Among the real-life Wild West characters who went reeling into moving pictures were Buffalo Bill Cody, William Tilghman, Al Jennings, Emmett Dalton and Henry Starr.
There was a twilight time in the early 20th century when, as the sun was setting on the real West, the day of the one-reel Western dawned. The legendary characters and events of the real West had, of course, already been transformed into entertainment on stage and in a variety of outdoor events from the mid-1850s. Phineas T. Barnum may have been among the first in this field, but it was William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody who became its most celebrated promoter and found the perfect format with the touring extravaganza known as the Wild West.
As early as the summer of 1872, Cody’s friend James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok was acting as master of ceremonies for Sidney Barnett’s Grand Buffalo Hunt at Niagara Falls and thereafter joined Cody’s stage show in New York. Although his shooting exhibitions were impressive, Wild Bill was unsuited for the stage and left the show in 1874. Thereafter, he was portrayed on stage, and later on film, by others.
It was Cody, the consummate showman, who recognized the potential of films even when the early examples were still a matter of pointing a static camera at an existing situation. As early as 1894, the Edison Company produced a short film in which Buffalo Bill gave an exhibition of rifle shooting, and at least three more one-reel films featuring his show were made by 1902. Years later, to accompany another short film of the Wild West, a synchronized sound cylinder was produced. Filmgoers could not only watch Buffalo Bill ride into medium-close shot and doff his Stetson but also hear him announce, “Ladies and Gentleman, permit me to introduce to you a Congress of Rough Riders of the World.” It was in 1903 that Edwin S. Porter used a Western subject, The Great Train Robbery, to demonstrate more effectively than ever before the storytelling capability of moving pictures. One of the players in Porter’s film, Max Aronson, changed his name to W.M. Anderson and became the first Western star by creating the screen’s first continuing cowboy hero, Bronco Billy.
In 1904 the Edison Company filmed the one-reeler Brush Between Cowboys and Indians near Bliss, Oklahoma Territory. In 1906 the AM&B Company, whose 1903 series of one-reelers had portrayed fictional conflicts with the Indians under the collective title The Pioneers, turned to history. In Louisville, Ky., AM&B employed a large cast to reenact the 1778 Attack on Fort Boonesboro. At the time, the young settlement had been forewarned by its founder, Daniel Boone (1734-1820), who in 1905 was the subject of Daniel Boone, co-directed and photographed by Porter for Edison. Six years later, his exploits were again celebrated, this time in the Kalem Company’s Daniel Boone’s Bravery.
While New York and New Jersey were the pre-Hollywood centers of filmmaking, northeastern Oklahoma was the place where it was hardest to draw a clear line between what was real and what was Western entertainment. Kentuckian George Washington Miller began ranching in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in 1871 and by 1893 had established the 101 Ranch, which eventually grew to encompass 110,000 acres, with its own trains, telephone system, daily mail service, oil refinery, schools, churches and store. G.W. Miller and his three sons, Joe, Zack and George, diversified into many activities, including show business.
In 1905 they staged a “Buffalo Chase,” which attracted 65,000 visitors to the ranch and had as its guest star the Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo. It was during this appearance that—seated at the wheel of a Locomobile and sporting a top hat—he was photographed by Englishman James Bennie Kent. The success of that event inspired the Millers to mount an even more elaborate show the following year and in 1907 to participate in Pawnee Bill’s show. In 1908 they took to the road with their 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show, while back on their ranch, Kent graduated to taking moving pictures for the Oklahoma Mutoscene Company’s The Wolf Hunt and A Round-Up in Oklahoma. Both were directed by a 55-year-old former buffalo hunter and peace officer, William M. Tilghman. In the same year, former bank robber Al Jennings, recently released early from prison, was directed by Tilghman in Mutoscene’s The Bank Robbery, shot by Kent in Cache, Okla. Jennings basically played himself, and Tilghman made a brief onscreen appearance.
