The best of Robert Altman’s ’70s movies cleverly concealed social satire beneath the candy-coated surface of lively entertainment—essentially, the formula that made M*A*S*H (1970) so effective. Yet as the decade wore on, Altman succumbed more and more frequently to pretentiousness, as if he felt he’d been anointed the official chronicler of America’s foibles. From its obnoxiously overlong title to its turgid non-narrative sprawl, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson represents Altman at his most insufferably self-important. Adapted (very loosely) from a stage play by Arthur Kopit, the picture takes place in the twilight of the Wild West era, when hero-turned-celebrity William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (Paul Newman) has become the proprietor of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a tacky attraction/show that’s like a precursor to the modern theme park.
Bill and his employees trot out actors who re-create scenes of frontier action, interspersed with rodeo-style equestrian displays and performances by genuine historical figures, including Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin). The movie tells the “story” of Bill’s frustrating attempt to transform aging Indian leader Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) into his latest star attraction. The problem is that Sitting Bull serves no agenda but his own. Given this colorful premise, Buffalo Bill and the Indians should be wonderfully clever and fun. And, indeed, Altman and co-writer Alan Rudolph take the piss out of every showbiz institution they can get their hands on, so Annie’s husband/manager (John Considine) constantly frets he’ll get shot by his wife; Sitting Bull’s interpreter (Will Sampson) hides behind Indian stoicism while playing mind games with Bill; and Bill himself is a drunken fraud whose signature long hair is a wig.
As always, Altman builds scenes around eccentric behavior that he observes from a distance through the use of hidden microphones and long lenses. There’s a lived-in reality to the way characters occupy space in Altman’s films that virtually no other director can match, and Altman’s democratic approach levels the playing field for actors. With the exception of Burt Lancaster—whose character functions as a quasi-narrator and therefore exists somewhat outside the regular action of the picture—everyone in Buffalo Bill and the Indians comes across as a member of a smoothly integrated ensemble. Some performers thrive in this milieu (Joel Grey’s portrayal of an unflappable producer is terrific, and Samson’s quietude manifests as tremendous charisma), while others get lost, especially when burdened with underwritten roles. (A miscast Harvey Keitel, as Buffalo Bill’s nerdy nephew, is one such casualty.)
The problem, as was so often the case in Altman’s films, is that there’s simultaneously too much happening (in terms of chaotic onscreen action) and too little happening (in terms of forward narrative momentum). Altman spends so much time lingering on pointless details and unimportant subplots that the main thrust of the piece is overwhelmed. Furthermore, since the essence of Altman’s theme is that America is driven by such petty impulses as the desire for notoriety and the refusal to acknowledge harsh realities, the movie’s cynicism feels convenient, fashionable, and trite. After all, the same director had explored almost identical thematic terrain in his previous film, the far more effective Nashville (1975).
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson: FUNKY