Buffalo Bill (1944)

 

 

 

 

 

Director:    William A. Wellman.

Starring:     Joel McCrea (Buffalo Bill), Maureen O'Hara (Louisa Cody), Linda Darnell (Dawn Starlight), Thomas Mitchell (Ned Buntline), Edgar Buchanan (Sgt. Chips), Anthony Quinn (Yellow Hand), Moroni Olsen (Sen. Frederici), Frank Fenton (Murdo Carvell), Matt Briggs (Gen. Blazier), George Lessey (Mr. Vandevere), Frank Orth (Sherman), George Chandler (Trooper Clancy), Chief Many Treaties (Tall Bull), Nick Thompson (Medicine Man), Chief Thundercloud (Crazy Horse), Sidney Blackmer (President Theodore Roosevelt), William Haade (Barber), Evelyn Beresford (Queen Victoria), Edwin Stanley (Doctor), John Dilson (President Hayes).

Buffalo Bill was more showman than cowboy, but this film is a more typical western of its time, take it or leave it.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"In 1877 a young man rode out of the West and overnight his name became a household word.  He'd not discovered a continent or won a war.  He was not a great general, a great statesman or a great scientist.  Yet even now, more than sixty years later the legends which surround him are as vivid as they were then.  His name was William Frederick Cody.  But to young and old, rich and poor, king and commoner., he's known as Buffalo Bill.  This is the story of his life." 

A stage coach is racing, trying to get away from pursuing Indians.  The coach falls over tossing around the two cavalrymen, a civilian father and his grown-up daughter.  The Indians, however, are falling off their saddles, even before Sergeant Chips can fire his pistol.  All of a sudden the Indians stop what they are doing, turn their horses around and flee.  The sergeant doesn't understand it, until he sees a cowboy coming down from a small, rocky hill.  It's the cowboy who was killing the Indians. 

The cowboy rides his horse down the hill to say:  "Good morning, folks."  The sergeant says he knew it was him all along.  He introduces Miss Louisa Federici to Buffalo Bill Cody as "the best scout, the best shot, the best man on the plain."   The young lady is very grateful to Cody for saving them and she also seems to like the way he looks.  Cody picks up one of the arrows and says it's a hunting arrow, not a war arrow.  The arrow has no barbs.  He says they were some local agency Indians crazy drunk on white man's whisky.  The sergeant wants to put Louisa on a mule, but Miss Federici says she would prefer to ride with Buffalo Bill.  

The stage coach party is taken to the military fort.  Later Cody receives a letter.  It's a dinner invitation to dine with the Federici family signed by Louisa. 

Cody walks over to the local one-room school house.  He meets with the pretty Indian school teacher who wears tradition Indian garb.  Her name is Dawn Starlight.  She writes an R.S.V.P. letter on the blackboard and Cody, sitting at a school desk, copies it out onto paper.   

When Cody comes to the dinner, there are some unexpected guests:  reporter Ned Buntline, Gen. Blazier, Mr. Vandevere.  Mr. Frederici is also there.  Buntline is very happy to see Buffalo Bill, since he has heard so much about him.  Dawn Starlight looks through the window at the dinner guests.  It's obvious she likes Cody.  She sneaks into a bedroom through a window.  Dawn puts on three or four petticoats and then a nice dress.  She looks at herself in the mirror and is pleased with what she sees.

Louisa, still upset over the fight with the Indians, enters her bedroom and discovers "an Indian!".  She scolds Dawn for breaking into her room and trying to steal one of her dresses.  Dawn explains she was just trying the dress on to see if she could be as beautiful as a white girl.  This makes Louisa sympathetic to the woman.  She takes Dawn over to the mirror and says that she looks beautiful.  Louisa says:  "I wish your Indian brave could see you now."  This makes Dawn angry and she turns to Louisa and says very harshly:  "Indian!"  She takes off the dress.  Louisa doesn't understand what she said that so upset the maiden.   Dawn says that Louisa will not want to wear the dress now ". . . because an Indian wore it!"  She grabs her own dress and goes back out the window. 

