Robert Altman was such a champion of unorthodox filmmaking, in particular when it came to telling a narrative. His films are smart, almost too smart; BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, OR SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON is not different – it highlights Altman as an unconventional alternative filmmaker from the 70s. It has been said a million times, but cannot be understated, most of the counterculture and “fuck the man” films of that decade (as well as the late 60s), are just as prevalent with their themes now as when they were made during the cultural civil war of the 60s and in particular the 70s.
Paul Newman, in all his glory, plays Buffalo Bill Cody, the legendary gunslinger whose mythos is built upon tall tales and folklore. He was a superior gunslinger due to his marksmanship or was he that champion buffalo hunter, perhaps he was that fierce Indian hunter who kept the townspeople safe. In actuality he’s an over the hill drunk who runs a circus with Harvey Keitel as his buffoonish nephew, Kevin McCarthy as a Buffalo Bill wannabe, Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley, Robert DoQui as the makeshift Indian and stage hand, Will Sampson as Sitting Bull’s counsel, Altman mainstay Shelley Duvall, Burt Lancaster as the maker of Buffalo Bill’s legend, and Joel Grey in a magnificent reiteration of his Master of Ceremony’s character from Bob Fosse’s CABARET.
This film exposes something that has become so very American; sensationalism of celebrity, false idols, and how history is more or less a tall tale of bullshit told by those who either win or know how to manipulate and control a narrative. What is a truly remarkable aspect of the film, is that Newman might not even be the actual Buffalo Bill, or better yet, Buffalo Bill never existed; Newman just dons the legendary mantle.
It follows in suit with Altman, being a fast-moving a very talkie film, yet the film feels like it could slide into a triple bill with John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and Alex Cox’s WALKER – though the latter film is much more on the nose with its self-awareness. The film feels very contemporary, there is a sense of urgency about the picture, yet it takes place in the old west, where fables became gospel and legends never die.