Buffalo Bill was 20th Century-Fox's second-biggest production of 1943-44; produced for a then-pricey $2.04 million, only The Gang's All Here cost more. As such it was an A-Western designed by producer Harry Sherman (late of the Hopalong Cassidy series) to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, hence its careful balance of action, romance, and scenes designed to directly appeal to children. The result is big scale adventure done at a superficial but enjoyable level, despite one of the corniest last scenes in movie history.
The film, set in 1877, purports to be something of a biography of William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody (Joel McCrea), a man remembered "even now, more than 60 years later," so says the film's narrator. Bill rescues a stagecoach driven by Cavalry Sgt. Chips (Edgar Buchanan, his hair dyed gray and wearing a walrus mustache) and carrying Louisa Frederici (Maureen O'Hara), daughter of a United States senator. Bill and Louisa are, of course, instantly attracted to one another, despite her wealth, sophisticated upbringing in the east and his total lack of education and breeding.
Bill reluctantly participates in the buffalo-hunting craze of the period, which in turn ignites a war between the starving Sioux and Cheyenne Tribes against the U.S. Cavalry. Forced to choose sides between his Indian friends and the U.S. government, and between fighting and moving back east with Louisa and their newborn son, Bill decides to assist the cavalry, even though its leaders have no understanding of the Indians, whom they regard as simple savages.
Buffalo Bill comes closest to being a good film in its somewhat bitter last act (Spoilers), when Bill's accomplishments are discredited by industrialists and politicians who object to his defense of the American Indian and especially his outspoken anger against the rapid development of the West. Disgraced, Bill is reduced to self-parody as a sideshow attraction, sitting atop a wooden horse, before the creation of his Wild West Show restored his wealth and fame.
In the film if not in real life, Buffalo Bill is shown to have great compassion for Indians, and little patience for those hunting buffalo for the sport of it, even though the real Cody is said to have slaughtered thousands of Buffalo himself. (More Spoilers) One good scene has Bill surveying the sea of Indian corpses after the fight in Hat Creek, Nebraska and, carrying the dead body of one Indian is asked, "A friend of yours, Bill?" "They were all friends of mine," he replies.
The rest of the picture is well-mounted Technicolor action, though some might be offended by scenes in which a dozen or so real buffalo are shot dead in their tracks, right on camera, and certainly odd for a movie purporting to mourn the near extinction of the buffalo, whose future was still somewhat in doubt in 1944.
The film abounds with historical errors and other absurdities, from the casting of singularly Irish Maureen O'Hara as a woman of northern Italian heritage, to her uncanny ability to keep her lipstick, rouge, and fake eyelashes in place and unsmudged during childbirth. Linda Darnell, cast as an Indian woman in love with Bill, is no more convincing.
Anthony Quinn's imposing war chief is called Yellow Hand, the name often erroneously given Yellow Hair, and the Battle at Hat Creek is similarly misidentified as War Bonnet Creek. Worse, the film opens in 1877, yet after Bill meets Louisa, gets married, and his wife gives birth, word comes of Custer's June 1876 defeat at the Battle of Little Big Horn. I guess news travels slowly in the West.
But McCrea, an actor of somewhat limited range but always authentic and likable, is just fine as Buffalo Bill, milking what laughs there are to be had in the comic scenes, and entirely believable in the action sequences. (In one shot he impressively leaps onto a horse from behind, something I don't think I've ever seen a leading actor/Hollywood star ever do before.)
Video & Audio
Buffalo Bill looks just fine in its full frame transfer; even the Fox logo looks especially stunning in three-strip Technicolor. An allegedly stereo track is offered alongside the original mono one but it's not recommended. Stick with the perfectly fine original. Mono tracks in French and Spanish are offered, along with optional English and Spanish subtitles. There are no Extra Features.
Buffalo Bill romanticizes the Old West with hoary cliches ("How!" Bills says upon meeting Yellow Hand) and unashamedly ignore the facts and prints the legend. And though far from director William A. Wellman's best work, Buffalo Bill is entertaining escapism.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.