Buffalo Bill, an indifferent businessman at times, continued in show business partially through combining his show with that of Gordon William “Pawnee Bill” Lillie. In 1910 they produced a short film to promote their combined show and also The Life of Buffalo Bill. The Buffalo Bill & Pawnee Bill Film Company assured readers of The Moving Picture World that this was no “lurid Western drama,” rather it was “A Biography of Nature’s Nobleman, Enacted Personally by the Hon. Wm. F. Cody.” It was, also, one of the earliest examples of a three-reel film, which is to say that it ran for about 30 minutes.
A rather different Western character who also turned to the movies was Emmett Dalton, pardoned earlier from prison after serving 14 years for his part in the disastrous 1892 Coffeyville, Kan., hold-up of two banks. He produced and starred in the three-reeler The Last Stand of the Dalton Boys in 1912. When Al Jennings chose to portray himself as a bank robber driven into crime in Beating Back, filmed in New Jersey in 1914, it sufficiently irritated Bill Tilghman for him to make his own account of similar events in the 1915 six-reel The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws. The cinematography was by James Kent and production by the Eagle Film Company of Oklahoma City, which was a partnership of Tilghman and his former lawmen friends Chris Madsen and E.D. Nix, both of whom appeared as themselves in the film. So too did Tilghman, ex-lawman Heck Thomas and former outlaw “Arkansas Tom” Daugherty.
The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws was a straightforward, documentary-style reenactment of the last days of the Doolin-Dalton Gang, shot from static camera positions, with no close-ups and displaying none of the improved cinematic techniques already introduced into Hollywood films of that period. Nevertheless, Tilghman toured with the film and his extensive gun collection on and off for several years, lecturing upon the theme that crime did not pay. Even while part of that film was being made in Chandler, not many miles away Henry Starr proved that point when attempting to beat the Dalton brothers’ failure and rob two banks at one time in Stroud. He was shot, captured and later imprisoned, while those in pursuit of his associates briefly included Tilghman before he returned to filmmaking.
David W. Griffith, an iconic figure among the early filmmakers, was one of the first to choose California, in 1910, as a location for shooting Westerns for Biograph. The wisdom of his choice was underlined over the next few years by a growing movement to that state. The positive attractions may have been the excellent climate and varied scenery, but this migration was also driven by a bitter financial dispute that came to be known as the Patents War.
In California, in 1911, Thomas H. Ince, a 29-year-old producer-director, was turning out one-reel Westerns for Bison Life Motion Pictures, and that November the 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show was taking its winter break nearby. They came together, and Ince persuaded his bosses to hire the whole outfit. When the first two-reel, Bison-101 Westerns were released the following year, the large contingent of cowboys, Sioux Indians, wagons, horses and mules went a long way—along with his own organizational abilities—to establishing Thomas Ince as one of the key pioneers of Western filmmaking.
After several Indians versus cavalry Westerns, Ince turned to the most dramatic historic example and produced Custer’s Last Fight. It was directed by former D.W. Griffith assistant Francis Ford, the brother of John Ford, who later became the most celebrated director of Western movies. The three-reel saga was filmed in a format that we would now call dramatized documentary, with Francis Ford himself playing Custer, and an impressive scale made possible by the large 101 troupe. It was a very successful film, reissued at least twice in later years, and now interesting to compare with the more negative treatments of Custer. Unfortunately, when the dust settled and the ink dried from the Patents War, Carl Laemmle, founder of the Universal Studio, had ended up with both Francis Ford and the Bison-101 trademark—and although the Millers sued, they were unsuccessful. Ince moved on and was soon producing Westerns starring William S. Hart, who became the top Western star of the next decade.
Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill parted company, both their shows closed and they each declared bankruptcy. Cody kept doggedly battling indebtedness with circus appearances, lectures and another fling with moving pictures in 1913. His national celebrity and personal connections made possible location filming at Pine Ridge, S.D., and the involvement of not only the local Sioux Indians but also the Interior Department and U.S. Army. Retired Lt. Gen. Nelson A. Miles acted as chief technical adviser and appeared in the film. So too did retired Maj. Gen. Frank Baldwin and Marion P. Maus, recently retired as a brigadier general. Buffalo Bill and the Indian Wars (reportedly shown under several different titles) would today be invaluable to both frontier and film history, but all that survives are a few scenes in which Cody is seen scouting for the Army. By contrast, the late film historian George A. Katchmer reported the discovery of four short 1915 Western films, starring Pawnee Bill and his wife, May.
