“Buffalo Bill, let’s show off!” », on France 5: bison hunt, stagecoach attack and real Indians to celebrate the conquest of the West


Undated photo of William Frederick Cody (1846-1917), aka Buffalo Bill.


Who knows William Frederick Cody (1846-1917)? His stage name will speak to you better: Buffalo Bill. You know, the bison hunter (4,500 killed, according to the official count!). The image of the cowboy on glossy paper: the Stetson, the goatee, the Winchester in one hand, the lasso in the other, the galloping horse…

Behind the icon, Grégory Monro’s documentary features a double-faced character, rich in archives and testimonials. Became a show entrepreneur at the end of the 19th centurye century, once the conquest of the West was over, the native of Iowa was one of the most avant-garde businessmen, with his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, launched in 1883. A great show that will make his fortune and especially that of a nascent industry, the cinema, to which he provided all the ingredients for what would become the spearhead of Hollywood: the western.

In 1905, Buffalo Bill and his troupe crossed the Atlantic for a tour of more than a hundred French cities. The man had already come to Paris for the Universal Exhibition of 1889 – which gave his friend, the painter Rosa Bonheur, the opportunity to paint his portrait. This time, he took no less than eight hundred people and nearly five hundred animals (horses, bison, etc.). Three trains will be chartered to carry out this tour of France at no load. “We had never seen such a spectacle since Antiquity”enthuses Natacha Henry, author of Rosa Bonheur and Buffalo Bill, an admirable friendship (Robert Laffont, 2019).

“Mass Entertainment”

Buffalo Bill’s model is not the Colosseum, but its contemporary and direct competitor Phineas T. Barnum (1810-1891). To follow the red thread of this live show, other glories of the Wild West will, at the start, be invited to come and take a lap: Calamity Jane and, above all, Sitting Bull, the heartthrob of General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876).

In France, while the Belle Epoque is in full swing, three million spectators will crowd under the gigantic 23,000 square meter marquee deployed at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. On the program, the buffalo hunt, of course, but also the attack on a stagecoach, Mexicans with their lasso and their sombrero, and “real” Indians, Sioux wearing feathers. It is “the advent of mass entertainment”underlines Juliette Bourdin, lecturer in American civilization at the University of Vincennes-Saint-Denis. “A showcase of American power”, summarizes the collector Didier Lévêque. After the conquest of the West, the conquest of the world begins for the United States. Buffalo Bill forged the outline of soft power.

But, behind this adventure worthy of that of Walt Disney thirty years later, the story of William F. Cody fades, this young northern soldier whose father, an abolitionist, will be assassinated by slavers; this early feminist, who advocated women’s right to vote and scrupulously paid them the same price as the men in his troupe; this cowboy who presented “his” Indians with great respect, openly taking the opposite view of Washington, who, anxious to turn the bloody page of the “Indian wars”, wanted to assimilate at all costs those who were not not call Native Americans yet. There “farewell tour” of 1905, in the words of Didier Lévêque, takes on the appearance of a dress rehearsal for the XXe century that is beginning. For better and for worse.

Buffalo Bill, let’s show off! documentary by Grégory Monro (Fr. 2021, 52 min). Available until April 8 on France.tv


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