In August 1876, a month into the Centennial, the James and Younger Gangs were putting the final touches on the Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, the abortive bank robbery that would effectively end their reign of terror.
Following Custer’s decimation at the Little Bighorn, Geronimo led a band of Chiricahuas off the San Carlos Reservation in southern Arizona and begun conducting raids against the locals. And most famously, Wild Bill Hickock was shot dead in Deadwood, S.D., during a poker game, holding aces and eights.
These three snapshots in time were preserved in “The Long Riders,” “Geronimo” and “Wild Bill,” respectively, all directed by Walter Hill. So when HBO hired David Milch to write and produce “Deadwood,” after he famously pitched them a story of a policeman working under the Roman Emperor Caligula in the first century, Hill might have seemed the logical choice to direct the pilot — especially as it reprised Hickock’s death.
“Deadwood” the series would seem to have the same relationship to Westerns as “The Sopranos” does to Mafia films, beginning with the “Godfather” trilogy. And yet Hill, one of the last stalwart upholders of the Western ethos, begs to differ.
“First of all, I’m somewhat hesitant,” says Hill, “because I don’t want to speak for David. I’m very fond of David, and we were friendly during the process, but we kind of had to find each other and talk our way into each other.
“For the basic set — the town of Deadwood — we used the same (Melody Ranch Western) town outside Valencia that we had used on ‘Wild Bill.’ And having done it once, I had the feeling that I had been given this second chance, and that I was getting a lot of things right this time, in terms of look and texture.
“But I also think David does not have traditional Western thematic concerns: The making and the breaking of the West, Westward movement, the cowboy tradition. As I told Ian (McShane): ‘It’s not a Western. You’re doing “The Threepenny Opera,” and you get to be Mack the Knife.’
“David’s organic conception of the show was about the necessity of civilization out of chaos — that if you have the human animal, in the end it would become an organized system of culture and government. Men and women will sort themselves out: First it will be the most brutish form of Darwinian behavior, and then, past that, it gets complicated. But inevitably, in the action-reaction of it, we get the complicated mechanism of civilization.
“He had that in his head, and I think that was a terrific premise — not because it breaks down into a couple of lines, but because it’s perfect for the notion that you’re going to tell a story that’s going to take five years to winnow it out and come to full flower.
“So to cut it off after the third season seems to me a peculiarly painful occurrence. That’s why I feel so badly about the cancellation (skein now will end with two specials), even though I’m long separated from the show. I think that for the grand plan of what David had in mind, we’re a couple of seasons short.
“Listen, we’re all in show business. And just as there’s nothing permanent in life, there’s certainly nothing permanent in show business. All these things do come to an end. It just seems like this one was entirely unexpected, it was all too soon and it kind of leaves one wondering about the justice of it all.”