At dinner Buffalo Bill asks railman Vandervere why doesn't he build his railroad line around the Cheyenne's land, rather than through the heart of their land?  Vandervere says it would be too costly.  Yellow Hand is brought in by some soldiers.  Vandervere tells him that the Cheyenne must move out of their lands in 30 days.  Cody pipes up that he and Yellow Hand grew up together.  Yellow Hand says they must live where there is buffalo and water.  Cody says the buffalo is the Indians' main source of food.  He adds that Yellow Hand is equal to a prince since he is the son of the chief of the tribe.  But Vandervere is not impressed and gives Yellow Hand an ultimatum:  move or be driven out. 

The Cheyenne, 1,000 braves strong, go to war hitting settlements and outposts and spreading terror through the countryside  One morning Cody comes riding to the fort fast.  He tells the General that there are some 500 Cheyenne warriors headed to the fort.  The alarm goes out for the cavalry to prepare for an action.  Dawn Starlight tells an older Indian man to go to her brother and tell him that she knows of an old white man that he can kidnap and hold for ransom. 

The General decides to attack the oncoming Indians. Cody advises against it, but the General will not be moved.  Later, when Cody hears the whoops of the Cheyenne not far away, he races over to check on Louisa.  She, Ned and another man are laying on the floor, tied up.  Cody undoes the ropes around Louisa as she tells him that the Indians have kidnapped her father.  Cody tells her that he can't track them during the night.  He will start early tomorrow.

Out scouting, the Cheyenne pick up Cody.  They tie him to a post and the women are about to burn him with lighted sticks, when Yellow Hand stops them.  He cuts the ropes holding Cody to the post.  The chief tells his son to tell Cody that the Cheyenne will make peace.  After all, they still have the land between the two rivers.  He calls for a pow-wow with the whites at Council Grove.  And, because Cody saved Yellow Hand's life one time, they let Buffalo Bill take Mr. Federici back to his daughter.  Louisa is very grateful once again to Buffalo Bill.  He wants to take her riding to show her why he likes the area.  Dawn Starlight sees this and she gets upset again. 

Yellow Hand signs a peace treaty with the General. 

Ned Buntline tells Cody he is going to write a book about his adventures out West and he would like to put some of Bill's adventures in the book too.  Louisa arrives to go for the ride.  She asks him about a blanket on his wall.  Cody tells her that it's a courting blanket that a woman puts on to say she is ready and willing to court with a certain man.  So Louisa takes the blanket off the wall and puts it around herself.  When an aIndian maiden opens the robe to the man she wants, that's the signal.   So Louisa opens her robe to take Bill in and Bill virtually jumps at her. They hug and kiss. 

Bill and Louisa marry and settle down to a frontier life. 

Louisa's father comes to their cabin for a visit.  He tells Louisa and Bill that Vandervere is going to be hauling buffalo hides out of the area and Bill will be in charge of the field operations.  Cody hires a lot of hunting parties and they launch a mass attack on the buffalo.  Buffalo hunting becomes a business that turns into a slaughter.  In a single month 5,000 head are slaughtered.  Of course, this slaughter both threatens and angers the Indian tribes in the area. 

One evening Bill tells Ned that he is beginning to worry that this buffalo hunting is getting out of hand.  On the same evening Louisa tells Bill that she is pregnant.  Bill is very happy to hear the good news. 

Smoke signals are sent up to gather other tribes together to see what they can do about all this killing of the buffalo.  The Sioux gather with the Cheyenne at the village of Yellow Hand and his father.  Yellow Hand talks with Crazy Horse of the Sioux.  A message is sent to Dawn Starlight about the negotiations.  She tells her students that she is called back to her people, so there will be no more school. 

Bill is taking Louisa back to the fort to see the doctor there.  They stop to talk to an old Indian woman who has left her village to die by herself.  Bill gives her some tobacco and they leave.  They don't get very far before Louisa starts having birth contractions.  He takes his bride back to the old Indian woman who helps Louisa give birth to a baby boy. 

