Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)
Buffalo Bill (Paul Newman) plans to put on his own Wild West sideshow, and Chief Sitting Bull has agreed to appear in it. However, Sitting Bull has his own hidden agenda, involving the President and General Custer.
Paul Newman ... The Star / William F. Cody
Joel Grey ... The Producer / Nate Salisbury
Kevin McCarthy ... The Publicist / Maj. John Burke
Harvey Keitel ... The Relative / Ed Goodman
Allan F. Nicholls ... The Journalist / Prentiss Ingraham (as Allan Nicholls)
Geraldine Chaplin ... The Sure Shot / Annie Oakley
John Considine ... The Sure Shot's Manager / Frank Butler
Robert DoQui ... The Wrangler / Oswald Dart (as Robert Doqui)
Mike E. Kaplan ... The Treasurer / Jules Keen (as Mike Kaplan)
Bert Remsen ... The Bartender / Crutch
Bonnie Leaders ... The Mezzo-Contralto / Margaret
Noelle Rogers ... The Lyric-Coloratura / Lucille DuCharme
Evelyn Lear ... The Lyric-Soprano / Nina Cavalini
Denver Pyle ... The Indian Agent / McLaughlin
Frank Kaquitts ... The Indian / Sitting Bull
I can understand some of the arguments that people have made against this film through the years. Its revisionist history can seem pretty simplistic, and its depiction of Indians seems stereotypical and not particularly enlightened. Or at least that all seems true on first glance. But I can also understand why a few revisionist film critics, including some of us on IMDb, are beginning to re-examine Buffalo Bill. I've seen a couple of people refer to it as a masterpiece, and I'm very much leaning towards that direction myself. Even if one were to find its themes and message poorly done, it would be hard to deny the grand vision of Altman in this film. This is one of his most ambitious, perhaps surpassed only by Nashville. The entire movie takes place in and around Buffalo Bill's theme park-like show. The Wild West is pretty much dead, and Bill (played by Paul Newman), who famously hunted buffalo and fought with Indians, has encapsulated the experience in a little world all his own. He's shined it up into some rip-roaring entertainment, a sort of Hollywood before Hollywood existed. The film is as much a show-biz exposé as The Player (and I would say it's much more effective).
We meet a fantastic cast of characters, played by many of the best actors around giving wonderful performances. Among them are Joel Grey, Kevin McCarthy, Burt Lancaster, Harvey Keitel (really playing against type as Bill's goofy, childlike nephew), and Geraldine Chaplin (as Annie Oakley). Everyone, including Buffalo Bill himself, is deftly characterized in a very Altmanesque way. They wander through a semi-story, often seen and heard only in glimpses. Chaplin in particular, who gives probably the most memorable performance in the film, has very few lines. Mostly she characterizes Annie through her face. The Wild West Show is becoming more and more popular, and grossing more and more money. Their newest attraction is Sitting Bull, the man who famously defeated George Custer at Wounded Knee several years earlier. To have Sitting Bull for his show makes Bill extremely proud. In his mind, he has now defeated and subjugated the one Indian who really gave the white man a run for his money, and, by doing so, he has single-handedly tamed the West. Unfortunately for him, Sitting Bull is no subject. He has only joined the show because he has dreamed that, if in the show, he would get to meet President Grover Cleveland. We only once see Sitting Bull speak, when he attempts to talk to Cleveland. The rest of the time, his servant, Halsey (Will Sampson, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), speaks for him. While he's participating in the show, he wants to change it in order to make it more factual.
Altman's detractors will have a field day with Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The biggest complaint against the director, as it seems to me, is that he is overly cynical and hates his characters. I'll admit that that is sometimes true, but I also think that the detractors see that aspect where it just doesn't exist. It does exist in this film, however. Buffalo Bill is most certainly a target for derision. Most of the action in the film revolves around the man being humiliated by Sitting Bull. Bill thinks he's the greatest adventurer who ever lived, and the film delights in having him showed up by the Sioux chief. I do not believe that it is an artistically invalid to have a character as the central target of a satire. Network, made the same year, has Faye Dunnaway, for instance. Who can like her by the end of the film. The difference is, I suppose, that Dunnaway wins some pathos by the end of the film. Maybe that's a difference, anyway. Buffalo Bill might have a bit of it by the end of the film, I think.
