REVIEW: ROBERT ALTMAN'S “BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, OR SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON” (1976) STARRING PAUL NEWMAN AND BURT LANCASTER; BLU-RAY EDITION FROM KINO LORBER - Celebrating Films of the 1960s & 1970s
Altman in the 1970s was a force to be reckoned with. Mostly his work displayed
unconventional experimentation with form, narrative, and especially sound—and
too often his stylistic choices failed to connect with a large, general
audience. The iconoclastic director made some truly great pictures (M*A*S*H, Nashville) and some eccentrically inventive ones (Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The
Long Goodbye, 3 Women, A Wedding). He was often hit-or-miss, and
certainly more on the miss side when he got into the 1980s. The 90s found
Altman back on stable footing with a couple of additional brilliant films (The Player, Short Cuts), and more misses.
was, and still am, a Robert Altman fan. I “got” what he was trying to do in his
ensemble pictures—the ones featuring a large cast and a loose, improvisational
storyline. However, in 1976, when Buffalo
Bill and the Indians was released, I was not impressed. I remember
intensely disliking the picture, especially after Nashville had been my favorite film of the previous year. I wrote
off Buffalo Bill as one of Altman’s
misses, and I never saw it again over the next forty years.
now viewed Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release, I feel as if I’ve just seen a
completely different movie from what I remembered. Granted, Buffalo Bill is still not one of the
director’s classics—it assuredly belongs in the “miss” category (or rather, in
this case, a “misfire”)—but it is much more fascinating and entertaining than
it was for me in 1976.
by Arthur Kopit’s Broadway play Indians,
the film attempts to be a revisionist satire on show business, myths and
legends, and the Wild West itself. The opening titles proclaim it as “Robert
Altman’s Absolutely Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre!” Set in
the 1880s, Buffalo Bill focuses on
William F. Cody himself (wonderfully played by Paul Newman) and his “Wild West
(Show)” that toured the country and Europe, “re-enacting” famous Indian battles
and other historical events in front of an audience. It was the “Medieval
Times” of its day. The entire movie takes place at the arena where the company
aka Buffalo Bill, was a man whose exploits were turned into myths by
journalist/writer Ned Buntline (played in the film by Burt Lancaster), and he
has come to believe them. Egocentric to the nth degree, Cody rewrites history for
the benefit of showmanship. Newman is often hilarious in the role, but he gives
the character a disturbing layer of madness. His entire team—his producer (Joel
Grey), his nephew (Harvey Keitel), his publicist (Kevin McCarthy), and others
in the troop— treats him like royalty, and Cody won’t have it any other way.
things change when none other than Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) is hired to be
a performer. The fearsome Sioux chief (who really did perform in Buffalo Bill’s
actual Wild West show for a few months) turns out to be a small, silent man who
speaks through his large, imposing interpreter (Will Sampson). Sitting Bull
eventually causes Cody to face the hard truths of his “lies.” By his insistence
on recreating history as it actually happened, Sitting Bull symbolizes the
plight of the Native Americans at the hands of the white conquerors.
stuff for a movie released in America’s bicentennial year.
performances are top notch, especially those of Newman, Grey, and Geraldine
Chaplin as Annie Oakley. (There are also fine cameos by Altman regulars Shelley
Duvall, Pat McCormick, John Considine, and Allan Nicholls.) The picture elicits
quite a few laughs throughout, and the overall look and feel of the piece is
dead on. What doesn’t work is the haphazard structure, the Ned Buntline
interludes, and the bizarre finale in which Sitting Bull comes back from the
dead to haunt Cody. It’s an acquired taste, something I apparently didn’t
achieve back in 1976 when I first saw the picture. I like to think I’m older
and wiser now, and therefore today the movie made more sense.
Kino Lorber Blu-ray looks all right, very colorful, if not pristinely restored.
The extras include a not-quite five minute behind-the-scenes featurette, the
teaser trailer, and the theatrical trailer.
new release is a purchase for Robert Altman and/or Paul Newman fans, and, if
you’re like me, someone who hasn’t seen the film since its original release. It
might be time to give Buffalo Bill and
the Indians a revisit.