that he has dam-building mammals in mind, part of a proto-ecological plan to restock the High Country with the fauna he so energetically helped to wipe out.

There was also a western theme to World in Action (ITV), which examined the success of Stagecoach, the private bus company which has been busily establishing a private monopoly in town after town. According to the conceit (supported by silent-movie footage and melodramatic intertitles), Stagecoach were the guys in the black hats, arriving to see off the smallholders with predatory pricing and other unpleasant tactics. The Office of Fair

Trading and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission plays the part of the humiliated sheriff, occasionally murmuring "Now boys, that ain't really fair", but powerless to do anything about it. Along with Panorama's damning account of the unsatirisable follies of rail privatisation (which was also less than flattering about Stagecoach), the film reminded you that a lawless frontier isn't always a very nice place to be.

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