Monday, July 9, 2012

"You Know The Indian, Cody, Don't You?"

Buffalo Bill(1944)
Director: William Wellman
Cast: Joel McCrea, Maureen O' Hara, Linda Darnell

Buffalo Bill is a lavish Hollywood attempt that follows the mantra of John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance(1962), "If the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
In many ways, though, it's actually relatively faithful to the life of the famous western character, even though it's remarkably cleaned up a bit, which was not the initial intention of director Wellman. It probably was a wise move to shoot the film in a mythic light, because it's one of the reasons this film endures today, surviving as genuine entertainment.
The most incredible thing about this love letter to Buffalo Bill Cody, is the surprising sympathetic light afforded the Native Americans, a progressive slant that was not to be seen on the screen for nearly another decade. Wellman's original idea was to downplay the myth and show the flaws of the man, and while he ended up using the mythology instead, the cynical views of the U.S. still shine through. The Calvary are depicted as arrogant and unreasonable, while the politicians are seen as racist and unwelcoming. The audience actually finds themselves rooting for the Indians and accepting Buffalo Bill's perspective on the matter, even though the script is at times shoddy.

Buffalo Bill begins in the early 1970s, and completely skips Bill's service as a soldier in the Civil War and his times as a Scout in the military. Instead, the action begins immediately with a wagon being chased by drunk Indians, and Bill saves the day with his Winchester rifle. Louisa Frederici(Maureen O' Hara) is among those saved and they develop a sudden attraction to one another. Bill is invited to dinner and corresponds, buy copying a letter written for him from the blackboard of gorgeous Indian school marm, Dawn Starlight(Linda Darnell), a comical moment that is later contradicted when it's evident that Bill can read newspapers and letters with ease. Anyway, Bill goes to dinner and is introduced to several unlikable old guys bent on eliminating the Indians, because that's what guys in movies like this plot to do. Thomas Mitchell is on hand to do what he does best, playing Thomas Mitchell and delivers the comic relief. Meanwhile, Dawn sneaks into Louisa's bedroom and tries on one of her dresses. When Louisa finds her in her room and dress, she is understandably shocked, but grows sympathetic when she discovers that Dawn was just seeing if she could look as "pretty as a white girl," which is just as preposterous as it sounds when you get a good look at Linda Darnell. Louisa suggests that she will look great to her braves, and this infuriates Dawn, who tears off the dress and covering her body by the window, shouts, "Indian!" before leaving. Man, I should be so lucky to have that happen!
Anyway, Yellow Hand(Anthony Quinn) the local Indian Chief, arrives and proposes peace with the white man, and Bill suggests that the Indian chiefs be allowed to meet in Washington, like other heads of state, but the idea is rejected and soon war begins. Luckily, peace is eventually sought and a treaty is signed between Yellow Hand and the military.
Bill gets married to Louisa and soon Bill gets involved in an adventure that has earned him his namesake. Greedy business owners from the eats propose an idea to hunt buffalo and steal the hides for coats. This results in full-scale slaughter of the herds and leaves the Indians starving. Forced to fight, the Indians go on the warpath and just as Bill has a child with Louisa, he finds himself embroiled in the conflict, leading to a climatic battle where he defeats Yellow Hand in hand to hand combat. Dawn, who has proven inconsequential to the story, is killed in the massacre, making us wonder about the purpose of her character.
When Bill returns from the battle, he finds that his wife left east with they're baby son and that he has received a letter from the President awarding him the Medal of Honor! He also finds out that Sgt. Chips McGraw(Edgar Buchanan) is being retired and is to report to the old soldier's home. This colorful character proceeds to tear down his medals, but is stopped by Bill when he tries to tear down the American flag. It's an effective moment.
Sadly, even though this character travels with Bill to Washington, he is not seen in the film again, one of many plot holes that the writer's failed to fill. In Washington, we learn that Bill has been immortalized in the pages of pulpy books, written by Ned Buntline, the character portrayed by Thomas Mitchell. We also learn that Bill's son has died from a disease described as a "societal disease." This infuriates Bill, who wanted his son to be raised in the West, so he leaves.
Soon after, he speaks in front of several congressional members and makes known his opinion on the Native Americans, which is strongly opposed and he finds himself the talk of scandal. Eventually, he is relegated to appearing in a cheap show where he fires at tin targets. Louisa returns, as does Buntline, and the suggestion is made for him to bring the West, East, so a show is produced that becomes his touring Wild West show. The last five minutes of the film is a montage depicting all his travels, including meeting a comical Teddy Roosevelt, and ends with a touching and effective coda to a legend, as Buffalo Bill addresses his audience for the final time and bids farewell.

