Film Review

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, OR SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON (1976)

At the conclusion of Nashville, the camera pans upward into the high heavens and the last image we see before staring off into the ether is the American flag. So it is appropriate that, at the beginning of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, the film that was released the following year, we see the raising of the American flag over the strains of reveille. Following some narration about the brave men and women who built our country and trudged through hardship after hardship, we witness the scene of an Indian attack on some settlers, driving the narrator’s point home in traditional western style. Once the carnage has concluded, the camera pulls back to reveal the attack has been a recreation and the settlers and natives are actors and this has all been done in the attempt to perfect a scenario for a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. So where Nashville infused Altman’s vision of an America being infested with rot via politics and show business, Buffalo Bill and the Indians aims to almost invert that formula from the jump by giving a tall-tale American history lesson filtered completely through the artifice of show business which, ultimately and paradoxically, overflows with truths.

The year is 1886, and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (Paul Newman) is a bigoted, ridiculously coiffed, narcissistic, and pinheaded blowhard who lives in a cloistered bubble of his own legend that is his Wild West Show where he is the figurehead, president, and CEO. But the new season needs a fresh angle as crowds are dwindling, causing chaos and cutbacks in Codyland. With the help of obsequious press agent Major John Burke (Kevin McCarthy) and ruthless producer Nate Salisbury (Joel Grey), Cody scores a coup when he wrangles Sitting Bull (Frank Kanquitts), whose victory over General George Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn made him a ready-made villain to audiences, into joining his show. Cody, a puffed up man of no small amount of self-importance, is frequently annoyed and enraged at Sitting Bull’s insistence on not rewriting history for the sake of entertainment nor allowing Bill to look like the star-spangled hero to which the latter is accustomed of appearing. Sitting Bull’s lethargic refusal to play the game Bill’s way, backed in full by Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin), the show’s major draw, threatens the Wild West Show and, since he’s mostly a media construction, Bill’s existence.

To audiences of the day, this was maybe the most unwelcome bit of bicentennial cheer since Frank Zappa’s “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead.” To fans of Paul Newman and westerns, this was an affront to the senses and their patriotic sensibilities. To those that loved Altman and were in the tank for him, it was unsubtle and too on-the-nose. And maybe both of those camps’ criticisms mattered a great deal in 1976 when the nation was struggling with itself as it turned 200 years old. The country’s dichotomous mindset couldn’t be summed up any better than the Academy nominating Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, and Network for Best Picture only to then turn around and award the Oscar to Rocky, regardless of that film’s bottomless merits and endless appeal. It was clear that America was in the midst of a national case of the DT’s and was desperate to feel better.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, unfortunately, was not made for people who wanted to feel better. It was made for people who thought all the ballyhoo circling the bicentennial was a racket, and a racist one at that. This kind of disdain made Robert Altman a frequent target of conservative critics who would continue to willfully label his flaming of American culture as a misanthropic attitude about America itself. Of course, this was wrong as Altman loved America and, in fact, embodied its best and greatest characteristics. What Altman hated was the rank hypocrisy and the half-truths that built so much of the American narrative, something that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable point of view. And, after all, what was the Wild West Show but a traveling pack of exaggerations that, nonetheless, blazed a trail in the collective mind of America and ensured that its revisionist tales took the place of actual history? If conservative critics are hell-bent on discussing the effect of television and movies on our citizens, why not extend that same argument to those mythological tales with a reach so far back into America’s past that our country’s mind has been hard-wired to recognize only its supposed benevolent greatness?

And perhaps Altman, whose Nashville was a critical hit but didn’t exactly achieve its goal of changing the way movies were made, earned himself no favors in Hollywood by making show business look like a nepotistic, valueless, and grotesque vessel frequently lost in it own sauce of incompetence and yes men. But by looking into the past and examining how so much of America’s historical foundation is built on myths and legends, he also sees the ability to shape the future. Buffalo Bill is a buffoon but his keen understanding of the power of “the show business” to twist history into something perverted, unfair, disgusting, and beneficial only to him is frightening. “Bill Cody can only trust his senses. And when his senses fail him, he might just see things as they really are,” muses Burt Lancaster’s Ned Buntline, one-time scribbler of penny dreadfuls but current deconstructionist of the myths he once helped create.

Naturally, something like Buffalo Bill and the Indians has aged extremely well and, viewing it in 2021, it’s a little jarring. For much of its running time, it feels like a funhouse mirror put up against our contemporary politics. Inspired by Arthur Kopit’s play Indians, screenwriters Altman and Allan Rudolph keep Buffalo Bill and the Indians confined within the boundaries of the camp of the Wild West Show and by keeping the film more or less stagebound, the Wild West Show and all of its backstage pandemonium begins to look like a lot like the White House of Donald Trump. When Bill meets Sitting Bull, it’s a mock celebration that’s meant to feel like an honorable meeting between two great heads of state but is instead a giant fantasy created to assuage the ego of Buffalo Bill who is such a moron, he has no idea what “incarcerated” means and confuses William Halsey (Will Sampson), Sitting Bull’s interpreter, for Sitting Bull himself. Liikewise, truth has no room within the parameters of the Wild West Show. Ned Buntline’s character is such an unwelcome creature in Bill’s land of fantasy that he attempts to have Buntline tossed from the premises the second Bill hears he’s around. Naturally, Bill delegates this duty to someone else and, likewise, Buntline won’t move until Bill disinvites him personally. This leads to one of the film’s most beautifully written and performed scenes in which Lancaster sighs “You haven’t changed, Bill.” “I’m not supposed to change,” Newman retorts. “That’s why people pay to see me.”

As a document in regards to Altman’s feelings toward the bicentennial, it’s fascinating. As a retroactive treatise on what would exactly happen if we lived in a political environment that operated like in the same fashion as backstage at The Muppet Show, it’s pretty brilliant even if Altman sometimes hard presses his acrid point to the point of smugness. “You know,” President Grover Cleveland coos in admiration as Buffalo Bill struts away from a reception, “it’s a man like that that made America what it is today.” Yeah… we get it. Additionally, Altman sometimes stretches himself for easy laughs and the running gag involving Buffalo Bill’s infatuation with opera singers proves to be more irritating and farcical than it is funny but it does at least set up one of the film’s most sublime moments in which the pack of artless cornballs in the Wild West Show are put to shame and moved to tears by the simple performance of by Nina Cavelini ‘Qui Sola Virgin Rosa’.

But, in the grand scheme of things, the film’s flaws seem minor in comparison to its triumphant execution and its fearless determination to take on both the seemingly unassailable lacquer that protects America’s Disneyfied image of itself and the vainglorious stupidity (and potential danger) of Hollywood. By admitting that America itself is a malleable tall tale if delivered by the right kind of polished huckster and that nobody, no matter how noble, is beneath selling out for the right price and practicality, Altman foretold of an America in ruin, susceptible to the charms of empty-headed, megawatt stars where relationships are transactional and nothing is sacred.

“Boy, I’ll tell you,” Harvey Keitel’s slack-jawed and dim-bulb nephew to Buffalo Bill says at some point in the film as he stares off into the distance, “there ain’t no business like the show business.”

Brother, you ain’t kidding.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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