Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson
Whether a viewer takes to Robert Altman's 1976 film Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson depends largely on that viewers appreciation for Altman's body of work as a whole. Filmed in the same semi-improvised style with almost documentary-style camera work and overlapping dialogue as M*A*S*H, Nashville and other much-revered Altman films, Buffalo Bill and the Indians manages to split audiences into love-it-or-loathe-it camps. Co-written by Alan Rudolph and released at the height of U.S. bicentennial frenzy, the film is something of a sequel to the previous year's Nashville, shining a light on the politics of show business and examining how myth and story-telling have triumphed over actual history in America. Paul Newman gives a fine, brave performance as Buffalo Bill Cody, a character whose fame was invented for him out of whole cloth by myth-maker Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster). Arrogant, alcoholic, and wholly invested in believing his own legend, Cody travels with his Wild West Show "re-creating" Indian battles complete with burning cabins and screaming settlers, and showcasing the trick-riding and shooting of performers like Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin). Seeking to add more dazzle to the show, Cody and his promoters hire Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), who joins up in the hope of meeting the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland (Pat McCormick) and pleading for his people. Conflicts immediately arise between Cody and Sitting Bull over historical details and money, and Cody becomes more and more egomaniacal until a rather tragic conclusion complete with lengthy monologue by Newman is reached. When it was released, Buffalo Bill and the Indians was reviled by critics who had loved Altman's equally self-conscious Nashville just a year earlier. But in the aftermath of Watergate, audiences had started to grow weary of all that painful self-examination and were seeking more escapist entertainment than Altman had to offer note the nation's passionate love affair with Star Wars the following year. These many years later, Buffalo Bill and the Indians can be viewed as both a continuation of Nashville's social satire and of Altman's deconstruction of the American West that he began with McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The film features a brilliant cast of solid actors, as good or better than Altman ever worked with: Newman, Lancaster, Chaplin, Joel Grey, Harvey Keitel, Kevin McCarthy, Shelley Duvall, John Considine, Will Sampson, Bert Remsen, and Denver Pyle, all doing terrific work. Next to the hilarious and rarely seen California Split, this is probably Altman's most under-appreciated film. As for the technical specs MGM (who baffle us by released this as one their "Western Legends" titles!) delivers Buffalo Bill and the Indians in its widescreen theatrical ratio (2.35:1) with the original monaural audio. But the print is not the best we've seen from MGM it's occasionally fuzzy, riddled with dust, and generally feels like they just grabbed the first copy of the film that they found lying around the basement. Granted, this is hardly a classic film but the source print nonetheless is a disappointment. Featurette "From the Prairie to the Palace," two trailers. Keep-case.
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