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Buffalo Bill was one of the big hits of 1944, yet neither its writer, director nor leading lady seems to have had any affection for it, or even wanted to make it. The first major film about William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, a buffalo hunter and decorated Army scout who later became a famous showman, Buffalo Bill is probably as colorful and entertaining as Cody's life--or at least the version of his life that Cody liked to tell.
That dynamic was not lost upon director William Wellman or writer Gene Fowler, and it's the reason they were less than enamored with the final picture. Fowler thought Cody "the fakiest guy who ever lived," and wanted to make a movie that would speak to the less-glamorous truth of the man's life. Wellman liked this approach, and the two men spent months researching the real Buffalo Bill. Wellman later said that he and Fowler worked on a screenplay for three months, after which time they had "half a script that was absolutely beautiful."
Then one evening, as Wellman recalled, Fowler phoned him to say he'd decided their approach was all wrong. "You can't kill any of these wonderful heroes that our kids...and everyone else, worship and like," Fowler said. "And that's what we're doing. Buffalo Bill is a great figure, and we cannot do it." In other words, to destroy the legend of Buffalo Bill might have been interesting and truthful, but the moviegoing public would likely have none of it. (It's a theme later explored in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance  with its famous "print the legend" refrain.) So the two men spent a drunken night tossing their script into a fireplace, one page at a time. "[We] burned up three months of the most wonderful work I've ever done with a writer in my whole life," said Wellman. "[But] he was right."
Eventually, the completed screenplay did indeed perpetuate the heroic, romantic, and probably untrue legend of Buffalo Bill Cody, and Wellman was indeed disgusted by it. But he had no choice but to make the movie because he owed Fox a film for having been permitted to make The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), a film that studio chief Darryl Zanuck disliked as much as Wellman disliked Buffalo Bill.
Wellman said of the finished product, "Having been through this thing with Fowler, it was fakey. I loved Tommy Mitchell in it. And I loved the two girls. I tried to do the best I could." But he despised a scene at the end "when a little crippled boy stands up and says 'God bless you, Buffalo Bill.'" Wellman did not want to shoot that scene, "and when I did, honestly and truly, I turned around and damn near vomited because I think that's the fakiest thing I ever heard. And then Zanuck told me later on [Buffalo Bill] was the second-biggest moneymaker we've ever made."
Audiences seemed not to care about the on-screen fiction of Buffalo Bill's life -- they just responded to a good cast (Joel McCrea, Maureen O'Hara, Linda Darnell, Thomas Mitchell), gorgeous Technicolor cinematography (by Leon Shamroy), and some spectacular action scenes. O'Hara, in fact, later wrote that she believed it was the Technicolor photography that made the film such a substantial box-office success. (She otherwise never thought much of the film and still doesn't.)
Buffalo Bill contains an iconic cavalry vs. Indians battle scene that is one of the most exciting such scenes of the era: the battle of War Bonnet Gorge. To shoot the massive sequence, which was based on a true-life skirmish, Wellman had a river dammed up so that it would leave just a little water over the entire valley floor where the battle takes place. But flash floods washed out the dam three times, costing the studio a lot of money. Zanuck gave Wellman one more chance, and finally he got it. Just in time, too -- the next day another flash flood washed it out again.
The battle footage was so thrilling that Fox re-used it in several other westerns, including the opening of Pony Soldier (1952) and the ending of The Siege at Red River (1954). Film historian William K. Everson later wrote, "Critics with short memories were easily fooled. To a man they praised the battle scene that was over a decade old, and pointed out how much better wide-screen films could present this sort of mass action than the 'old-fashioned' small screens!"
Critics did not receive Buffalo Bill too well, though they all praised the battle scene. The New York Times seemed resigned to the myth-perpetuating attitude of the film, stating: "As a purely romantic fiction about the great man who had the Wild West show -- the man who was bathed in clouds of glory by millions of American boys -- this film is as credible as many of the stories which Cody told about himself... Buffalo Bill's was a fantastic legend, and Twentieth Century-Fox has done nothing to tear it down."
Trade paper Variety, on the other hand, gave a very strong review and called it "a magnificent production" with "topflight" photography and "outstanding" sound recording.
Fox released Buffalo Bill before The Ox-Bow Incident, and while the former scored box-office gold, the latter made no dent with moviegoers, though critics loved it. In truth, Zanuck hated Ox-Bow so much that he barely released it, so it never had a real chance. But The Ox-Bow Incident has since become regarded as one of the great classics of the era, while Buffalo Bill is remembered mainly for its rousing battle scene and technical merits.
A final cast note: Linda Darnell plays a young Indian woman who teaches in a frontier school, and the studio publicity department announced that she was perfect for the part because she had "a few drops" of Cherokee blood in her. That being said, Darnell's character does deliver some lines about racism that are quite progressive for 1944.
By Jeremy Arnold
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Richard Schickel, The Men Who Made the Movies
Tony Thomas, Joel McCrea: Riding the High Country
Frank T. Thompson, William A. Wellman