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"Men in Black with horses."

- W.J. Flywheel, Webporium Curator



In January 1992, Variety reported that Warner Bros. was planning a theatrical version of The Wild Wild West directed by Richard Donner, written by Shane Black, and starring Mel Gibson as James West. (Donner directed three episodes of the original series.) Donner and Gibson instead made a theatrical version of TV's Maverick in 1994. The Wild Wild West motion picture continued in the development stage, with Tom Cruise rumored for the lead in 1995. Cruise instead revived Mission: Impossible the following year.

Finally, in 1999, a theatrical motion picture loosely based on the series was released. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the film Wild Wild West (without the definite article used in the series title) made substantial changes to the characters of the series, reimagining James West as a black man (played by Will Smith), and explored – to a small degree – some of the racial issues that certainly would have made it impossible for a black man to be a United States Secret Service agent in the 1800s. (However, at the end of "The Night of the Returning Dead", West and Gordon invite a black character played by guest star Sammy Davis Jr. to join the department, and "The Night of the Fugitives" opens with West meeting briefly with a black agent.)

Sonnenfeld explained his reason for casting Smith as West. "I wanted to do something hip and cool and Will [Smith] would make this movie hip and cool. Look, Jim West is James Bond in the Old West, and Robert Conrad was that guy in 1967. But Will is that guy now. And putting a black man in that role makes the movie different from the TV show, and that was important to me. I had no intention of just doing another episode of the television series."

Kevin Kline plays Gordon, whose character was similar to the version played by Ross Martin, except that he was bitterly competitive with James West, and much more egotistical. Kline also plays President Grant as well as Gordon impersonating President Grant. (Martin's Gordon impersonated Grant in "The Night of the Steel Assassin", "The Night of the Colonel's Ghost" and "The Night of the Big Blackmail", but Grant was otherwise played by James Gregory in the pilot and Roy Engel in the series.) Kline's Gordon invents more ridiculous, humor-related, and implausible contraptions than those created by Martin's Gordon in the television series, which made some effort to be reasonably feasible. Though the film is considered to be a notable example of the steampunk genre, where steam-powered machines in the Victorian age are prominently used. The steampunk gadgetry is more highly advanced, somewhat implausible technology and bizarre mechanical inventions, such as nitroglycerine-powered penny-farthing bicycles, spring-loaded notebooks, bulletproof chain mail, flying machines, steam tanks, and Loveless's giant mechanical spider.

Jon Peters served as producer along with director Sonnenfeld. In a 2002 Q&A event that appears in An Evening with Kevin Smith, writer-director Kevin Smith talked about working with Peters on a fifth potential Superman film in 1997, revealing that Peters had three demands for the script. The first demand was that Superman not wear the suit, the second was that Superman not fly, and the third was to have Superman fight a giant spider in the third act. After Tim Burton came on board, Smith's script was tossed away and the film was never produced due to further complications. A year later, he noted that Wild Wild West, with Peters on board as producer, was released with the inclusion of a giant mechanical spider in the final act. Neil Gaiman has also said that Jon Peters also insisted a giant mechanical spider be included in a film adaptation of The Sandman. Mr Peters must have "a thing" for mechanical spiders.

The film depicted West and Gordon as competitive rivals almost to the point of a mutual dislike and distrust of one another. In the television series, West and Gordon had a close friendship and trusted each other with their lives.

Significant changes were made to Dr. Loveless (played by Kenneth Branagh in the film). A dwarf in the TV series, he was made a double amputee in the film and his name was changed to Arliss Loveless. He was written as a bitter, racist Southerner who sought to punish the North after the Civil War.

The film also eschewed quoting Richard Markowitz's theme music in Elmer Bernstein's score, except for one brief cue (Markowitz was not included in the film's music credits; ironically, this was one area where the film was true to the series).

Wild Wild West received generally negative reviews from film critics and while popular with movie goers, Wild Wild West did not live up to its creators' blockbuster expectations.

Still, it managed to be a commercial success despite the many negative reviews. The film was nominated for 8, and won 5, Golden Raspberry Awards, including: Worst Screen Couple (Will Smith and Kevin Kline), Worst Original Song (Will Smith), Worst Screenplay (S. S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman), Worst Director (Barry Sonnenfeld) and Worst Picture (Barry Sonnenfeld, Jon Peters). Each award was "accepted" in person by Robert Conrad, who had portrayed Jim West in the original series and subsequent TV films. He accepted the awards to show his objections to the movie.

