Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson
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Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) is a subversive look at the mythology of the Wild West and a unique deconstruction of an American folk hero as envisioned by Robert Altman, a director well known for turning the typical genre film inside out (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, (1971), The Long Goodbye, 1973). With M*A*S*H (1970), his first popular success, Altman used the Korean War as a backdrop for a razor sharp black comedy about the insanity of war. In a similar fashion, he used a traveling Wild West show in Buffalo Bill and the Indians to comment on American history, the politics of show business and the exploitation of Native Americans by greedy entrepreneurs.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians was inspired by Arthur Kopit's play, Indians, which receives a screen credit even though scenarist Alan Rudolph only used a few lines from the original stage production. Where Kopit's play was a cynical political comedy about the numerous injustices visited on Native Americans, Rudolph's screenplay broadens the canvas considerably to address the whole issue of American mythmaking.
Fresh from the success of Nashville (1975), probably the best example of his multi-layered storytelling technique, Buffalo Bill and the Indians was filmed on location at Stoney Indian Reserve in Alberta, Canada and features a stunning array of talent: Paul Newman as the legendary Buffalo Bill, Joel Grey as his press agent, Burt Lancaster as Ned Buntline, the man responsible for inventing the legend of Buffalo Bill, Harvey Keitel as Ed, Buffalo Bill's nephew, Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley, and Shelley Duvall as the wife of President Grover Cleveland. As portrayed by Newman, Buffalo Bill sees himself as a total entertainer and more than willing to exploit his famous name for fame and fortune. But during rehearsals for his show, he is dismayed to discover that his main attraction, Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), doesn't share his views. Not only does Sitting Bull refuse to participate in staged reenactments of famous historic events (because they are misrepresentations of the truth), but he continually challenges Bill's hero status in the show.
There is another similarity to Nashville in Buffalo Bill and the Indians and it's exemplified by the "story within a story" framework, which is obvious from the first scene in the film where audiences are informed by a narrator that this is "not a show, it is a review of the down-to-earth events that made the American frontier." As we watch an attack on a log cabin, the violence halts abruptly when Buffalo Bill's press agent yells, "Cease the action." The scene is revealed as a rehearsal, thus setting the stage for a movie that plays constantly with the notion of truth and entertainment.
Released amidst the bicentennial celebrations of 1976, Buffalo Bill and the Indians did not enjoy the critical success of Altman's more popular films. The revisionist history did not sit well with audiences and the fact that United Artists did not widely promote the release on television or in print certainly did not help it at the box office. Probably the most damaging blow to Altman came when his producer, Dino de Laurentiis, revealed his disappointment with the final product. De Laurentiis had been expecting a more traditional Western with broad commercial appeal, and Altman's dialogue-heavy, politically subversive product was not the film the producer wished to release. Altman and De Laurentiis' working relationship disintegrated when the producer submitted the film to the Berlin Film Festival, where it was awarded the coveted Grand Prix. Altman angrily turned down the award, stating that the version of Buffalo Bill and the Indians screened was one "that has been edited drastically, [and] does not represent my work." The frustrated director subsequently asked that "neither I nor my film be considered for any prize or honor on the basis that it perpetrated a fraud."
The very public rift between the two men would lead to additional problems for Altman, who already found himself on unsteady footing in Hollywood due to his outspoken nature. De Laurentiis had previously picked Altman to direct an adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow book, Ragtime, prior to filming Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Interestingly, Doctorow had initially turned down the job of writing the screenplay of his book, but reconsidered upon visiting the set of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, where he was encouraged by the "sense of creative participation with cast and crew." But it was Altman, and not De Laurentiis, who wanted to bring Doctorow on as a screenwriter; when the producer discovered that Altman was planning a six-hour adaptation of Ragtime, he fired him from the project. Nevertheless, the 1970s ultimately proved to be a period of great creativity and output for this truly original, American director and Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians remains a fascinating, thematically rich entry in the Western genre.
Producer/Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Robert Altman, Alan Rudolph
Art Direction: Jack Maxsted
Cinematography: Paul Lohmann
Editing: Peter Appleton, Dennis M. Hill
Music: Richard Baskin
Cast: Paul Newman (William F. Cody), Burt Lancaster (Ned Buntline), Joel Grey (Nate Salibury), Kevin McCarthy (Maj. John Burke), Harvey Keitel (Ed Goodman), Geraldine Chaplin (Annie Oakley), Allan Nicholls (Prentiss Ingraham), Bert Remsen (Crutch), Frank Kaquitts (Sitting Bull), Will Sampson (William Halsey), John Considine (Frank Butler), Shelley Duvall (Mrs. Cleveland), Pat McCormick (Grover Cleveland), Denver Pyle (McLaughlin).
By Genevieve McGillicuddy