The character of Buffalo Bill is a wonderful satirical target because he really exists in such a state of absurdity. Once a genuine American military hero, Bill Cody wrapped up his entire experience and put it inside a bottle. In that bottle, the Wild West grew more and more fantastic, and less and less real. The environment is controlled, the goings on are fake, and any bit of history is freely created. It's not unfair, I suppose, to say Buffalo Bill and the Indians has a somewhat simplistic revisionist history behind it, but, in a big way, it is itself about revisionist history. Buffalo Bill Cody was revising history, creating entertainment out of true, historical human misery. And that's not only the suffering of the Native Americans, which is at the forefront of the film, of course, but also white settlers. The film begins with a rehearsal of an Indian raid on homesteaders. The bigger message is that was what Hollywood did, as well.
Bill likes his world, loves it, in fact. It is a celebration of his ego (the film often focuses on the gigantic portraits of Bill, which certainly would garner much criticism from some people – and I would agree that it's not particularly subtle, but I would also say that it is pretty funny at times). Sitting Bull, one of the greatest Indian leaders and, from most accounts, an enormously clever and skilled man, completely undermines Bill's superiority as soon as he arrives. A blowhard as big as Buffalo Bill deflates pretty easily. Sitting Bull's presence also works to make Bill finally look around himself and begin to question the false world he has erected around himself. This thread of the film is resolved, at least as regards the narrative, in the climactic sequence, where Bill encounters Sitting Bull in a dream. This sequence is probably the low point of the film, I think. It more or less spells out everything that the film has been building to, and it doesn't really accomplish anything new. We know Altman for his amazing and original climaxes, and this one is certainly not one of his best. Still, it does work in a strictly functional way, and it is followed by a truly interesting and exquisite final sequence. This final sequence, which I won't discuss in this review, is not merely restating what has already come before, as I believe many viewers will take it. This, I think, is where the character of Buffalo Bill claims his pathos. Paul Newman's eyes in that final close-up are both frightening and quite sad, in any number of ways. Any film as shallow as many people like to claim this one is would never have given rise to this much depth in one man's expression. If you watch it and don't see it, I really think you've missed the point.
Even if you don't buy into the content of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, it's hard to imagine being unimpressed by Altman's direction or any of the other technical aspects of the film. Many claim it to be a bore, but I think Altman was just light years ahead of his audience at times. It's very entertaining and especially very funny at times. There are any number of masterful sequences. In my opinion, it is second in achievement only to Nashville.
In a nutshell, "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" is not only one of director Altman's most fully realized works (yes, superior to "Mash" and "Nashville", and only a notch below "Three Women"), but it is also one of the best American movies out-there.
Of course, it is rather obvious what Altman is trying to do here. He has selected one of America's sacred cows in order to explore how cultural myths are often embraced at the expense of historical facts. According to Altman, Buffalo Bill was a fraud who became a national hero because people in this country has a tendency of glorifying style over substance, or myths over facts. But viewers expecting simple revisionism will be surprised to see how wide is the scope of the film.
During the course of two hours, Altman presents a fascinating exploration of the dark side of the American dream, the country's on going racial conflicts, and our celebration of the most dubious moral values, like success at any cost. Even more fascinating is the way the film works as a critique of the film industry. Intentional or not, the movie could be interpreted as an examination of the show business dynamics. Since the film is presented as a live "show", one could conclude that the viewer's enjoyment of the film proves that we are part of the problem, as we seem to support an industry that celebrates superficial values and rejects true talent and individuality. Like those people attending Buffalo's show, movie fans are content with having a good time. But no matter how you look at it, this movie tackles an incredible variety of themes. It is a great film that can only be fully absorbed after multiple viewings.
