The popularity of the Western, at one point America’s reigning genre champion, was starting to wane considerably by the mid-1960s and well into the 1970s. In part to keep the form alive, and in part to examine just want made this type of film what it once was and had now become, many filmmakers, Sam Peckinpah most notably, began to approach Westerns through a self-consciously analytical lens. These were Westerns that were, in one way or another, about Westerns themselves: what made them work, what their key tropes were, how could their conventions be subverted or updated, and how could this old-fashioned genre be made modern?
Director Robert Altman, no stranger to subverting conventions and thwarting expectations, had already tackled this in 1971, with McCabe & Mrs. Miller. His variation on the Western had a more ambiguous and ambivalent hero than the genre classics; its setting was a dank, dark snow-covered wilderness, rather than the open prairie or desert; its themes were more capitalistically corrupt than stalwartly moralistic. While the film is extraordinary—one of his best—it wasn’t, in a general sense, very fun. Warren Beatty was amusing enough, but the picture itself was rather somber.
With Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, released five years later, Altman was again breaking down the Western, only this time, he was focused on one critical aspect of the genre and of America’s Western heritage: the making and maintenance of a myth. And this time, he was having a lot more fun with it.
“Robert Altman’s Absolutely Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre,” as the opening credits proclaim, picks up with The Star, AKA William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Paul Newman), as he seeks to keep his Wild West Show thriving as a viable form of entertainment by way of elaborate show business hijinks mixed with a dash of historical liberty. This is the basic crux of the film: the balance of history and entertainment, real life and performance, reenactments and feats of skill next to exaggerations and individual variations on what really occurred. Sometimes, these lines are explicitly and painfully clear, as when a horse steps on (through?) one of the performers—”That’s the real thing,” declares another shocked player; sometimes, the distinction is less obvious, as in The Sure Shot, AKA Annie Oakley (a terribly cute Geraldine Chaplin), who has a talent that legitimately justifies her own celebrity.
The circus-like atmosphere of Buffalo Bill is right up Robert Altman’s alley, with an assortment of individuals coming and going (a cast of 500-plus), all speaking over one another in classic Altman style. Among the more interesting are The Relative, AKA Ed Goodman, played by an oddly meek and fawning Harvey Keitel, who scurries around his famous uncle, and The Legend Maker, Ned Buntline, played by Burt Lancaster. Buntline is the man who, for all intents and purposes, “invented” Buffalo Bill and his supposed exploits. Throughout the film, he continues spinning the yarn that perpetuates the myth.
Then there is The Indian, Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), brought in to add some much-needed drama and generally fabricated conflict to the show (“Is he tame?” wonders one character). Essentially mute, Sitting Bull nevertheless manages to rouse Bill’s ire by the mere existence of his own legend, and the stereotypically opaque Native American dialogue causes a good deal of frustration. When Sitting Bull’s handler says something about the chief visiting the sun “and the squaws move teepees to the moon’s path,” one of Bill’s cohorts demands the Indian “Stop sunning and mooning us.” And later, Bill proclaims, “You tell Sitting Bull that Buffalo Bill says his leaves can turn whichever way he wants as long as he knows which way the wind is blowing.” He then proudly turns to his group: “I gave him back the same kind of murky logic that he gave us.”
Bill also assumes the Indian has a similar penchant for show business, reasoning that he wouldn’t want to be chief otherwise. Inevitably though, the collaboration quickly becomes a contentious one. Unlike everyone else Bill surrounds himself with, Sitting Bull and his fellow Native American’s aren’t so quick to placate this blow-hard of an American hero, and more often than not, Bill and his compatriots come away looking like fools. At one point, as the Indians causally mosey away from camp, Bill and his posse head out in erratic pursuit of the perceived escapees. But despite the narrative that these men are among the best trackers in America, they return empty handed. Still, they keep on keeping on, resilient in their efforts to maintain their storied reputations. Frequently with the musical accompaniment of The Cowboy Band, Bill and the others ride somewhere between the lands of perpetual children playing cowboys and Indians and old men past their prime basking in what used to be.
This is really about all there is in terms of plot here. Even by Robert Altman standards, Buffalo Bill has a loose, free-flowing storyline. Sitting Bull causes some consternation, and the whole group gets excited by a visit from The President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, and The First Lady (Pat McCormick and Shelley Duvall), but the film is essentially a series of amusing and not always interconnected incidents. Still, the script is cleverly poignant, the dialogue is witty, and Newman gives a terrific performance; the casting of such as actor in this film about fame works well as star persona merges with star persona.
More than anything though, the themes of Buffalo Bill are the most prescient aspects of the picture. While the similarly revisionist Westerns called subtle attention to their implicit concerns regarding generic formation and historical revaluation, Altman puts these issues front and center. This Western blatantly deconstructs the illusion of fame and the infallibility of a legend. There is something of an even larger American commentary in the film as well. Released during the United States’ bicentennial, it touches on what was, near the end of the 19th century, a steady distancing from the nation’s Wild West past, and what in 1976 was a reevaluation of contemporary American ideals. In the film, President Cleveland states that a man like Buffalo Bill “made this country what it is today,” and Bill, for his part, notes, “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.” They’re both right. In the 1800s and in 1976, historical figures like Buffalo Bill, regardless of their validity, were (and still are) integral to the American mindset and the nation’s perception of itself. Yet, at the same time, while this may always be so, with each passing generation there does grow a degree of natural, and in many ways productive, skepticism. That’s why we remember older heroes while constantly searching for new ones. America knows what legends used to exist, so the question then becomes, what legends now exist? In Buffalo Bill and the Indians, the titular character finds himself stuck in the middle of just such a dilemma, and is unsteadily representative of either side.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Buffalo Bill and the Indians is among three Altman titles recently released by the company, the others being The Long Goodbye (1973) and Thieves Like Us (1974). (It’s worth noting that Olive Films also recently released a Blu-ray of Altman’s great and greatly underrated Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, from 1982.) The discs look and sound sharp—the sound in an Altman film being of the utmost importance—and are undeniable improvements on preexisting DVD copies, though the bonus features are scant. With Buffalo Bill is the very brief documentary, From the Prairie to the Palace. In it, the narrator discusses the influence of this live Western show and Newman speaks about the role, saying he considers Bill an “amalgamation of all the legendary heroes in history.” There’s also some behind the scenes footage of Altman directing. Essentially, this short inclusion further makes the case for the film’s thematic core, the narrator arguing that it is “the story of the first American hero whose legend was not based on military victories or political involvement, but on myth, and a lot of publicity.”