Yellow Hand leads the Cheyenne warriors out to do battle with the cavalry.  Cody drives his wagon into the fort.  The General grabs him and says the troops are going to go after the Cheyenne and Sioux.  The Sioux under Crazy Horse wiped out Custer and part of the 7th Cavalry.  The General wants Cody to go with them as a scout.  Louisa is opposed to the idea.  She wants to take the child and go back East.  Bill tells her he doesn't want to go, but he has to go.  Louisa says that if he leaves now, she will go back East for sure.  Bill leaves to join the cavalry. 

Bill tells the General that they should keep the Sioux and Cheyenne separate by taking War Bonnet Gorge.  He says:  "Whoever holds the Gorge holds the whip hand."  The General says the Gorge is too far out of their way.  So Bill tells the advance soldiers that they are taking a short-cut to their destination while actually taking them to War Bonnet Gorge.   He tells the small group of men that they have to hold the Gorge until the rest of the cavalry catches up with them. 

The men quickly get into position as a small group of Cheyenne warriors approach.  They start firing at the Cheyenne and the Cheyenne are forced to retreat.  The General shows up and he is furious with Bill for lying to him and taking the men to War Bonnet Gorge anyway.  Now the whole tribe of Cheyenne are forming up for the charge.  Yellow Hand comes forward alone.  Bill goes out to meet him.  He shouts to Yellow Hand to leave and take his warriors with him back to their own country.  The two men decide to fight each other.  On their horses they charge each other.  They jump at each other and fall in the river.  They fight while floating downstream.  Cody survives, Yellow Hand does not.  Now the Cheyenne attack.  Dawn Starlight is with the Cheyenne.  She is hit and falls from her horse. 

The cavalry starts attacking the Indians and they meet in the middle of a marsh area where at times there is hand to hand fighting.  Dawn Starlight is dead.  More cavalry reinforcements arrive and chase the Cheyenne from the battlefield.  After the battle, Bill retrieves the body of Dawn Starlight. 

Back at the fort Bill gets a letter from President Hayes.  The President wants Bill to come to Washington, DC for a medal for his brave actions at War Bonnet Gorge.  Sgt. Chips gets his retirement notice.  He is to go to the army's Old Soldiers' Home.  Chips does not want to retire. 

Buffalo Bill, his horse and Chips travel by train to Washington, DC.  They stop at Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Looking around the station, Chips finds a bunch of dime novels about Buffalo Bill written by Ned Buntline.  Someone recognizes Buffalo Bill and a crowd starts to gather.  Bill and Chips race back to the train car and close the door.  In Washington, DC Ned Buntline meets with Buffalo Bill.  Bill is anxious to get the medal ceremony over so he can go see his boy Kit.  Just then Ned opens a message from Louisa saying:  "Come immediately 26 Ohio Avenue, Kit seriously ill."  Ned shows the message to Bill and Bill immediately takes off for 26 Ohio Avenue.  Just as Bill comes in, the boy dies and Louisa sobs over his body.  The cause of death was diphtheria.  Bill starts to leave, but Louisa calls out to him.  He turns and angrily says to her:  "The West wasn't good enough for him.  If you had left him where he belongs, he'd be alive today."

Bill gets his medal and he gets drunk.  Ned Buntline takes him back to the hotel. 

An invitation arrives.  "Mr. Schyler Vandervere requests the pleasure of your company at a Testimonial Banquet to be tendered in honor of Buffalo Bill at the Astor Hotel, New York City."  Bill attends the banquet.  When he gives his speech, it's one very sympathetic to the native Americans.  The next day in the newspaper the headline says:  "Buffalo Bill Accuses Monied Interests of Instigating Indian Wars.  Asks for Congressional Inquiry."

Ned warns Bill that Vandervere will come after him with everything he's got.  And Vandervere does just that.  In the newspapers, he raises the issue of whether Buffalo Bill was the one who really killed Yellow Hand.  It is suggested that Sgt. Garnier was the one who killed Yellow Hand.  Bill gets so mad that he slugs one of the newspaper editors.  Bill gets down on his luck and gets evicted from the Astor Hotel. 

