Screening this Sunday at Newport Beach is an archival documentary telling a story that is simultaneously unique and unknown yet serves as a catalyst for the entire history of the Wild West. Calamity Jane: Wild West Legend follows a legend who lived all across the American West and managed to play a role in what seems like every pivotal moment in this wild time. Using archival photos, reenactments, and interviews, the story of Calamity Jane (born as Martha Canary) and her tumultuous life unfold over the course of this documentary.
Martha Canary’s biography is undoubtedly fascinating, and for someone like myself who enjoys the lore of the American West, this film is a fantastic introduction to a part of history often overlooked. Multiple times throughout the film, historians speak to how quintessential Calamity Jane’s experiences were and how she managed to experience so many different facets of the West. Starting out as a poor traveler on the Oregon Trail, Martha’s father needed another man’s help so instead of doing women’s work she learned the ways of a cowboy at a young age. This led to a life of constantly defying the gender roles, and from there we see her entire life that takes her into nearly every Western state, interactions with famous people such as Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill, and present at crucial events including the massacre at Wounded Knee.
This is a case where the story itself is incredibly interesting yet is extremely difficult to execute with no footage from the era itself.
Meanwhile, through early forms of press, Martha became known as Calamity Jane and her legendary adventures were turned into folklore, despite the fact that many were completely fiction. What is most important to know about her life is that she witnessed both the prime and the decline of the American West, and therefore, her life serves as an allegory for its eventual decline.
Historical documentaries are difficult to make successfully engaging while still remaining informative. The filmmakers here rely heavily on reenactments to sell what her life may have been like. Unfortunately, these are the weakest part of the movie: they are often over-the-top and take the viewer out. This is a case where the story itself is incredibly interesting yet is extremely difficult to execute with no footage from the era itself. It is clear in watching Jane why there are so many more documentaries focusing on recent events rather than anything prior to the invention of film: it is extremely difficult to present an engaging film without actual footage. The documentary is incredibly informative and the story is interesting, but Jane seems more fit for a narrative film or perhaps another medium.
The film will do well with anyone who has an interest in the West – I can imagine Calamity Jane: Wild West Legend will play at film festivals around the Western states and be met with praise.
For tickets to Sunday’s 2:45pm screening of Calamity Jane: Wild West Legend, click here.