Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson

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Buffalo Bill and the Indians
Buffalo bill and the indians.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Altman
Produced byDino De Laurentis
Written byAlan Rudolph
Robert Altman
Based onIndians
1969 play
by Arthur Kopit
StarringPaul Newman
Joel Grey
Kevin McCarthy
Harvey Keitel
Will Sampson
Allan F. Nicholls
Geraldine Chaplin
John Considine
Burt Lancaster
Bert Remsen
Evelyn Lear
Music byRichard Baskin
CinematographyPaul Lohmann
Edited byPeter Appleton
Dennis M. Hill
Distributed byUnited Artists (USA)
Dino De Laurentiis Productions (overseas)
Release date
  • June 24, 1976 (1976-06-24) (US)
Running time
123 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$7.1 million[1]
Box office$7.2 million[1]

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is a 1976 revisionist Western film directed by Robert Altman and based on the play Indians by Arthur Kopit. It stars Paul Newman as William F. Cody, alias Buffalo Bill, along with Geraldine Chaplin, Will Sampson, Joel Grey, Harvey Keitel and Burt Lancaster as Bill's biographer, Ned Buntline. It was filmed in Panavision by cinematographer Paul Lohmann.

As in his earlier film MASH, Altman skewers an American historical myth of heroism, in this case the notion that noble white men fighting bloodthirsty savages won the West. However, the film was poorly received at the time of its release, as the country was celebrating its bicentennial.[2]

Plot[edit]

The story begins in 1885 with the arrival of an important new guest star in Buffalo Bill Cody's grand illusion, Chief Sitting Bull of Little Big Horn fame. Much to Cody's annoyance, Sitting Bull proves not to be a murdering savage but a genuine embodiment of what the whites believe about their own history out west. He is quietly heroic and morally pure.

Sitting Bull also refuses to portray Custer's Last Stand as a cowardly sneak attack. Instead, he asks Cody to act out the massacre of a peaceful Sioux village by marauding bluecoats. An enraged Cody fires him but is forced to relent when star attraction Annie Oakley takes Sitting Bull's side.

Cast[edit]

Altman's interpretation[edit]

Like many of Altman's films, Buffalo Bill and the Indians is an ensemble piece with an episodic structure. It follows the day to day performances and behind-the-scenes intrigues of Buffalo Bill Cody's famous "Wild West Show", a hugely popular 1880s entertainment spectacular that starred the former Indian fighter, scout and buffalo hunter. Altman uses the setting to criticize Old West motifs, presenting the eponymous western hero as a show-biz creation who can no longer separate his invented image from reality.

Altman's Cody is a loud-mouthed buffoon, a man who claims to be one with the Wild West but lives in luxury, play-acting daily in a western circus of his own making. Cody's long hair is a wig, he can't shoot straight any more or track an Indian, and all his staged battles with ruffians and savages are rigged in his favor. However, this does not keep him from acting as if his triumphs are real, or plaguing his patient entourage of yes-men with endless monologues about himself.

Most of the film was shot on location in Alberta, Canada, mostly on the Stoney Indian Reserve.[3] Frank "Sitting Wind" Kaquitts, who played Sitting Bull, had been elected the first ever chief of Alberta's Nakoda (Stoney) First Nation, after three bands had amalgamated the year before.[4][5]

Critical reception[edit]

A preview showing in New York in May 1976 received a mixed reaction from the press. Following this, Altman recut the film slightly by removing a few of the Wild West show acts.[6]

Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "[Altman's] films are sometimes pretentious and sometimes exasperating, but they are not often boring, although his latest, 'Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson' is all three." He went on, "using Newman as neither villainous, heroic nor romantic but only as a fairly uninteresting lout seems a dire waste, and there is an air of low-energy distraction throughout 'Buffalo Bill.' For the last 20 minutes it is as if nobody knew how to get off that dusty reservation but would have been glad to."[7] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety wrote that the film "emerges as a puerile satire on the legends of the Buffalo Bill era, silly when it's not cynical, distasteful throughout its 123 minutes. Paul Newman has rarely been seen so badly."[8] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post stated, "Everyone who cares about Altman's work should find 'Buffalo Bill' an interesting and intriguing experience, but in the last analysis it's an emotionally empty, alienating movie, an ill-advised attempt to project a cynical, apprehensive view of the present onto the past."[9] Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that "Altman appears to know a lot more about show business than about the American Indian, and what he knows about the former mainly consists of behavioral observation; by scaling this observation down exclusively to what illustrates his thesis—the hollow fakery of Buffalo Bill and his followers—he thus allows himself precious little to work with, thematically or otherwise. Within five minutes, everything he has to say on the subject is apparent."[10]

Among positive reviews, Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, "It's a sometimes self-indulgent, confused, ambitious movie that is often very funny and always fascinating."[11] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film a full four out of four stars, writing that while the film's ideas weren't anything special, "Altman's movies are innovative. They surprise us with their physical beauty, their wit, and their style. 'Buffalo Bill''s few pompous moments are overwhelmed by the fluid energy of the piece."[12] Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker identified the film as being "about sorts of dreams ... perhaps it is true that white men tend to dream only of things going well, whereas Indians, like many aboriginal people, dream of death, initiation, possibility; the rock face on which waking life has no purchase."[13]

Today the film holds a "fresh" 83% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 18 reviews.[14]

Awards[edit]

In 1976, the film was entered into the 26th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Bear.[15]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b De Laurentiis PRODUCER'S PICTURE DARKENS: KNOEDELSEDER, WILLIAM K, Jr. Los Angeles Times 30 Aug 1987: 1.
  2. ^ Brenner, Marie (July 1976). "Buffaloed Bill". Texas Monthly: 69.
  3. ^ "Kainai News, 23 May 1975". Digitallibrary.uleth.ca. Retrieved 2013-08-19.
  4. ^ Warren Harbeck, One last mountain journey with Sitting Wind, Cochrane Eagle, November 27, 2002
  5. ^ Sitting Wind, Rocky Mountain Nakoda
  6. ^ Arnold, Gary (July 4, 1976). "An Apprehensive Robert Altman". The Washington Post. H1.
  7. ^ Champlin, Charles (June 30, 1976). "Paul Newman as 'Buffalo Bill'". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 16.
  8. ^ Murphy, Arthur D. (June 30, 1976). "Film Reviews: Buffalo Bill And The Indians, Or Sitting Bull's History Lesson". Variety. 20.
  9. ^ Arnold, Gary (July 2, 1976). "Altman's 'Bill': Buffaloed". The Washington Post. B1, B13.
  10. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan (September 1976). "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 43 (512): 189.
  11. ^ Canby, Vincent (25 June 1976). "Screen: Altman's 'Buffalo Bill'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-11-25.
  12. ^ Siskel, Gene (July 2, 1976). "Altman's arrow hits Buffalo Bill on target". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 3.
  13. ^ Gilliatt, Penelope (June 28, 1976). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 62.
  14. ^ Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson at Rotten Tomatoes
  15. ^ "Berlinale 1976: Prize Winners". Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin. 1976. Retrieved 2010-07-16.

External links[edit]