This week NPR's acclaimed Studio 360 series looked at Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and some of the enduring myths of the West. The program explored the legend of this major American celebrity and tracked the career of the western, from dime novels to modern incarnations like HBO's Deadwood. A particularly interesting line the that the Studio 360 program took was the decline in the popularity of the western in the 1960s, and the western's reemergence in altered form. Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) would have been nearly sacrilegious in an earlier era. A drunk, ego-maniacal Buffalo Bill (played by Paul Newman) staggers pathetically through this weird carnival of a film.
Buffalo Bill "was the most famous American in the world," says Studio 360, "a showman and spin artist who parlayed a buffalo-hunting gig into an entertainment empire. William F. Cody’s stage show presented a new creation myth for America, bringing cowboys, Indians, settlers, and sharpshooters to audiences who had only read about the West in dime novels. He offered Indians a life off the reservation — reenacting their own defeats. Deadwood producer David Milch explains why the myth of the West still resonates; a Sioux actor at a Paris theme park loves playing Sitting Bull; and a financial executive impersonates Buffalo Bill, with his wife as Annie Oakley."
Listen to the program here.
See Buffalo Bill-related posters, photographs, and more from the Library of Congress.
Watch the full episode of PBS's Buffalo Bill (American Experience).
Hear the Beatles rehearsal of the Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (1968) . . . unrelated, but excellent.