Only Robert Altman would have had the wily nerve to release his cynical, ultra-revisionist Western oddity Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson on the bicentennial anniversary of the United States. Casually ripping apart the longstanding and totally absurd notions of white nobility and the violent Native American savage, this is a darkly comical, defiantly strange movie with a careening tone and a hazy, sometimes murky visual style that relied heavily on long shots with multiple characters in the frame, all of whom were talking at once, without any close-ups to establish whose voice belongs to who. Shot by Altman regular Paul Lohmann, I can think of few other films that walk, talk, and breathe like this one, and in tandem with Peter Appleton and Dennis M. Hill’s adroit editing, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson displays a dreamy vibe that just has to be experienced for full effect. Altman’s bold and challenging use of sound and overlapping conversations has always been a point of discussion, but in this film, it may have reached its apex in terms of the use of multiple and simultaneous audio tracks.
This rascally effort features an eclectic supporting cast, including Will Sampson, Harvey Keitel, Geraldine Chaplin, Burt Lancaster, and Ned Buntline, with everyone allowing the irreplaceable Paul Newman ample room to run away with the movie in various spots. He was absolutely terrific here playing Buffalo Bill, taking the myth out of the man, and layering him in tragic, alcoholic glee. Co-written by Altman with frequent collaborator Alan Rudolph and adapted from the play Indians by Arthur Kopit, the film took on an episodic, farcical approach to the material, and arriving immediately after his much celebrated Nashville, my guess is that critics and audiences didn’t know what to do with Altman’s newest at the time of its release. Focusing on the wild, behind-the-scenes antics of the famous travelling Wild West Show, which was organized by Buffalo Bill and became a massively successful source of entertainment despite showcasing staggeringly inaccurate historical recreations, Altman and Rudolph were able to lay waste to the traditional idea of the hero in the wild West, presenting Buffalo Bill as a larger than life clown and drunkard, only interested in self-satisfaction and purveying a false sense of self-importance and legend. This is a phenomenally ambitious, wholly original, and totally unique item in the legendary filmography of one of America’s greatest and most influential filmmakers.