Buffalo Girls (1995)

Back to the Wild West via Larry McMurtry and “Buffalo Girls.”  If you are expecting another “Lonesome Dove,” that’s a once-in-a-lifetime achievement.  “Buffalo Girls,” is just about the last gasp of the miniseries, trying to rope in history and everything else with a large budget before it all dried up like the prairie. 

Actually, “Buffalo Girls” is very nearly an attempt at a comedy miniseries.  The Cowboys and Indians and losing of the West are all there, but the script is full of one-liners and almost farcical situations.  Add to that some astoundingly idiotic casting to bring unintentional hilarity into the proceedings.  It’s not “Fresno,” but it’s not “Centennial” either.

Technically, this is a fictional story, but since it involves so many colorful real-life characters (most of them far more exciting than the actors playing them), I’m opting for character names here.

The story belongs to Calamity Jane (Angelica Houston), or at least a romanticized version of her.  Her narration takes us back that “that time,” when people still spit and said “dern critter.” You know the time, it’s when all Westerns are set.  Jane, dressed as a man (and if rumors are true, was a hermaphrodite), joins a ragtag motley group of army men, trappers, traders and worse to head out west.  “There were only two ways a woman could survive in those days: wifiin’ and whorin’,” she narrates, but she’s neither, so she “lives like a man.”  Wild Bill Hickok (Sam Elliott) is part of the expedition.  She’s obviously in love with him, as her bashful flirting shows, but he’s unaware.  Jim Ragg (Tracey Walter) and Bartle Bone (Jack Palance) have come aboard with Jane, “for the last of the Wild West Times…our glory days.” 

Leading the mission, whatever it may be, is General Custer (John Diehl), who gets an earful from Bartle, who doesn’t think him capable of fighting the Indians and takes Jim to go out on their own to avoid being slaughtered.  But, Custer is not blind, and neither are the other men.  When Jane goes swimming in her long johns, the water clings to her body and shows off her breasts.  “When Custer found out I was a woman, he forced me into doin’ damn humiliatin’ woman’s work,” she says, doing the wash.  She gets her revenge running the laundry through the mud. 

“The Indians were dwindlin’…and with them went” apparently every “g” in the dictionary, sorry, “the life we knew,” Jane says, now reminding us that the Wild West is disappearing for the 14th time in less than 10 minutes. 

Jane sashays into Deadwood, having been kicked out of Custer’s army, having followed Bill to that legendary spot.  She manages to glow with love for him even as he’s mounting the stairs with a hooker.  Also there are her friends Teddy Blue (Gabriel Byrne) and Dora DuFran (Melanie Griffith).  A wealthy madame, Dora lives in opulence, at least for Deadwood, with China servings, a bird and even a maid, Doosie (Charlayne Woodward), who cracks wise with “you lose a huggin’ contest with a skunk?” while Jane is bathing.  Dora, her friend of decades, can sense Jane is in love and guesses it’s Wild Bill and promises to help her snag him.  So, they do Jane up in a dress, with make-up, jewels and a corset so tight, her bodice might do its own ripping. 

So attired, Jane and Dora go to the saloon, where Jane is made to dance and appear feminine.  Every man in the place grabs her for a round of “Oh, Susannah,” and she hates every minute of it, eventually clocking the guy who tries to nuzzle her cleavage.  Wild Bill, not a man of huge emotion, has her sit on his lap during a card game, but there is no kissing, because that would rip the fake mustache right off Sam Elliott.  Bill is nasty, telling everyone it’s the famous Calamity Jane and she bolts, Dora assuming she’ll never be back.

But Jane hasn’t seen the last of Bill in Deadwood.  He goes out to use the facilities (a wall behind the saloon) and hears her crying in a barn.  Wait, they do kiss, and the mustache stays on!  They even do a bit of rolling in the hay, literally. 

In Wyoming, Jane curls up around a small fire, awakening to find No Ears (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman), one of the last survivors of his tribe.  He’s there to warn Jane to take another trail to Yellowstone because of “the smell of death, maybe 50 miles,” but she’s unafraid of death.  His hears cut off by the French, “he could still hear, in a whistlin’ kind of way, and sense things no one else could,” Jane says, proving that she can pronounce a “g” if it doesn’t end a word.”  She should have heeded his advice, because she gets caught in the middle of a “massacre,” with the Indians victorious, which is mentioned in passing to be “Custer’s Last Stand.”  Only because of No Ears does she escape.  Turned off by the violence, Jane vomits, and before even No Ears can tell her (which he promptly does) smart viewers will guess she’s pregnant.  “That’s impossible,” Jane says in disbelief, “I can’t be no one’s mother!” 

