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Review of Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is a 1976 revisionist Western directed by Robert Altman. It stars Paul Newman as Bill, with Geraldine Chaplin, Will Sampson, Joel Grey, and Harvey Keitel.

The film was poorly received at the time of its release, when the country was celebrating its bicentenial. As in MASH, Altman skewers an American historical myth of heroism, in this case the notion that noble white men fighting bloodthirsty savages won the West.


The film opens with the arrival of an important new guest star in Cody’s grand illusion, Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) of Little Big Horn fame. Much to Cody's annoyance, Sitting Bull proves to be not a murdering savage but a genuine embodiment of what the whites believe about their own history out west--he is quietly heroic and morally pure.

Altman's Interpretation

Like many of Altman films, Buffalo Bill and the Indians an ensemble piece with an episodic structure. It follows the day to day performances and behind-the-scenes intrigues of Buffalo Bill Cody's famous "Wild West Show," a hugely popular 1880's entertainment spectacular that starred the former Indian fighter, scout and buffalo hunter. Altman uses the setting to criticize Old West motifs, presenting the eponymous western hero as a show-biz creation who can no longer separate his invented image from reality. Altman's Cody is a loud-mouthed buffoon, a man who claims to be one with the Wild West but lives in luxury, play-acting daily in a western circus of his own making. Cody’s long hair is a wig, he can't shoot straight anymore or track an Indian, and all his staged battles with ruffians and savages are rigged in his favor. However, this does not keep him from acting as if his triumphs are real, or plaguing his patient entourage of yes-men with endless monologues about himself.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

The time is 1885. Colonel William F. Cody (Paul Newman) is the chief attraction in an open-air-and-tent show called "Buffalo Bill's Wild West: An Absolute Original & Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre." The action of the film takes place in and around this vaudeville environment where tourists come to see various acts (buffalo wrestling, sharp-shooting) and entertainments (stage coach robberies, cowboys fighting Indians). Buffalo Bill and his entourage (Joel Grey as producer, Kevin McCarthy as public relations man, Harvey Keitel as handyman) have packaged the history of the Wild West in circus stunts and carnival spectacles. When Grey announces at one point, "I'm going to Cody-fy the world," we recognize the preposterousness of their ambitions. And when Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) asks Buffalo Bill why he doesn't tell the truth in his show, the superstar replies, "I got a better sense of history than that."

There is a great deal of excitement in camp when Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) is brought to the Wild West Show by the Army. He is accompanied by a strong, willful interpreter (Will Sampson). The idea is to put the Chief in a vignette about the Battle of Little Big Horn. The Indians have an alternate story they want to tell—a dramatization of American soldiers slaughtering unarmed Indian women and children. Needless to say, their piece is rejected. Instead the white audiences are given Buffalo Bill's revision of history: in the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer wins! "Truth is whatever gets the most applause."

Altman is out to debunk the legend of Buffalo Bill (almost all of the director's films have a satirical edge). History presents this man as a hero, a great scout and hunter. Here we see a vain and shallow deceiver who exploits everyone around him, can't make it with his opera-singing women, and is almost always drunk. His flowing locks are really a toupee, and he can't even ride very well! He is, as Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster) points out, a manufactured hero. Paul Newman with his celebrity image is just right in the role.

But the film has problems:The problem in this movie is that Altman is saying less than he means by saying too many things at once. The depiction of the Indians is too idealized and the slam on Cody, too overdrawn. In the film's climactic scene, the writer-director cannot resist hammering the point home just one more time: "A hundred years from now, I'll still be Buffalo Bill—Star," says the deceiver to Chief Sitting Bull in a dream, "and you'll just be the Indian. I give 'em what they expect."

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)

[O]ne of the things that keeps "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" from having more impact is this lack of a decisively dominating theme. The screenplay, by Alan Rudolph and Mr. Altman, is based on Arthur Kopit's play "Indians," which I never saw but I'm told was a series of unequivocal, harrowing variations on the theme of the white American's systematic destruction of the red.

The film is virtually formless in any usual way. In place of narrative drive it relies on the momentum created by its visual spectacle, its prodigal way with ideas, its wit and its enthusiasm for the lunatic business of making movies. Mr. Altman makes movies the way other men go on binges—with an abandon that sometimes gets the better of him—and which should be preserved and protected.

Rob's review
These critics have explained Altman's intent and the movie's themes well, so there's no need to go into that. Buffalo Bill and the Indians is indeed a rich exploration of America's cultural myths.

The best scenes are the ones featuring Sitting Bull and his interpreter, William Halsey. They include:

Comparing this portrayal of Sitting Bull to the one in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is illuminating. Both movies cover roughly the same period but their portrayals are wildly different.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians demythologizes Sitting Bull without turning him into a caricature. He's a shrewd negotiator who knows what he wants, but he continues to live by his beliefs and dreams. He retains the moral high ground--unlike the Sitting Bull in Bury My Heart.

Although Buffalo Bill's portrayal of Sitting Bull is probably as invented as Bury My Heart's, it feels more real to me. This Sitting Bull may have been victimized, but he's not a victim. I'd say this is a better movie for learning about the Indian attitudes of the time.

Good but not great
Unfortunately, Buffalo Bill and the Indians has flaws that keep it from being exceptional. Among them:

In short, Altman's intentions are right on, but he misses the forest for the trees. You could trim half an hour from Buffalo Bill and the Indians and not even notice. If you could refashion the movie to focus more on the Indians, it might be something great, not merely good.

Rob's rating:  7.0 of 10.

Related links
The best Indian movies

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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