In an arcade Bill tries his hand at shooting down various moving and non-moving targets.  Bill pays for the game with his Congressional Medal of Honor.  The arcade man fears that Bill stole it and calls for a policeman named Muldoon.  The policeman is going to run Bill in to the pokey, but Bill speaks up that he is Buffalo Bill Cody and the medal is his.  Muldoon says:  "And I'm Jenny Lind."  (Lind was a singer known as the Swedish Nightingale.)  To prove his identity, Bill picks up the various rifles and shoots.  Every shot hits the target.   Muldoon and the arcade man are very apologetic about not believing Bill.  The arcade fellow offers Bill a job showing off his shooting talents by knocking down target after target, while sitting on a wooden horse.  Bill takes it.

Louisa's father tells his daughter to go get her husband.  She is resistant, but dad tells her that Bill is making his living posing on a wooden horse at the Wonderland Museum.  This upsets Louisa. 

Bill gives an exhibition of his shooting at the arcade.  There is some controversy in the crowd because of the negative newspaper articles about Buffalo Bill.  So the arcade fellow asks for a volunteer to hold a dollar coin between their thumb and finger so Bill can shoot it out of their hand.  Louisa volunteers.  When Bill sees it's Louisa holding the coin, he is shocked.  But he is going to fire.  The arcade man tells Bill to stop because the volunteer is not holding a big dollar coin, but a penny.  Louisa tells him:  "Shoot, Bill!"  And Bill shoots knocking the penny from between Louisa's thumb and finger. 

Bill and Louisa are back together.  She says she will always stay with him and will go wherever he goes.  And where Buffalo Bill is going is to the Wild West Show.  Ned Buntline encourages Bill to start his wild west show and Bill does so.  At the show Indians come out firing their weapons, chased by cowboys and cowgirls.  A stage coach comes out with its guards firing at the Indians chasing them.  Next to come out is the cavalry.  And, finally, Buffalo Bill comes out. 

Bill travels around the world with his show.  He even performs before President Theodore Roosevelt. 

At his last performance, he tells the people goodbye and thanks the audience from the bottom of his heart. 

 

 Good, action-packed western film about some of the exploits of Buffalo Bill Cody.  This is a presentation of the glorious myth of Buffalo Bill.  A more truthful account would be more interesting, but, on the other hand, this western was just meant to be a western, not a sophisticated drama.   The acting of the main characters was good.  Maureen O'Hara and Linda Darnell are both young and lovely. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


Historic Background:

1846  --  William Frederick Cody born in Iowa.

1861  --  at age 15, he claimed to have been a rider on the Pony Express.

1861  --  Pony Express went bankrupt. 

1863  -- his mother died. 

1863  --  Cody enlisted in the 7th Kansas Cavalry regiment fighting for the North. 

1868-1872  --  Cody was a scout  for the US Army.  During this time, he also was involved in killing buffalo for the Army and the Union Pacific Railroad.

1868  --  Cody got the nickname "Buffalo Bill".  Originally, the nickname referred to Bill Comstock, but Cody won the right to it in a buffalo killing contest with the score of 69 to 48.

1872  --  he received the Medal of Honor for "gallantry in action" with the 3rd Cavalry.

1876  --  Custer wiped out at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Purportedly, Cody took revenge by scalping a Cheyenne warrior at Warbonnet Creek named Yellow Hand..

1883  --  in Omaha, Nebraska he founded the circus-like "Buffalo Bill Wild West Show" that toured annually.  Among the performers were the sharp-shooter Annie Oakley and the Sioux Indian Chief Sitting Bull. 

1887  --  for the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria, he performed in London. 

1889  --   he toured Europe. 

1893  --  he had an exhibition near the Chicago World's Fair that contributed to his popularity.

1896  --  he and some investors founded the city of Cody, Wyoming. 

1917  -- death of Buffalo Bill. 

1917  --  the Medal of Honor was revoked 24 days after his death, because he was a civilian and therefore was ineligible for the award under new guidelines for the award.

1989  --  the medal was restored to him by the army.

 

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