Remember when those Indians killed the white men two scenes ago?  You must, only a baby announcement and some unbearable comic schtick from Jim and Bartle has gotten in the way.  Anyway, it turns out that killing Custer means “signin’ their own death warrant,” Jane notes about the Indians, who gather up, across tribes, to head further west. 

No Ears puts Jane up during her pregnancy, which she doesn’t believe will yield much since the only experience she has with children are Dora’s, all of whom died in infancy.  However, a mother she becomes, birthing a daughter she names Jane as well.  “I want you to know you were born out of as good a love as anyone was born out of, honey, and don’t you forget that,” she narrates to her daughter apparently taking to motherhood instantly.  She goes back to Deadwood to bring Wild Bill his daughter, only to find out he’s been killed.  She collapses in the mud and mutters, all in slow motion.  Unfortunately, Dora isn’t there to comfort her friend, having left Deadwood six months earlier.

Captain James O’Neill (Andrew Bicknell) comes across Jane in the saloon, crying about Wild Bill with her daughter on the table.  The Captain explains how he and his wife recently lost their daughter and his wife can have no more children.  Somehow, it’s arrange that the O’Neills will take Jane, promising to “take good care of her,” while Jane walks through the mud of Deadwood getting drunker and drunker.  She does to Bill’s tombstone and cries a lot, which is bizarre, to say the least.  Here is over-the-hill Angelica Houston dressed as a tomboy girl confessing her love to a tombstone.  There’s absolutely nothing right in that sentence and what should be a dramatic moment is rather silly.

Five years later, Dora is in Montana, screeching through a piano song as only Melanie Griffith can do, with poor Teddy still pining for her.  He has spent the last many years building the perfect house for them, but Dora still refuses to marry him or live with him.  He’s been asking since their first appearance why she won’t marry him and he has yet to get a satisfactory answer.  “I’m askin’ you for the last time, Dora, will you marry me?” he says, laying it on the line, but she once again declines.  Let’s hope he means what he says and stops asking.  There has to be better out there for a kind sweet handsome man like Teddy. 

Indeed, by the next time Jane sees Teddy, he’s just been married, and, knowing now the news is bound to reach Dora, asks Jane to lower the boom.  “Tell her yourself on your way straight to hell!” she bellows and then smacks the hell out of him.  Further, she shoots her gun to scare the horses so the men at the celebration are forced to run after them.  Their argument about Dora is more rehashing.  “She gave up paying customers for you years ago,” Jane reminds him.  Okay, so she’s a hooker who fell in love, but she still refused to marry him! 

When Dora is told, she throws a bottle against the wall and blames Dora for being at the wedding, which she wasn’t.   A nonsensical fight actually ends with Jane storming out and Dora crying on the bed.  This is a better scene for Angelica to play, but up against Melanie Griffith, she might as well be acting with a curtain rod as a partner.

Buffalo Bill (Peter Coyote) arrives in town with his whole Wild West Show in tow.  He tells Jane he’s there to see her, “to make you a star in my Wild West Show.”  “I can see my name, Calamity Jane, half man, half woman, right between the dog boy and the two-headed rattlesnake.  No goddamn thank you,” she spits his way.  He gets a better welcome from Dora.  He begs her to go to Europe with him to perform for Queen Victoria.  He confesses his true love for her, though it seems like hokum. 

In the winter, Jane joins No Ears, Jim and Bartle, who haven’t made much progress from the Catskill Resort humor…I mean, Rocky Mountain bickering.  Bartle has even suggested they make their own town.  “And what’s gonna draw the people?  Your good looks or my sunny disposition?” Jim clucks, using the most impressive word so far in the script.  Jane has a fit that none of them belong in the bitter cold, sleeping in the snow, aimlessly wandering around the country.  She trots off in a huge blizzard and is knocked off her horse, unconscious. 

