Buffalo Bill on Film

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Buffalo Bill at Universal Studios
Buffalo Bill at Universal Studios, Los Angeles, California.

Scores of books have been written about Buffalo Bill Cody’s fabled career as a showman, but his serious involvement in the film industry is less well known. The fascinating story of his venture into filmmaking is a highlight in the history of the early cinema period.

Motion picture pioneer Thomas A. Edison repeatedly crossed paths with Cody. These two international celebrities first met in 1889 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, France. Edison even attended a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, at which time Cody invited him to ride the Deadwood coach around the arena. Edison and Cody met once again in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition where the famous frontiersman praised the inventor’s kinetoscope. It seemed only natural, then, that Edison would film the Wild West Show when it performed in New York City during the autumn of 1894, just a few months after the first commercial motion picture house opened on Broadway.

Although the Wild West show continued to be popular throughout the 1890s and the early 1900s, it became more and more difficult for Cody to finance the endeavor, and he came close to bankruptcy several times. Even after negotiating a merger between his Wild West show and Gordon “Pawnee Bill” Lillie’s Far East show in 1909, business was still hurting, and for that, Cody blamed the burgeoning film industry. He believed filmmakers were stealing his business by making movies about the West, and considering how often they copied his signature style and conventions of his show, this was not an entirely unfair observation on his part. Cody responded by producing his own films as a way to recoup his financial losses. In June 1910, the two Bills created the Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill Film Company.

Cody became increasingly interested in filming re-enactments of his true experiences in the actual western locales with hundreds of Indians, an idea that eventually resulted in his most ambitious feature film, The Indian Wars (1913). The film was not a financial success, and like many films created during the early silent era, only three minutes of footage has survived.

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