Buffalo Bill's grave in the Colorado Rockies

Buffalo Bill’s grave in the Colorado Rockies

More by instinct than intention, I have pulled off the road for a quick stop at historic sites marking the milestones in the life of Buffalo Bill Cody. I have happened upon his birthplace at Le Claire, Iowa; also the place where he is buried, outside of Denver; and most importantly, the ranch in North Platte, Nebraska that was winter quarters for the traveling show called Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. In 1969, I was in New York City and saw a play called Indians on Broadway. Buffalo Bill was the central character and I was electrified by its bold use of theatrical technique to illuminate buried cultural issues. The play had all of the courage and bravado that the later movie adaptation lacked. Also, I was on hand for the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun in 1999. Just lucky, I guess.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians,

or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson  (1976)

Loosely based on Arthur Kopit’s play, Indians (London 1968; Broadway 1969),* this was a disappointing follow-up to the previous year’s Nashville from Robert Altman.  Paul Newman takes the title role and does a more than adequate job.  This is a thundering directorial failure.  The original material was driven by radical energies and it was exuberantly theatrical.  This film flattens the material to the point of persistent dullness.  Filmed in Canada, it appears to be set at Cody’s ranch in Wyoming, where they are rehearsing the Wild West Show.  Geraldine Chaplin is Annie Oakley and her handsome husband is played here as a servile dolt (not at all like the character in Annie Get Your Gun, who is virile and can sing).  Burt Lancaster is Ned Buntline who sits in a saloon on the sidelines and offers what should be a cutting commentary on the action; but there is no action of any merit and his observations are reduced to mere dialogue.

The central event of the movie comes when Sitting Bull arrives at the ranch to join the show.  He is an imposing figure in a red blanket – until it is recognized that the actual chief is the small man next to the big fellow (Will Sampson).  Good joke.  The chief is used badly by the management (Joel Grey). He pins his hopes on a visit from President Grover Cleveland and his new bride (Shelly Duvall).  The encounter of the two great leaders comes to nothing and the chief leaves the scene.  Later Bill learns that Sitting Bull has been shot while trying to escape custody.  The ghost of the chief turns up in full regalia to haunt Bill and he gets a scene that should be soul-rending drama.  It falls flat along with the rest of the film.  In the end, Buffalo Bill enacts a man-to-man combat with the savage chief in the arena. Will Sampson plays the chief.  All the ingredients are in place; the settings rich and colorful, and the characters are well cast.  Cody’s blend of foolishness and competence is well presented. What a shame, this is one of Altman’s misfires.

Annie Get Your Gun (1950)

Ethel Merman made the role of Annie Oakley her own in the original Broadway production of this musical. The story centers on Annie’s experience with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Sitting Bull is a key character. This is not a source for authentic history, but it captures the showbiz energies of its subject. The Broadway version was revived in 1999 with insensitive references to American Indians eliminated. The movie version was originally set to be a vehicle for Judy Garland, but complications arose and Betty Hutton walked away with the role. 

Annie Oakley  (1935)

This first Hollywood treatment of Annie Oakley’s life was released within a week and a half after her death. Barbara Stanwyck plays the title role in a highly fictionalized version of the sharpshooter’s middle years. Annie’s real life husband, Frank Butler, has been turned into the hapless figure of Toby Walker. Buffalo Bill is played as a robust and generally admirable man. Sitting Bull is played for droll comedy by Chief Thunderbird – something like an Indian Buster Keaton. Iron Eyes Cody accompanies him as translator. Most of the light drama revolves around Annie’s chaste love life. She is separated from Toby when the Wild West show travels to Europe without him. When the show returns to New York, the two are reunited at a shooting gallery where Toby is eking out a living. They embrace and it may be presumed that marriage will follow. The End. It is beyond me why Frank Butler needed to be fictionalized, or Sitting Bull needed to be made into a buffoon.

Buffalo Bill  (1944)

This is a remarkable document on the manufacture of popular cultural mythology. It is a fictional biography of Buffalo Bill Cody with the spotlight on his early years in the West. Among the several credited screenwriters is Aeneas MacKenzie who wrote They Died with Their Boots On (1941). This is a botched job. Most of the vignetted scenes make little sense. And yet, taken as a whole, it is a kind of vaudeville of history. It opens with Bill rescuing a group of Easterners from an Indian raiding party. Among them are Ned Buntline and Louisa Frederici (Maureen O’Hara), whom Bill will later marry. Louisa was not in real life the daughter of a U.S. senator as she is in the movie. These people are uniform in their expressions of prejudice toward the Indians and the theme of civilization versus the savages is heavily belabored. Immediately, Bill expresses his admiration for the Indians and his conviction that it is the white intruders who are the problem. The Cheyenne warrior, Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn), a childhood friend of Buffalo Bill, is brought to the fort and given an ultimatum.  He must vacate his lands, which are needed for a railroad, or face war with the cavalry. He chooses war. There is a strange vignette at this point in which a pretty Indian maiden (Linda Darnell) sneaks into O’Hara’s bedroom and tries on a pretty dress. O’Hara is outraged at first, but becomes sympathetic to the the girl’s desire to appear as beautiful as a white woman. Oddly, the maiden is the schoolmarm in the classroom at the fort. She is helping Bill learn how to read and write. Buffalo Bill and Louise have a brief and somewhat silly courtship, and then marry.

