Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson was Robert Altman’s follow-up to Nashville, which was one of his most acclaimedand successful movies during that extraordinary run of films he had during the ’70s. It’s smack in-between Nashville and 3 Women, so it was bound to disappoint: while it was one of Altman’s most indulgent films, Buffalo Bill remains fascinating. It was the second and final western Altman would make, the other is the savage indictment of capitalism McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Altman is at his most Felliniesque here, with the film’s deconstruction of the American West set around Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Bill is played by Paul Newman. It also was the first adaptation by Altman of a stage play; Arthur Kopit’s Indians. Altman and Alan Rudolph (who was Altman’s assistant director before he became a director himself) did the adaptation.
Buffalo Bill gets Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) to join his travelling show, but Bill has ulterior motives for including Sitting Bull. Things only get more complicated for the troupe when it’s revealed that they have to put on a show for President Grover Cleveland (Pat McCormick) The film is a little too episodic for its own good. That is often Altman’s style, but if it had been just a little more focused, it would have been a better film.
Paul Newman is fantastic as this huckster who becomes one of the first modern celebrities. It’s as much of a satire on the myths of the wild west as it is on celebrity culture, although the final act of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford does this much better. It’s still worth checking out, especially if you are a Robert Altman fan. It has some impressive sequences and a strong ensemble cast, including many from Altman’s repertory of actors, such as Geraldine Chaplin and Shelley Duvall, and others who only worked with him on Buffalo Bill, such as Burt Lancaster, Harvey Keitel and Kevin McCarthy. It’s just a shame that the film doesn’t quite come together in a totally satisfying way. It’s a very interesting film, but of the Newman/Altman collaborations, I actually prefer their bonkers sci-fi film Quintet.
The release from Indicator is worth seeking out, because it’s the first time that the film’s original ‘antique’ colour timing can be seen, which is was Altman’s intended colour scheme. The film is also available in the 124-minute director’s cut and the shorter 105-minute producer’s cut. The extras include the “From the Prairie to the Palace” 1976 featurette, the theatrical trailer, and “Jim Webb on Robert Altman,” which is an audio excerpts of a presentation on Altman by his pioneering sound mixer. The alternative French opening and end credits, TV spot image gallery and finally a series of silent films featuring the real Buffalo Bill finish off the extras on the disc. The 36-page booklet includes a new essay by Richard Combs, extracts from Altman on Altman, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and Peter Stanfield on the silent films of Buffalo Bill.