HISTORY

The Top Books and Films About Buffalo Bill Cody

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Books

Buffalo Bill: Scout, Showman, Visionary (2010, by Steve Friesen)
This is my biography of William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, written when I was the director of the Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave. What sets it apart is a wealth of original photographs and images of artifacts and documents associated with the showman’s life, making it equally at home on a reference bookshelf or coffee table.

Wild Bill Hickok & Buffalo Bill Cody: Plainsmen of the Legendary West (2022, by Bill Markley)
Buffalo Bill Cody and friend James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok were, and still are, often confused with one another. Author Bill Markley does an excellent job of distinguishing their life paths and exploring the relationship between them. Two biographies in one, the book is a well-researched and highly readable analysis of two legendary Westerners.

Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody & the Wild West Show (2005, by Louis S. Warren)
The thickest tome among these picks, Louis Warren’s book is chock-full of information about the famed showman, all carefully documented with extensive footnotes. My only problem with the book is the author’s emphasis on Cody’s “imposture.” Merriam-Webster defines that word as “the act or practice of deceiving by means of an assumed character or name.” While Buffalo Bill may have been Cody’s show business persona, it was not a deception and indeed based on real-life exploits.

The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill, the Famous Hunter, Scout and Guide: An Autobiography (1879)
Cody’s autobiography has been reprinted many times since 1879. Some historians regard it as largely a work of fiction. I am not one of them. Written in an era dominated by dime novels, it has its exaggerations. But it is useful as a primary source, since it is his autobiography. All in all, it is an educational and entertaining read.

Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2004, by Erik Larson)
This is the only book in this list that does not devote itself primarily to Buffalo Bill. But author Erik Larson has carefully woven Cody into the central narrative of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the deadly deeds of one of the nation’s first mass murderers. It is a nonfiction book that reads as entertainingly as a novel.

Movies

The Life of Buffalo Bill (1912, on YouTube)
Produced on three reels by the Buffalo Bill & Pawnee Bill Film Co., this silent film was the first feature about Cody and included both real and fictional scenes from his life. Though an actor portrays Buffalo Bill through most of the film, it opens and closes with appearances by the aging showman himself and is worth watching for that alone.

Young Buffalo Bill (1940, on DVD and YouTube) 
Directed by Joseph Kane and starring Roy Rogers and George “Gabby” Hayes, this oater bears absolutely no resemblance to Buffalo Bill’s actual life, nor does it intend to. Running just under an hour, it is a film version of the many 19th century dime novels about Cody, offering the thinnest of plots and plenty of action.

Buffalo Bill (1944, on DVD and YouTube)
Directed by William Wellman and starring Joel McCrae in the title role and Maureen O’Hara as wife Louisa, this Western is as accurate as one can expect from a Hollywood effort. It is loosely based on an article written by Frank Winch, who knew Cody and created an early chronology of his life. Though it strays from that chronology, expect to be entertained.

Annie Get Your Gun (1950, on DVD and Blu-ray) 
This MGM musical comedy, directed by George Sidney with music by Irving Berlin, stars Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley and Howard Keel as Frank Butler. Though primarily a love story about the two performers, who did marry in real life, it is set within the context of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and presided over by Cody (played by Louis Calhern). Among the popular songs on the soundtrack is “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” indeed a theme for Buffalo Bill’s life.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976, on DVD) and Hidalgo
(2004, on DVD and Blu-ray) According to Sandra K. Sagala’s book Buffalo Bill on the Silver Screen, as of 2013 more than 80 film and television productions have included Cody in some form. Most don’t even feign accuracy, which is fine, as long as they are presented as entertainment. These two films profess to include truth, but they are so full of falsehoods, I cannot recommend them.

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