Early filmmakers were also drawn to legendary frontiersman Christopher Houston Carson (1809-1868), whose Indian fighting exploits were first fictionalized in Kit Carson, made by the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company in 1903, the same year as The Great Train Robbery. In 1910 Bison and the Kalem Company, respectively, released Kit Carson and Kit Carson on the Santa Fe Trail. Another romanticized yarn, Kit Carson’s Wooing, was turned out in 1911 by the Selig Polyscope Company, with 31-year-old former Wild West show rider Tom Mix among the bit part players. Mix had earlier been hired as a stockman for Selig’s 1909 film Ranch Life in the Great Southwest and talked his way into performing a horse-breaking sequence. He went on, of course, to become the cowboy superstar of the 1920s.
In 1914 a small, independent production company was in San Antonio to film The Siege and Fall of the Alamo, but it was overshadowed the following year when D.W. Griffith supervised the Triangle Film Corporation’s The Martyrs of the Alamo, a five-reel film based on a Theodosia Harris novel. The Alamo’s most celebrated defender was again on screen in 1916, when Dustin Farnum played the lead in Pallas Pictures’ five-reel biopic Davy Crockett, adapted from Frank Murdock’s stage play and filmed around Big Bear Valley in California. David Crockett (1786-1836), the colorful soldier, hunter and congressman, had been a national celebrity in his lifetime, which may be why his adventures were exploited on the silent screen while those of his fellow Alamo defender, Jim Bowie (1796-1836), did not attract similar attention until the sound era.
In 1916 a 68-year-old former sporting man and peace officer, Wyatt Earp, was investigating moving pictures with a view to seeing his own experiences filmed, but the only tangible outcome at the time was his appearance in a crowd scene for Triangle’s The Half-Breed, starring Douglas Fairbanks. That same year, old William Cody, having finally fought his way out of debt, was still enough of a draw to be signed by the Miller Brothers to appear in their show, using the theme of preparedness (for the spread of the war in Europe) as the focus. The March 9 raid of Pancho Villa on Columbus, N.M., introduced a real and present danger that assured the War Department’s cooperation with a request for serving soldiers to participate. The show had all the familiar elements, and among the performers was future Hollywood cowboy Edmund “Hoot” Gibson. Another attraction was a veteran 101 Ranch employee, black Texan cowboy and world’s champion bulldogger Bill Pickett, whose performance had already been recorded on film a half-dozen years earlier.
A large contingent of American Indian performers, led by the Sioux Iron Tail, a veteran of many earlier Wild West shows, joined the Millers. Among the soldiers, granted special furlough to take part was Charles Frederick Gebhart, later famous the world over as Western star Buck Jones. It was, sadly, the last go-around for Iron Tail, who died in May, and for Buffalo Bill Cody, who was a few weeks short of 71 when he died in January 1917. Before the end of the year, the Essanay Company released The Adventures of Buffalo Bill, incorporating footage from Buffalo Bill and the Indian Wars along with other material, including shots of the late Western showman and his family at home in Nebraska. But 1917 was also when the 101 Ranch Real Wild West stopped touring its show.
One of the strangest and most ironic episodes from this era when the Old West and Western entertainment overlapped featured bank robber Henry Starr. Paroled for good behavior, he emerged from prison in 1919 and, like Dalton and Jennings before him, decided to go into the moving picture business. Starr bought a quarter share in a Tulsa-based film company and proceeded to play himself in Debtor to the Law, which not only reconstructed the robbery for which he had been imprisoned but was actually filmed in Stroud and had local citizens in the cast.