Once again, No Ears saves her, dragging her to Dora’s house, where Dora instantly makes it about herself and apologizes to Jane.  Oh, and Jane’s horse knocks at the door.  He wants out of the snow too.  Bartle and Jim follow, but Dora warns them, “don’t get any ideas about the girls…this is a business.”  Following on their heels is Buffalo Bill, with the offer of a job for the two ex-beaver trappers.  “I see you boys are Lewis and Clark…you’d be my stars,” he tells them, after assuring them (and conservationist revisionists that he’s trying to save the remaining buffalo, which Jim thinks he can do with the beaver).  It takes some hemming and hawing, but the men agree to join.  Jane still refuses.  “My reputation’s all I got and it ain’t for sale,” Jane tells Buffalo Bill when he asks her again. 

Finally, the moment has come for us to learn why Dora keeps refusing Teddy.  Jane thinks he has a right to know.  When the Civil War came, it decimated her family, killed everyone and she was left to starve.  She’s afraid of farm living.  So, she can’t go off to a farm and more than she can ask Teddy to move into town with her, as “seeing that would have killed her spirit.”  Well, that was anti-climactic.  I was expecting something far bigger and more impressive. 

He gets drunk and tries to climb up the wall to Dora’s window, saying, “I’m scaling your castle wall,” but the fool only pulls the pole from her hotel and has to be put in a bed and fixed up with his leg in a splint.  He tells Dora he knows her secret now and that he would have moved to the city for her.  For ill-fated lovers, these two are awfully dull.  “What are we gonna do, Dora?” he asks.  “The best that we can,” she replies.  Oh, well, I guess that settles it! 

As Buffalo Bill pulls out of town with Jim and Bartle, and even No Ears (who has a monologue about the ocean that sounds like it’s from the 20th rather than 19th Century), Bill offers one more time to make Calamity Jane famous.  “I am famous!” she bellows and tells them all to scoot.

A week later, Jane gets a letter that Mrs. O’Neill has died and the Captain has taken her daughter to England, exactly where Buffalo Bill is headed.  Dora tells her to catch up to the Wild West Show and join up to get to England.  “I don’t even know where she is.  I guess I gotta find her.  If I could see her just one more time, I would die happy,” she cries before leaving Dora. 

Calamity Jane arrives in New York City just as Buffalo Bill’s boat for England is leaving.  “I already told you, I am famous.  I’m gonna let you make me immortal,” she tells Bill, leaving us wondering where the hell she learned that word!  On board is also Sitting Bull (Russell Means), who is not at all friendly toward our beloved No Ears.  “He has become too popular,” is the latter’s take on the situation.

And also along for the ride is Buffalo Bill’s star attraction, Annie Oakley (Reba McEntire, who would play Annie Oakley on Broadway a few years later).  Annie is not particularly friendly to Jane, and Jane finds she is no match for Annie when it comes to shooting. 

Back in the plot we don’t REALLY care about, Dora has sold the brothel and is moving away from Teddy, so they have yet another discussion of why they can’t be together.  “Every time it’s getting harder for me to let you go,” she cries to him.  I feel about the same.  Never have two people found so little reason to hang a broken love affair upon. 

Jane wanders around London looking for her kid, perplexed by the city.  Bartle and Jim are astounded to find beaver hats, having no idea that’s what happened to the beaver they trapped.  “Could be one of our own,” Jim says. 

Jane finally finds the O’Neill house, but is dismayed to learn that her daughter has been told that the O’Neills are her real parents and Captain O’Neill is not about to let her go back to Jane’s wilderness lifestyle.  He won’t even let Jane see her daughter, but Jane threatens to see her one way or the other.  In a London pub, a bloke mistakes her for Annie Oakley, so she rattles off her nicknames and accomplishment while shooting up the place.  This drunken stunt lands her in jail. 

Having raced around collecting money for her friends, Jane storms a stuffy men’s club to propose a shooting contest between Annie Oakley and Lord Windhouvern (Peter Birch).  She needs the money to fight Captain O’Neill.  With Lord Windhouvern set, she just needs to convince frosty Annie to help.  “I ain’t never been lucky, but you are,” Jane confides in Annie, who is skeptical that she can win by the margin Jane has set for her. 

