”Buffalo Bill on the Silver Screen”
By Sandra Sagala
University of Oklahoma Press
There’s Buffalo Bill and then there’s William F. Cody.
Few people know that better than Sandra Sagala, a historian and author who has just published her second book about the Western American legend.
There’s Buffalo Bill, the inveterate teller of tall tales and wild adventures. Then, there’s William F. Cody, a man who loved the West deeply and wanted to share his love of the land and his life.
Her latest book, “Buffalo Bill on the Silver Screen” fits well with her other book on Cody, “Buffalo Bill on Stage.”
“Both kind of bookend his life,” Sagala explained. “Everyone knows what’s in the middle, The Wild West Show. But few know about his career on stage or on the movie screen.”
Indeed, Sagala’s compact 232-page history about Cody isn’t just a story of his failed foray into motion pictures. In many respects, Cody becomes an emblem of a fading, worn-out story that audiences no longer needed.
Many who are familiar with Cody know about his larger-than-life, over-the-top traveling theater that was part history and all spectacle. But few know about the films in which Cody plays a leading role. In fact, just three minutes of one those films, “The Indian Wars” exist because the pictures were a financial failure.
But this isn’t a story of Cody’s flopped films. Instead, Sagala has continued to illustrate that a bankrupted Cody was always on the hunt for the next venture that would help him resurrect his Wild West show and restore his star’s luster.
While Cody’s yen for glory was about as expansive as the West that he imagined for his audience, Sagala also does a skillful job demonstrating that the silver screen, essentially one of Cody’s last hopes, was as much a part of why he could no longer entice audiences as he had once done. The audience had grown weary of Westerns, Sagala said, and the West had been largely settled.
“He originally hated movies and automobiles because it took away from him. They took the West away. And, audiences could go to the theater and get their fill of the West,” Sagala said. “But after he realized they were here to stay, he kind of felt that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
Cody saw the new technology as a way to put together enough money to do what he loved — tour with a West show.
“He truly believed it could go on forever. I think he believed he could ride out there every day, even at 70,” Sagala said. “He believed he could be that hero riding into the arena.”
In addition to reconstructing the acting and film career of the legendary Western act, Sagala also devotes a chapter to portrayals of Cody in the movies.
Sagala’s book is the first in a series of books dedicated to exploring Cody’s life and his influence on the region and nation. The books, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, are an academic project being put together by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and its digital archives of Cody’s papers.