The parolee turned out to be no great shakes as either an actor or businessman. He was replaced in front of the camera by an actor and cheated out of his share of the profits from that film and a second, Evening Star, by the producer. Unable to afford legal help to recover his money, Henry Starr desperately turned back to crime. He was fatally wounded on February 18, 1921, attempting to rob a bank in Harrison, Ark., and died four days later. Like Starr, Bill Tilghman and Roy Daugherty should have stuck to the movie business. After another spell in prison for bank robbery, Arkansas Tom became a fugitive and was killed in a shootout with Missouri lawmen on August 24, 1924. A few months later, Tilghman was gunned down in Compton, Okla., after returning to law enforcement at age 70.
Most of the featured players in the large number of silent Westerns that focused, often sympathetically, upon Indian stories were Indians from the East or Oklahoma. On the other hand, from the early days of the Wild West shows and, then, Western movies, large groups of Plains Indians added a seeming verisimilitude to the proceedings. The Bannocks, Crows, Nez Perces, Pawnees, Shoshones and Sioux were among those tribes who provided performers for the various Wild West shows and later the movies. In the early days of Cody’s extravaganza, celebrated Sioux leaders Sitting Bull and Gall made appearances. Other members of that tribe appearing in the arena and on film included Black Elk, William Eagle Shirt, Iron Tail, Standing Bear and Short Bull. Today, there are doubtless many who would see the shows as exploiting the Indian performers and distorting history, a viewpoint that begs two questions. First, whether those living on the reservations in that era would have thought being well paid, fed, housed and transported across the country (and, sometimes, around the world) was exploitation? Second, whether any American citizens ever really expected history lessons at the circus, whatever the advertising promised?
With the passing of Buffalo Bill, Bill Tilghman and Henry Starr, it might be thought that the Westerns of the 1920s—as good as they had become technically—had nothing in the way of tangible connections to the real West. That was not entirely the case, with both Al Jennings and Emmett Dalton continuing to be involved in film work and many former working cowboys to be found among the lesser ranks of the riding extras.
Although Wyatt Earp had failed to capture Hollywood’s interest earlier, at his funeral in 1929 the pallbearers included William S. Hart and Tom Mix. Since the beginning of talkies, Western filmmakers have demonstrated a continuing appetite for the activities of Wyatt Earp (see related story, P. 26). For film historians, the importance of the 1920s rests in the filming of the first truly epic Western stories—The Covered Wagon (1923), The Iron Horse (1924), North of 36 (1924), Sundown (1924) and Tumbleweeds (1925). Whatever the shortcomings of their respective plots, they all have great visual appeal and an almost documentary appearance in the action sequences.
Among the many less prestigious Westerns produced at the same time are a few surprises. For example, in 1921 in two independent productions from Mesco Pictures, Jesse James Under the Black Flag and Jesse James as the Outlaw, Jesse James Jr., 45, played his late father. Despite these films being dull viewing and not very successful, they were reissued together on six reels in 1927. That was the year in which popular cowboy star Fred Thomson starred for Paramount in Jesse James. Jesse James Jr., who had stayed on in Hollywood, was the production’s technical adviser. Bill Pickett, by then in his early 60s, was once again filmed performing “Death Defying Feats of Courage and Skill” for a Florida-based film company in 1923.
Former Wild West show star Ken Maynard rivaled Tom Mix and Fred Thomson in popularity through his action-packed First National Westerns and in 1927 starred in The Red Raiders. Made simply to be entertaining, this seven-reel movie was filmed on the reservation of the Crow Indians, who appear in large numbers as the “Sioux,” their former enemies. A sequence of an Indian council not only featured White Man Runs Him but also was accompanied by an “historical note” identifying him as “General Custer’s own scout and the only living survivor of the Custer Massacre.” It embodies just that mixture of reality and fiction characterizing this era, when the West faded out as the Western flickered in.
English author Allan Radbourne writes often about the Wild West. Suggested for further reading: The Western: From Silents to the Seventies, by George N. Fenin and William K. Everson; A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses, by George A. Katchmer; and The Filming of the West, by John Tuska.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.