Now in South Dakota again, Dora meets Ogden (Liev Schrieber), who helps her out of the mud.  She’s instantly smitten, though Doosie is annoyed that he has mud on his boots so early in the morning.  Dora puts the moves on Ogden by sitting on his lap and the shy lad is, of course, captivated.  Dora has him carry her to her bed and the next thing we see is the sunrise.  After just that one night, Dora proposes marriage.  “You mean like Ma and Pa?” Ogden asks and he readily agrees, taking the plunge that day.  This does not please Doosie.  “What you had was freedom,” she tells Dora with an ornery air.  “All I did with my freedom was cry,” Dora replies.  Well, that much is true. 

Teddy finds out when he wanders into town and the local blacksmith tells him the news.  Dora and Doosie see Teddy in the street, giving Melanie Griffith a howlingly stupid scene to play, which of course she does better than anyone (sorry to say).  She and Doosie collaborate to get Ogden out of town and then Dora invites Teddy inside with a giant kiss.  They end up in bed together and have the “nothing has changed” conversation AGAIN.  Ultimately, he has to make another teary exit and ride off into the sunset. 

Meanwhile, in England, the shooting contest is taking place, though apparently in a time warp, because an entire day’s events in South Dakota take place during the shooting match.  Naturally, Annie Oakley is fantastic, though when she misses one, Bartle says, “she’s only human.”  “This ain’t no time to be human,” Jane says nervously.  With each having shot 1000 times, Annie wins by a margin that nets Jane the money she needs.  Jane toasts Annie, who toasts back, “to all us Buffalo Girls.  We gotta stick together!” 

Dressed fully as a woman, hair done, make-up on, Jane returns to Captain O’Neill’s home to claim her daughter, but he’s not going to let it happen.  Instead, he shows her what her daughter’s life is like.  She has a pony and rides in the park like a proper British girl.  She knows her daughter is better off where she is.

In front of Queen Victoria, Buffalo Bill presents his show.  Our whole gang takes part.  Calamity Jane gives No Ears a pair of fake ears, which Sitting Bull steals, though Jane rips them from his neck. Tension abounds as the next act is Jane and Sitting Bull doing a proper gun battle.  No one is allowed to have real bullets except for Annie Oakley, but one of Sitting Bull’s men gives him some.  Sitting Bull almost scalps her, only to be reminded, “it’s just a show now!”  Captain O’Neill brings little Janie to the final performance.  Calamity Jane prances her daughter around the ring, “just like I always imagined” and it’s only then that she decides, “I can finally let you go.”  Before leaving England, Jane leaves her horse with her daughter and Jim gets two beaver to take back to America with him.

The show people split up.  Jane goes with No Ears, Jim and Bartle, and Dora finds out she’s pregnant, though she’s not sure who the baby daddy is.  Doosie tells her it doesn’t matter.  Jim dies before he can see his dream of a new beaver population occur.  Wait, Jim dies but 106-year-old Bartle is still alive?  Someone has to cry over his corpse.  No Ears is the next to leave, hoping to find what is left of his people and tell them about the whales in the ocean, which have changed his life. 

Dora buys a new hotel in Deadwood.  When she tells Ogden they are going, he says, “you mean after the baby comes?”  “No, after lunch,” she replies, leaving him looking stupefied (understandably).  As they are packing up, Jane and Bartle ride into town.  Jane is plum “tongue tied” to find Dora married and with child. 

“We’ve seen some glory days,” Jane tells a departing Bartle, “the likes of which will never come again.”  He frees the beaver Jim brought back from England and howls for his dead friend in the pouring rain.  And still he lives.

Dora has her baby, but as Ogden carries it, Dora can only ask for Terry.  A sickly Dora asks Jane to take the baby and raise her, and to also tell Terry that there is a child.  With that, Dora expires.  That leaves Jane to tell Terry and then ride off into the dwindling West, about the same as when she first drew us into her story.

If you can get beyond the casting of Angelica Houston as Calamity Jane or suffer through Melanie Griffith’s umpteen crying scenes, then “Buffalo Girls” should be heaven for you.  At a running time of only three hours, it’s hardly the most painful miniseries, but it is proof of just how far down the genre had gone.

Categories: Adventure Miniseries

One Comment to “Buffalo Girls (1995)”

  1. Anonymous 23 July 2011 at 1:47 am #

    Um, it’s Teddy Blue. Not Terry. You even said Teddy earlier and then at the end of your rant/crtique you called the character Terry. And the miniseries was made into a movie which is one of my all time favorites, along with Lonesome Dove. I guess everyone has their opionion though.