BUFFALO BILL IN TOMAHAWK TERRITORY. United Artits, 1952. Clayton Moore, Slim Andrews, Chief Yowlachie, Chief Thundercloud, Sharon Dexter, Eddie Phillips. Written by Sam Neuman and Nat Tanchuck. Directed by Bernard B. Ray.

   The release date is deceptive. Although part of this film was made the same year as High Noon, most of the action interludes — the cattle stampedes, wagon trains, buffalo stampedes and Indian battles — were lifted from old silent films, with sound effects dubbed in.

   It starts, after a time-killing tribute to the Western Pioneers made up of old stock footage, with what I thought was going to be an intriguing premise:

   Buffalo Bill (played by Clayton Moore, of Lone Ranger fame) and his sidekick Cactus (Slim Andrews) hear a wagon train being attacked by Indians and ride off to the rescue. As they join the battle on the side of the emigrants, however, it appears that the expedition is made up entirely of women. Then a closer look reveals that they are all men in women’s clothes!

   As Buffalo Bill and the transvestites bravely shoot down the attackers, Cactus looks askance at the whole affair and, with an admirably straight face, cautions, “Watch yerself, Bill!”

   At this point I thought this might be a really remarkable bit of film history. The unsung story of those who travelled west in search of true freedom to live as they chose, but such was not to be. It quickly develops that the cross-dressers are all soldiers who dressed up that way — possibly at the behest of a very lonely commander; who knows?– to lure out marauding Indians, who, it turns out, are actually local bad men in disguise. So we got bad guys disguised as Indians fighting soldiers dressed as women. Got that?

   What follows is the tired plot of nasty white men fomenting disorder and vexation to steal Indian land, set in a barely watchable movie, although Clayton Moore is rather good as Buffalo Bill, complete with wig, mustache and beard. Like Welles and Olivier, Moore always seemed more authoritative when performing with some facial disguise.

   I also liked the fact that the scriptwriters never bother to tell us just what the Dress-Heavy (Eddie Philips) does for a living. He simply struts about the town in dark hat and fancy suit, obviously a citizen of some local importance, demanding that something be done about all these Indians, then sneaking off to plot and scheme.

   But whether he’s the town banker, mayor, saloonkeeper, or Amway distributor is never made clear. Like Iago, he is simply a Villain, turning to the dog-heavy at opportune moments and whispering, “Tell the boys to meet me at the hide-out,” before going out to look respectable again. Like the real Buffalo Bill, he is less a person than he is a bit of iconography, and I’m glad the writers had the good judgment not to over-complicate him.

   Now I kinda like this movie, but I should warn discriminating viewers that the producer applied this minimalist concept to the rest of the film. BBiTT is a work of staggering frugality of the sort that can best be appreciated by those of us who love desperate filmmaking for its own sake. Be warned and enjoy!