Wednesday’s Book Review: “Buffalo Bill on the Silver Screen”

51lNxJhUz0LBuffalo Bill on the Silver Screen: The Films of William F. Cody. By Sandra K. Sagala. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

Who would have thought it? We have all heard of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. Cody turned his fame from dime novels and widespread mythology into dollars in his pocket with a show the traveled around both America and Europe for many years. He even had in his show Native Americans who has once fought him on the Great Plains. For some 30 years he made a good living carrying forward the mythology of the “Wild West.”

What I didn’t know until reading Buffalo Bill on the Silver Screen that Cody also lived long enough to burnish his reputation in films produced near the turn of the twentieth century. That is the little-known story told by Sandra K. Sagala in this book.

Sagala relates how Thomas Edison invited Cody to his kinetoscope studio in 1894 to perform for the cameras their “Wild West” show. Cody embraced the idea and thereafter never met a camera he did not want to stand in front of, and he did so repeatedly for years. The high point in Cody’s film career came in 1910 when he played himself in the film, The Life of Buffalo Bill. He eventually made The Indian Wars in 1913, which claimed to tell the story of the plains wars, although it was financial disaster and virtually none of the footage has survived. It would be fascinating to know if he viewed it as history or “oater.” My guess it was at best an “oater” with just about as much attention to historical detail as many other westerns produced by the film industry.

This book is must reading if you are Buffalo Bill aficionado. It is entertaining if you enjoy Western lore and film history. It is useful if you seek disparate facts in odd genres. It is disappointing if you want broad analytical discussion of any of these areas.

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