Buffalo Bill is a beautifully shot western with a wonderful feel for the glory days of the old west. Through the lens of William Wellman's camera, each shot resembles a majestic painting come to life, depicting the legends and myths that we have heard and read about so often, regarding the American West. It's certainly not the most faithful adaption of Buffalo Bill's life, but it's also not as hokey and glamorized as similar offerings, including the overly-romanticized, They Died With Their Boots On(1941), which depicted Errol Flynn as General George Armstrong Custer, of all people, as a gallant, heroic figure.
This film at least depicts Bill as a human figure and one that you can sympathize with, as opposed to the blanketing one-sided nature afforded later revisionist takes, like the dreadful, Buffalo Bill and the Indians(1976), which with even Paul Newman as the title character, was unable to capture the charisma and spark of this interesting western character.
Joel McCrea carries the picture on his shoulders, proving to be one of Hollywood's most likable leading men and it's doubtful that it could have prospered without him. He makes Bill into a heroic and ultimately, compassionate sort that really does seem to have a love for the West and the freedom it entitles. There's a genuine kinship between him and the Indians and it's a shame this was not explored more, considering the dimensions of that relationship, formed the most fascinating aspect of the man's life. For here, was a man who really did believe in the rights of the Native Settlers, but also chose to exploit them, creating many of the stereotypes that are still carried today. Still, one can interpret that as him also giving work to the Indians, whom he believed were his allies, and by all accounts, Buffalo Bill was known for his generosity.
McCrea creates a mythic character out Bill, seemingly forever caught in heroic profile shots and donning his world-famous buckskin jackets. The power of McCrea's expressive eyes keeps Bill from being overly-imposing, for he certainly is with his beard and mustache getup. While, not as anthologized as much, this is probably one of McCrea's great western characters.
O' Hara fairs as well as his lovely wife, Louisa, almost a dry-run for the sort of characters she would play in numerous John Ford westerns, especially those with John Wayne. Few actresses ever benefited from technicolor as much as O Hara, who looks positively radiant throughout. Ditto, Linda Darnell, who is equally gorgeous, though quite improbably, only in the world of Hollywood, without one glance or suitor, even from a supposedly love-starved group of cavalry soldiers! Her character seems to have been developed to be a rival for Bill's affections, but she is left with little to do, besides scream half-naked at Maureen O' Hara and die in a battle, where we are not even shown her demise. There seems to have been a lot of editing in this film, actually, as several characters exist in truncated roles. Edgar Buchanan, Frank Fenton and George Lessey, seemed to originally have had larger roles, but ultimately are reduced to merely bit parts. Even, Buchanan, who appears throughout the first half, is unceremoniously dropped midway!
Thomas Mitchell is a hoot as Ned Buntline, the man, more than anyone, made Buffalo Bill a household name. It's Mitchell is one of his standard supporting roles and many could criticize the actor for playing the same role, though it's doubtful that anyone played Thomas Mitchell better than Thomas Mitchell. He's always engaging and adds some enjoyment to the proceedings. In fact, plot holes aside, it's the strong supporting cast that really keeps this film rolling along and enjoyable, even today.

Like so many Hollywood films, this is hardly a history lesson, though it may work best as a time capsule of an era when the west was glorified and such figures really loomed larger than life. Before revision, demonized every aspect of western life and cast a long, lingering, hypocritical shadow over history, seeming to forget that the United States was hardly the first, nor the last nation, that was steeped in a violent history, this offers a story of a legend that has much to admire. Despite, the now-comical salutes of "how" and such, the Indians are treated humanely and sympathetically and work as a whole. Unlike, later films that would go to far to darken one side, Buffalo Bill offers a look at both sides of the coin, anticipating many of the later westerns in the process. It's not a great western, but it is affectionate and brimming with the very best of what made the old Hollywood epic grand. It tells a simple story about a complex American figure and manages to entertain in the process, and proves that a legend is often more fascinating than the fact.

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