The acting is also impeccable. Paul Newman is perfectly cast (as Buffalo Bill). A true movie star, Newman is a perfect stand in for the Hollywood system Altman probably wanted to criticize; there is a really, really thin line separating Newman the celebrity and the character he is portraying. I wonder if Newman was aware of the irony. Anyway, at the very least he has one last close-up that speaks thousands of words. Geraldine Chaplin (as Annie Oakley) is the heart of the film, while Burt Lancaster serves as the film's conscience – "print the legend" type of commentator. In actuality, the entire cast is simply magnificent. Altman's technique is also marvelous. He goes from character to character with amazing fluidity. It is in fact, a richly textured, visually exciting movie - those people who only see Altman as an actor's director are going to be surprised at how stylish this film really is. There is even one surreal sequence (near the end of the movie), that I found very peculiar and interesting.
I do not want to oversell it, but I'm convinced that this is indeed one of the great American films of the 1970s.
My title quote is something that Paul Newman remarks as Buffalo Bill when he decides he's going to camp out one night and forgo the pleasures of bed and the ladies who clamored to inhabit his. William F. Cody certainly had his share of what we'd now consider groupies, but on that night he felt a need to get back to his roots.
The reason why Buffalo Bill sustained an enduring popularity was because he really did have a background that was colorful and exciting. He was a kid raised in Nebraska frontier territory who ran away to escape hard times and was one of the young riders for the short lived and legendary pony express. He had real exploits in that, as a buffalo hunter (hence the name)and an army scout. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor and did kill Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hand in single combat.
But a lot of people in those days could have shown similar resumes. What set Cody apart was his discovery by Ned Buntline who wrote those dime novels who created all the mythology around him. Buntline was in need of a new hero, his previous literary Parsifal Wild Bill Hickok had fallen out with him. Buntline later wrote about Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, just about every colorful character our old west produced. His dime novels for better or worse created the characters.
The greatest weakness in the film is Burt Lancaster's portrayal of Buntline. Not taking anything away from Lancaster because I'm sure he was taking direction and working within the parameters of the script and the original Broadway play Indians upon which Buffalo Bill and the Indians is based. But Lancaster plays it like the elderly Robert Stroud. The real Buntline was more like Elmer Gantry.
Paul Newman as Cody however gives one of the best interpretations of Buffalo Bill seen on film. He's a man trapped in his own legend, but he's smart enough to know what's real and what's phony in his world, including himself. He knows behind all the ballyhoo and hoopla of his Wild West Show, there's a man who did not always know ease and comfort.
The original play Indians ran for 96 performances on Broadway and starred Stacy Keach as Cody. It was far more involved and had Hickok, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James as characters. Author Arthur Koppit trimmed it down so it had more coherency for the screen.
As we know from Annie Get Your Gun, Sitting Bull was briefly part of Cody's Wild West Show. But here the attention is focused on Frank Kaquitts who in his one and only film plays an impassive Sitting Bull, who's doing Cody's show to gain food and supply from the government for his people. In fact Cody now the total show business creation is more impressed with Will Sampson who's well over six feet tall and is better typecast as the savage Indian. There's nothing terribly savage about either of them now.
Look for good performances from Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley who in real life as well as in Annie Get Your Gun befriended Sitting Bull and from Joel Grey as Nate Salisbury, Cody's business partner and Kevin McCarthy as John Burke, the publicist for the Wild West Show. They continued what Buntline started in creating the Buffalo Bill mythology.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians is not the best film of Robert Altman or Paul Newman. It's certainly a lot better than the science fiction film Quintet that they did later. It's a good study of how in America our western mythology got its start.
* This started out as a project re-teaming Paul Newman and director George Roy Hill after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Although Hill dropped out of the mix in the intervening years, Newman remained on board.
* Although set in Wyoming, the movie was made in Alberta. The production crew bulldozed a remote field and constructed a full-sized copy of William Cody's outdoor theater complex.
* Features a cast of over 500.
* Average Shot Length = ~7.6 seconds. Median Shot Length = ~7.4 seconds.
* As the film came out in 1976, film critics and others felt that this scathing indictment of Americana was made as a countermeasure to the celebratory atmosphere of the American bicentennial, but Altman claimed in interviews that he did not intend for this to be a commentary on the bicentennial at all.