Film History Essentials: Bucking Broncho (1894)

What it’s about:

Inside a small corral, a cowboy fights to maintain his seat atop a white horse as it pitches and bucks and spins. A man standing on the fence holds a revolver, which he fires into the ground inside the corral before twirling it jauntily on his finger. The cowboy holds on with one hand, then uses the other to take off his hat and wave it defiantly (and precariously). After about 20 seconds, he dismounts with a twisting leap and sprints out of the frame. Meanwhile, an audience of a dozen or so, arranged behind the corral facing the camera, cheer and clap throughout the performance.

Why it’s essential:

In October of 1894, a few weeks after the first group’s visit, more members of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” arrived at Edison’s studio to be filmed. This one immediately stands out because, for reasons that should be pretty clear, it wasn’t shot inside the Black Maria. Dickson found a way to accommodate almost any act inside of the studio, but there are limits.

On top of the change in venue, this must have been an unusually difficult shot to set up. The camera can’t move if the two go out of frame (which they do a couple of times), and the entire premise of the feat is that the horse is not under the rider’s control. In addition, the other player in the act (wielding the six-shooter) is stationed well above the action, another challenge for framing.

In the version of this footage that we have, his head appears to be cut off. However, you can clearly see in the image above (from The Progressive Silent Film List) that it wasn’t shot that way originally. There have been several instances where I’ve noticed that some version of a film from this period appears slightly cropped around the edges compared to a different version. This could be connected with the process of converting the Library of Congress’s paper collection to film during the 1950s-60s.

Depending on how you define such things, this might be the oldest existing Western film. Certainly we can say that it is one of the earliest films to include classic Western genre elements like cowboys and horse- and gun-related stunts. In doing so, however, it isn’t creating or establishing any film conventions, or using them to tell a story. These elements would eventually develop great significance to American film, but it’s important to remember that 1894 exists (just barely) inside the time period most often associated with the “Wild West.” For audiences of the time, although these were performers with a traveling show, this was a depiction of contemporary life as much as anything (albeit still somewhat novel and exotic to the kinetoscope’s urban audience).

Why you should see it:

There’s a lot of action packed into this short scene. I watched it at least three times to get a sense of everything that’s going on. The focus, of course, is on the rider, and he’s certainly putting on a show. I also like the way the man on the fence idly twirls his gun, almost absently, like that’s not part of the show, it’s just something he does. But notice in particular the audience, definitely a bunch of city slickers, all lined up to watch in their nice hats and coats. Notice the very large man on the left, who waves a cane excitedly throughout, and the man just to the right of center who stops to wave at the camera as everyone else is applauding.

There was a small audience for the earlier boxing match that Dickson filmed, just to lend it that extra sense of being an actual fight. But why is this audience here? They certainly don’t fit the Western theme of the rest of the scene. Is it to give the viewer the feeling of being present for a performance of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West?” Did Dickson somehow sense, even in the days of the single-viewer kinetoscope, that movies are a communal experience that people would want to share with other spectators?


~ by Jared on January 31, 2023.

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