Robert Conrad (right) reportedly was offered the role of President Grant, but turned it down. He was outspoken in his criticism of the new film, now little more than a comedic Will Smith showcase with virtually no relationship to the action-adventure series. In a New York Post interview (July 3rd, 1999), Conrad stated that he disliked the movie and that contractually he was owed a share of money on merchandising that he was not paid. He had a long-standing feud with producer Jon Peters, which may have colored his opinion. He was offended at the racial aspects of the film, as well as the casting of Branagh as a double amputee, rather than a little-person actor, in the role of Loveless.

In 2009, Will Smith apologized publicly to Conrad while doing promotion for Seven Pounds:

"I made a mistake on Wild Wild West. That could have been better. ... No, it's funny because I could never understand why Robert Conrad was so upset with Wild Wild West. And now I get it. It's like, 'That's my baby! I put my blood, sweat and tears into that!' So I'm going to apologize to Mr. Conrad for that because I didn't realize. I was young and immature. So much pain and joy went into [my series] The Fresh Prince that my greatest desire would be that it's left alone."

—Will Smith, Total Film Magazine, Feb. 2009 Issue 151

Despite the bad reviews and the fact that this was not the big screen version of The Wild Wild West fans of the original series were looking for, the Will Smith version certainly had something going for it (Salma Hayek) and at the end of the day was kind of fun. Maybe not pay full price at the theater fun but watch it on TV fun or find it in the bargain bin at your local video store fun. Now all that being said there is some debate around the AV Club Rec Room on what we would have done to fix it. If only they had asked us. They didn't, but we'll tell you anyway.

So how would we make the Wild Wild West movie better? Short answer: add Robert Conrad. And not as the President or in some meaningless cameo. He would play Jim West. How you say? Glad you asked. The film would open just same way with Will Smith's Jim West. Later when Smith arrives at the White House the guard who refuses his entry will ask his name. "I'm Jim West.", Smith would answer. The guard would reply, "Boy, I know Jim West, Jim West is a friend of mine and you are no Jim West." Just then Robert Conrad approaches the two men and tells the guard it's okay to let Smith pass. Conrad and Smith enter the oval office where they meet Kline impersonating the President (perhaps to keep the timeline right, not that it really matters, the President should be Rutherford B. Hayes). Here we learn that Conrad's Jim West is now head of the Secret Service and has been following the exploits of the agent who bears his name (Smith). Smith is honored to meet the legend Jim West but wonders how anyone would ever confuse the two men since he is... so much taller. Kline is introduced as Artemus Gordon, but not "the Artemus Gordon", he in fact the nephew of the original. In fact he would refer to Conrad as "Uncle Jim" showing that the West and Gordon families have a close relationship.

The mission is the same, and Conrad's Jim West sends the new team of West and Gordon out into the field to stop Loveless. You can even change Branagh's Loveless to be the vengeful long lost half-brother (get what we did there) of the original to satisfy the nitpickers who would prefer a little person in the role. Branagh's Loveless would be partly motivated to avenge his brother while while at the same time attempting to live up to his older sibling's evil genuis.

Conrad would return later in the film during the scene with the railroad spike, where he would be the personal bodyguard to the President. In fact Conrad should get the line, "That's a fine looking spider you have there." Conrad would be captured along with Smith and Kline and participate in the final action sequence.

At the end of the film it would be Conrad's Jim West (not the President) who says he is taking the train back to Washington and orders Smith and Kline to travel by spider.

We would also change the plot point where Salma Hayek's character turns out to be the wife of the kidnapped scientist not his daughter. In our alternate universe version she is the scientist's daughter and at the end of the movie she would go off to Washington on the train with Conrad's Jim West, allowing Robert Conrad to get the girl. I think fans of the TV series would have gotten a kick out of that.

Would these changes keep the Wild Wild West movie from getting a Razzie Award? Who knows, but it would have been fun to see Conrad in action again just as it was seeing James Garner in the Maverick movie with Mel Gibson.


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