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This film is based on the life of William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1846-1917). Cody's legendary exploits as a Pony Express rider, Army scout, Indian fighter, buffalo hunter and showman were popularized in the dime novels of writer Ned Buntline. Although some of the incidents in the film, such as Cody's fight with Cheyenne leader Yellow Hand and his being awarded the Medal of Honor are true, others were not. His wife Louisa, for example, was not the daughter of a senator, and the couple had three other children besides Kit Carson Cody, who actually died of scarlet fever. Numerous films have been made featuring Cody as a character, including the 1926 Sunset Productions film Buffalo Bill on the U.P. Trail, starring Roy Stewart (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.0675); the 1936 Paramount film The Plainsman, featuring James Ellison as Cody (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.3472); and the 1976 picture Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, starring Paul Newman. Cody himself appeared in a number of films, including the 1901 Biograph release Buffalo Bill's Wild West Parade (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1893-1910; A.01833) and the 1917 Essanay release The Adventures of Buffalo Bill (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.0024). The Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, contains several letters from Cody's relatives, some of which protested that the picture was being made without their permission. Others complained after the film was released that the depiction of Cody was grossly inaccurate. No claims were filed, however, and the studio maintained that because Cody was dead, they did not have to obtain the rights to his life story from any of his surviving relatives.
According to information in the legal records and the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, also located at UCLA, the studio purchased the rights to Frank Winch's unpublished story, entitled "Pahaska," from producer Harry Sherman, who had originally intended to make the film at Paramount. Sherman assigned Harrison Jacobs to write the screenplay, and planned to shoot it in Wyoming, according to a February 1939 Los Angeles Times news item. Fox's purchase of Sherman's rights to "Pahaska" included the rights to other works by Winch, upon some of which the screenplay May have been based. They include: The Thrilling Lives of Buffalo Bill, Col. William F. Cody, Last of the Great Scouts and Pawnee Bill, Major Gordon W. Lillie, White Chief of the Pawnees (1911); Buffalo Bill as I Knew Him (1928); and "Buffalo Bill-Frontiersman" (Ace High Magazine, January 3, 1929 -18 September 1929). According to a studio press release, "Americana expert" George Milburn was to collaborate with credited writer Aeneas McKenzie on the screenplay, but the extent of his contribution to the completed picture has not been confirmed. A June 14, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Sherman originally intended for Lesley Selander to act as the second unit director.
A June 1943 version of the screenplay, contained in the scripts collection, includes the following foreword: "In recognition of the valor and devotion of those Indian warriors who are now in the armed forces of our nation, Twentieth Century-Fox Studios dedicates to a race that ever fought for freedom, this story of its greatest friend and foeman." In a July 14, 1943 story conference, however, studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck objected to the dedication, saying "in this we are reminded of a situation which we would rather not have brought up: our ignoble treatment of the American Indian." The story conference also reveals that Vincent Price was originally scheduled to play "Murdo Carvell," but was replaced when the part was cut. Hollywood Reporter production charts list Price in the cast, however, along with E. J. Ballantine, whose participation in the completed film has not been confirmed. According to several contemporary sources, the buffalo hunting sequence was filmed on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana, and many sequences were shot on location in Zion National Park and Kanab, Utah. The majority of the Indians in the film were played by Navajo Indians from Arizona.