CM . . . . Volume XX Number 33 . . . . April 25, 2014
Viewers of 1910 Buffalo Bill should saddle up for an intense ride as the narrator leads them at a breakneck pace along a winding cinematic trail. Part of the Mysteries in the Archives series available through the National Film Board (NFB/ONF), this INA and Arte France co-production is not a biography of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, although a few biographical details do crop up on the peripheries. Instead, the documentary focuses on Buffalo Bill's legacy to American culture, a legacy which it attributes to the convergence of the Wild West show and the advent of cinematography.
The opening credits disclose that 1910 Buffalo Bill is "based on an idea of Serge Viallet and Cédric Lépée." Their idea is realized through a third-person limited narrator who initially introduces two short segments of film from 1910 that portray Buffalo Bill behaving in ways incongruous with common perceptions of him. For instance, although Cody achieved notoriety as a buffalo hunter, he appears abashed when facing a buffalo in the first clip. In the second clip, Buffalo Bill is holding an animated, amiable conversation in sign language with Indian Chief Sinté Máza, despite that they would have fought on opposite sides of the American Indian Wars in the 1870s, as the narrator notes. He investigates these "mysteries" of incongruity by examining additional archival footage from both before and after 1910.
Since 1910 Buffalo Bill lurches backwards and forwards in chronological time, favours an inductive rather than deductive approach, and marks so many details, it is easy to lose track of its main arguments. However, by means of the fifteen or so sepia-toned black and white film segments it incorporates, the documentary postulates that Cody's influence was three-fold; that is, he introduced "Amerindian culture to America and the rest of the world" (13:30), provided a unifying myth for the United States at a crucial time, and anticipated "the Western" as a cinematic genre. For instance, the narrator reveals that, not only did Buffalo Bill's Wild West tour for 30 years throughout the U.S. and Europe, but two early kinetoscope films feature cast members of the show: these represent the first moving pictures of Oglala Sioux dancers and of a rodeo, respectively. In addition, in employing Amerindians, women, Mexicans, and Cossacks to "re-enact tall tales of the greatest moment in recent American history" (10:20), Cody's show promised inclusivity and an attractive national legend for the many immigrants flocking to the United States, pictured in a 1906 archival clip. Finally, the documentary asserts that Cody's careful staging of mass spectacle for public consumption was a precursor to, and ultimately was superseded by, Hollywood Westerns.
For all of its affirmation of Cody's influences on popular culture, the documentary ends ambivalently. The background music, although light and unobtrusive throughout, evokes ruefulness at the conclusion; the melancholy that punctuates the narrator's closing comments further compounds the sensation. Of the final clip, circa 1916, the narrator remarks: "Buffalo Bill, seen here in the final parade, seems at a loss to find his place - perhaps because it's behind him, a world about to disappear. The era of grand outdoor spectacles had come to an end; cinema and Hollywood were here to stay. Nonetheless, Buffalo Bill Cody left his mark on American history, posing the foundation of a fantasized West, a place where legend would always be as important as reality." It is difficult to interpret the narrator's pronouncement as anything other than pity for a once-commanding figure now looking out of place, looking for a place, in a world that has evolved.
The viewing experience could have been improved upon in two ways. First, although the DVD contains both English and French versions, and the digipak fine print indicates English and French subtitles are available, neither subtitles nor Closed Captions were accessible to this reviewer in two media players. Insufficient access to captioning represents an opportunity missed to engage deaf and hard of hearing consumers, particularly since the documentary already contains a hook in the clip of Buffalo Bill and Sinté Máza communicating in sign language. Second, one wishes for an interview with Viallet, credited with the production of the series, included in the DVD or online. Such a feature, in which he addressed how the collection was conceived, the research process, and the criteria used to select 10 significant twentieth-century events and the respective archival footage revisited in each, might have been of great additional interest to viewers.
1910 Buffalo Bill comes packaged in a lightweight, space-saving DVD digipak, which consists of a recycled plastic tray affixed to the inside of a paperboard folder. The back cover lists all the documentaries in the Mysteries in the Archives series and refers to a study guide available from the NFB's Website (https://www.nfb.ca/education/guides/). One is able to download a PDF that contains an extensive "Lesson Plan" by Louise Sarrasin, Educator, Commission scolaire de Montréal, encompassing all 10 films in the series. The lesson plan includes classroom activities and discussion questions targeted at students aged 14 to 20, perhaps because viewers above the upper limit might find the narrator's tone a bit too patronizing. The lower age limit corresponds closely to the NFB's (on the digipak) of "ages 12+" which seems reasonable given the sophisticated vocabulary: "apotheosis," "pogroms," "recalcitrant," and "extrapolated" are a few choice examples. Sarrasin suggests the series could be connected specifically with Arts and Culture, Languages, and Social Sciences for educational uses. However, viewers who might watch this documentary for recreation would include film enthusiasts, history buffs, and fans of "Westerns" in general, for the mythical untamed frontier still holds sway over twentieth-century imaginations.
Julie Chychota resides in Ottawa, ON, where she captures speech as text on her laptop for persons with hearing disabilities. As a teen, she read many Westerns by Louis L'Amour.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.