Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)
I must admit that I didn’t know what to expect when it came to Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) but with a director such as Robert Altman behind this I knew that I would have something engaging to watch and engage with. I know from previous film incarnations of Colonel William Cody/Buffalo Bill he was a larger than life figure who was practically elevated to god-like status. As a historical figure he is still a common name. His Wild West show did help shape the myth of conquest which we know today. Bringing the West back to the East, celebrating the triumphs of that the journey with them before touring the world. Paul Newman‘s take on the role is far more human than those incarnations that are loud and brash, living up to the dime novels written to stir up a sensation at the time. Now we have films that have done more to mythologize the West than any publication. We no longer have a clear understanding of what happened in 19th century America. To be fair British history also has it’s patches as we all refer to the filmic more entertaining.
There is no attempt at myth-making, if anything its a deconstruction of all that to reveal a man who wears a wig to maintain and image he has cultivated, age is one myth he is able to conquer if only temporarily. We see William Cody as just another man who fights to maintain his image. It’s like taking a camera crew back in time and capturing what really happened over the course of a few days whilst the show was camped out at a fort. We’re allowed into this show-business world of the 19th century. We learn early on its 1885, only 15 years until the 20th century dawns, much of the West has been won, its time to bask and celebrate in the glory of the young countries achievements. The Wild West show is the personification of that, Cody the embodiment of all that has happened in that era.
Having Paul Newman in the lead role was a risk for me, but somehow it pays off. We don’t see him in the first few minutes. Instead we meet the rest of the team that bring his show to life. The opening titles play out like a Wild West show with open names such as The Star, The Producer etc, all supposed to draw you in, vague enough to entice you to want to know more, who are these people that are about to enter the stage and entertain us. Complete with a touch of magic with The Legend Maker (Burt Lancaster) who casually narrates from the saloon, the forgotten figure who created the figure. Also a connection into the genres past of classical to revisionist that had begun to question and dissect. Is this more a comment on American films image of the West or the a seeking of the truth within language of film that has reshaped the West in the image and guises we no today. Part of the fabric of American culture and folk-lore that has to be celebrated yet at the same time interrogated.
The long title suggest we are getting two versions of the same aspect of history. We know from past films that Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) was part of the show. We see him traveling with them, as I have seen in Annie Oakley (1935) and Annie Get Your Gun (1950), both times he is a father figure of sorts to the female sharp-shooter who has joined the show. Here he is takes on a silent role, communicating through his interpreter (Will Sampson) who the only Native American with English dialogue. Sitting Bull’s very much a catalyst in Cody’s life, coming from a reservation in the hopes of drumming up business, a “Red Indian” chief on show to the new. He’s no longer the stereotypical figure of fun of previous films, instead he is a thorn in the side of Cody who wants his show to be a success.
Turning to the others who make the show happen they all adore Cody they live for him, take his word as gospel almost. His military rank is not taken for granted even in his civilian role, he has his own army of entertainers who will die for him if they could, they’re an extension of Cody in essence really. Each of them are not just one dimensional characters, each having moments where they bicker, joke and perform together. In the era when they could have communicate without detracting from a performance. Looking again at Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) who is more like the photos of her, delivers a more human performance, not brash, fighting for her man Frank Butler (John Considine) who instead work together on her performance, even if he gets shot in the process. There’s no glamour beyond the presence of the historical figures on the screen, they are depicted as hard working professionals rehearsing for the next show.
For me its about the relationship between Sitting Bull and Cody both massive figures in both their cultures. Brought together through profit and the idea of bigger success. For Sitting Bull it’s a chance to get his story across of the Sioux’s fight against the white-man, not very show-business like. Suggesting through his interpreter to a staged massacre who is another antagonist for Cody who can only talk to, fighting with him with words. When the appear to be running away, Cody is shamed after not being able to bring Bull and the other Native American’s back. He chooses not to understand the others culture, bit wants him to be an integral part of his show, even sharing top-billings with him. Neither of them will give or take, both powerful figures who wont budge. Is this what it was really like behind the scenes? It’s a good question and film delivers a plausible answer that we can choose to take or ignore.
It’s not a mainstream Western, my Dad enjoyed the film but not to the extent I clearly have, feeling alienated by its lack of action, the dry plot that has no soundtrack, relying on the music they produce. It laments and wonders what if, going behind the image that’s ingrained into what is America to reveal a possible truth. And that works for me as I explore the genre, this is another angle of the Western that has before been celebrated, we have grown up with the show-business razza-matazz of the historical show that helped form he basis of the genre.
- Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (forgottenfilmcast.wordpress.com)
- Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) (everyrobertaltmanmovie.blogspot.co.uk)