There are some impressive scenes as large numbers of Cheyenne gather to oppose the U.S. Cavalry. Inexplicably, Linda Darnell rides with the warrior horde. Bill feels compelled to abandon his pregnant wife and join the soldiers in the battle against the Indians. He meets Yellow Hand in one-on-one combat and kills him. The point is made at every opportunity that while Bill participated in buffalo hunting and Indian fighting, he always had second thoughts about the impact of his activities.

When he is called to Washington to receive a medal of honor, it is an opportunity to reunite with his wife and child. Along the way, he discovers that he has been made famous by the writings of Ned Buntline. In the capital, he is thrown off balance by his fame and elects to hold Congress accountable for the destruction of the Indians. When word comes that his son is dying of dysentery, “a disease of civilization,” he accuses his wife of taking the boy away from the West where he belonged. He becomes a pariah and wanders the streets of the city without a friend. A carny barker offers him a job in a shooting gallery at the Wonderland Museum where he sits on a wooden horse and recounts his exploits to skeptical crowds. His repentant wife appears and holds a penny for him to shoot from her fingertips. In the end, his fortunes turn as Buntline spurs the formation of the Buffalo Bill Wild West show. Short work is made of this episode in Bill’s life. Sitting Bull does not appear. The film ends with the elderly Buffalo Bill bidding farewell to his audience and departing for the West with his devoted wife. It’s interesting to speculate on what considerations went into the making of this film while the U.S. was at war across the ocean

Hidalgo  (2004)

This is the true story of Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a well-known “endurance racer,” and his horse, named Hidalgo.  Filmed mostly in Morocco, the film tells the story of the ultimate race of his career.  It opens with Frank being summoned from a local race to report to Wounded Knee Creek in 1890, where the army is dealing with a Sioux uprising.  A minor incident turns into a terrible massacre.  The scene shifts to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West where a drunken Hopkins finds himself more in sympathy with the Indian villains than the American heroes.  His fame rests on his highly publicized race from Galveston, Texas to Rutland, Vermont.  Cody is approached by a delegation from the Middle East asking Hopkins to participate in the world’s greatest endurance race, across the Arabian desert through Iraq to Damascus (a strange geography); this Bedouin event is a 3000 mile race, called the “Ocean of fire.”  Hopkins can no longer abide the travesties of the Buffalo Bill show, and decides to make the voyage across the sea arriving at an Arabian port.  There are the usual intrigues between Hopkins and Arab chieftains, a British woman, and a beautiful Bedouin girl.  In the end, Frank wins the race by a nose, and rides his prized horse into the sea (Damascus is not on the sea).  He returns to the States and uses his winnings to buy a herd of mustangs that are about to be slaughtered. He sets them free. Spontaneously, he unsaddles Hidalgo and sends him running with his fellow mustangs. This film internationalizes the myth of the West.

Buffalo Bill Epilog: 1914

The themes of Civilization versus savagery, and attendant bigotry, are perhaps more penetratingly explored in films about Africa, but nowhere have they been more extensively aired for the contemporary audience than in Hollywood’s Western movies. Buffalo Bill Cody (1846 – 1917), thanks primarily to Arthur Kopit’s play, Indians, has become the popular culture lightning rod for this issue.

Around the year 1913, Bill began to realize that Western movies would displace his live-action spectacles. He decided to produce a movie called The Indian Wars about the massacre at Wounded Knee,  filmed on location at the Pine Ridge Reservation. He was making amends, no doubt, for his past history of exploitation of the Indians. This project, of course, did not square with Bill’s public image and the film failed to find acceptance at the box office. Bill had focused on historical authenticity at the expense of Western myth-making. Even the Indians hated it.

The full irony of Sitting Bull’s decision to join the Wild West show is never thoroughly explored in any of the Buffalo Bill movies produced in the 20th century. The old chief joined the troupe in June 1885 in Buffalo, New York and stayed for only a short time. He had become a highly desired commodity among promoters of exhibitions and circuses. P.T, Barnum was operating during these same years with his New York City museum and his railroad circus. He often took a page from Buffalo Bill’s book and featured Wild West attractions, including resident Indian tribes.

Black Elk, whose recollections of what happened on the Plains were published by John Neihardt in 1932 in a book called Black Elk Speaks, was another who joined the Wild West show. He later expressed his gratitude for his treatment by Buffalo Bill.

All of this is a study in cultural ambivalence and the wavering line between fact and fiction. The alternate view of the culture clashes between European settlers and indigenous people came into sharp focus in the last third of the 20th century. Clearly this does not mean that we have seen the end of movies that celebrate slaughter. For the movie viewer, however, it means that there is more than one lens for looking at our history, and more then one way to understand the half truths presented in the forms of popular entertainment.

There is an instructive moment in John Ford’s movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). A newspaper reporter who has learned the truth about the killing of the title character decides to destroy the notes he has taken on the case. “This is the West, sir,” he explains. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Most of moviemakers today still prefer this rule rather than its alternative. History and show business are more than ever intertwined.

No footage of Bill Cody’s film, The Indian Wars, is available

Mounds & Plains Related Posts:

Return to North America Overview