Buffalo Bill on the Silver Screen: The Films of William F. Cody, by Sandra K. Sagala, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2013, $24.95
William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody—Pony Express rider, Army scout, buffalo hunter, Wild West showman and…film star? Well, yes. In the early 20th century, well before Joel McCrea’s saccharine salute to the showman or Paul Newman’s mean-spirited portrayal as a boorish Buffalo Bill, Cody himself sought to capture on film a firsthand account of his life and military exploits. The tireless promoter’s ambition: “to instruct and educate the Eastern public to respect the denizens of the West by giving them a true, untinseled representation of a page of frontier history that is fast passing away.”
Cody’s efforts to preserve that history on film is the subject of Sandra Sagala’s Buffalo Bill on the Silver Screen, the first title in the William F. Cody Series on the History and Culture of the American West, a collaboration between the University of Oklahoma Press and The Papers of William F. Cody at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo. The series editors’ intent is to “document the historic evolution and idealization of the American West” through Cody’s eyes. They chose the showman specifically because his life spanned the frontier era and the modern era in a scope approached by no other figure of his day.
Buffalo Bill spent 30 years in the show arena, riding it to unprecedented financial success and celebrity both at home and internationally. He kept up appearances even as his health and fortunes waned. But the former scout wasn’t caught off guard. Early on he’d recognized the shift in popular tastes from live shows to the big screen, and he intended to ride that wave out of indebtedness into a comfortable retirement.
Cody’s first flirtation with filmmaking came in September 1894 at the West Orange, N.J., studio of famed inventor Thomas Edison, who was experimenting with his early Kinetoscope camera. Edison remained skeptical of his invention’s financial viability, while Cody was intrigued but far too busy with his ascendant Wild West to give it much thought. But in 1910, with his show in decline and nickelodeon attendance on the rise, Cody signed his first motion picture contract. The resulting film, The Life of Buffalo Bill, was a sprawling mess, shot under three producers, and saw only a limited run.
When the Wild West disbanded for good in 1913, however, Cody threw himself into an ambitious film project based on his role in the Indian wars and pitched as “the plain, unvarnished history of the March of Civilization west of the Mississippi River.” For added realism he sought the participation of the Army and the Oglala Lakotas of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. No less than a figure than Lt. Gen. Nelson Miles, architect of the final battles of the Indian wars, served as the film’s technical adviser.
In the end all the striving for historical accuracy, exhaustive filming (The Indian Wars ran nearly 2 1/2 hours), extensive postproduction and hyperbolic promotion couldn’t sway a capricious public enough to reap the profits on which Cody was relying. Even as the film opened in theaters in 1914, the showman was forced by financial necessity to emerge from retirement, riding first for the Sells-Floto Circus and finally for the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch. Cody performed in his last shows at age 70 in November 1916, his joints racked with pain, his kidneys failing. Two months later, on Jan. 10, 1917, he was dead.
Buffalo Bill has since appeared as a character in dozens of films and scores of television episodes, but only three minutes of his epic Indian Wars survive. Sagala provides an appendix of the various portrayals, as well as the productions in which Cody played a direct role. Further resources are available on the Cody Studies digital research platform, including an interactive timeline of Cody’s involvement in motion pictures. The ongoing scholarship preserves his legacy far better than any film could.