Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson
Reviewed by Darragh O’Donoghue

Produced and directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Alan Rudolph and Robert Altman, based on the play Indians by Arthur Kopit; cinematography by Paul Lohmann; edited by Peter Appleton and Dennis Hill; production design by Tony Masters; art direction by Jack Maxsted; costume design by Anthony Powell; music by Richard Baskin; starring Paul Newman, Joel Grey, Kevin McCarthy, Harvey Keitel, Frank Kaquitts, Will Sampson, and Burt Lancaster. Blu-Ray, color, 123 min., 1976. A Kino Lorber release, www.kinolorber.com.

Buffalo Bill is set in the compound of the legendary 1885 Wild West Show that travestied history by presenting the bloody and complex events of the conquest of Native America in abbreviated, decontextualized, sanitized, choreographed, and “Codified” set pieces for family consumption. The spectacle is promoted as the “father of the new show business,” and while it set the pattern for the later film Western—often called America’s national epic—its spirit also survived in less expected outgrowths of popular entertainment: director and co-screenwriter Robert Altman makes wink-wink allusions to both Disneyland and Hugh Hefner. 

In the best of his previous films, Altman took a stereotyped film genre and made it “real” by filming on location, using unglamorous or deglamourized actors, and breaking down the artificial coherence imposed by scripts and streamlined technique through improvisation and experiments with camera and, especially, sound. The result was not more “real” than the originating genre, but a fruitful and usually engaging dialectic between the two.

Buffalo Bill performs the same trick in reverse. A seemingly realistic—or, instead of this vexed and unquantifiable term, I should use something like “plausible” or “reality effect,” or, better, Paul Arthur’s “fabric of heightened realism”—a seemingly plausible Western scene with mountains, forests, a windmill, and makeshift habitation is revealed through voice-over to be a mediated fiction, and then, through action, to be part of a Wild West Show, or what the Indian agent (Denver Pyle) calls “some damned circus.” Straight-faced assertions by troupe members—“We’re in the authentic business,” “Everything historical is mine”—emphasize the theme. But this site of “fantasy” is actually more of a “reality” than the Western landscape promised by the opening panning shot. The history narrated by the Wild West Show might be a travesty, but the Wild West Show compound, as a site that existed historically, is shown as it was, a virtual town, a rickety construction of wood, canvas, and paint, peopled by the vain, weak, unscrupulous, and exploited. “As it was,” of course, filtered through the Altman aesthetic that had itself become something of a stereotype, a genre, by 1976; the final joke in Buffalo Bill’s analysis of the real and entertainment is the closing-credits revelation that this American Western was filmed in Canada. 

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)

This empty shell of reality in a vast, allegedly empty landscape is filled by its inhabitants with noise—windy talk, loud music—as they convince themselves that it embodies a noble ideal, the American ideal. The hero of that ideal—“America’s hero” as his subordinates call him—is Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman), who is treated in the Altman manner. Before Cody makes his first, bathetic appearance in long shot, nearly fifteen minutes into the film, he is heralded by a series of increasingly implausible representations: a vignette in the title credits, signs, posters, and banners, theatrical flats, an absurd equestrian portrait of a sort usually reserved for (equally absurd) European royalty. Altman never lets us forget the difference between the ideal, far-fetched, overinflated image and the insecure, alcoholic, cranky, real man; at one point he rages like Looney Tunes’ Sylvester exasperated by Tweety Pie. Bill’s apotheosis in the film’s final scene sees his diminished humanity embalmed as heroic and inhuman, Pure Image, onto which anything can be projected.

The reason for this insistence is that the lies promulgated by the Wild West Show are shown to be much more than distortions excusable for the sake of entertainment. The compound is as much a military fort as it is a circus: the film opens with a bugle sounding reveille and the Stars and Stripes being raised on a watchtower; the participation of Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) in the show is an extension of his confinement by the U.S. Army. Popular entertainment of the sort initiated by Buffalo Bill is shown to not only whitewash official history and policy, but also to be an active arm of the military and government (in this Altman was simplifying the tortuous deconstructions of ideology in the film theory of his day). A nocturnal performance specially mounted for President Cleveland (Pat McCormick) and his new bride (Shelley Duvall), with Bill’s white outfit gleaming in the torchlight, looks uncomfortably like a Klan ceremony or even an embryonic Nuremberg rally. 

By contrast, Sitting Bull’s first performance avoids the kind of dramatic narrative favored by Bill, and one within which he can be humiliated by racism and cliché. He replaces it with his sheer presence, riding silently around the ring to boos, jeers, silence, and, eventually, applause. He is an image of white guilt that cannot be erased, his mere existence a rebuke to white triumphalism. Throughout the film, he and his interpreter Halsey (Will Sampson) simply appear in the middle of a noisy scene, silent and still, like the unwelcome ghosts at Macbeth’s banquet (one publicist is crowned “the Shakespeare of the dime novel”). Even the off-screen attempt to remove physically this moral threat—Sitting Bull is assassinated by the government five years after joining the show—only makes him more insistent, a revenant or hallucination who haunts a sleepless, drunken Bill. This scene—where fantasy irrupts into the “reality effect”—aligns Bill with Altman characters who endure identity crises and psychic breakdowns, e.g., Sandy Dennis in That Day in the Park, Susannah York in Images, Ronnie Blakley in Nashville, and the Three Women. That these tend to be female characters is significant.

Throughout Buffalo Bill, Cody, who links his masculinity and sexual prowess to his long hair and his unerring shooting prowess, is exposed and humiliated: he wears a wig; his famed shot is aided by the use of buckshot; the famous aria “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson and Delilah is repeated to underline the point. That he should suffer the kind of mental breakdown usually allotted to women is the misogynistic Altman’s ultimate signal of Bill’s emasculation. Moreover, note that it is collective white neurosis, rather than Native American grievance, that is the focus of this scene and the film as a whole.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)

Sitting Bull is one of two insistent reminders of Bill’s inauthenticity; the other is ‘”legend-maker” Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster) who turned the callow William Cody into Buffalo Bill in best-selling pulp fiction and cast him as himself in plays. His barroom tale telling and debunking—Bill tells “lies in front of witnesses like it was the truth”—is a form of Greek chorus and is juxtaposed and interweaved with imagery of Bill in his pomp, the soundtrack, as so often in Altman, undermining or complicating what we see. Ned disappears after unmanning Bill, leaving him in existential turmoil: “The thrill of my life was to have invented you.”

The credits claim that Buffalo Bill was “suggested by” Arthur Kopit’s play Indians, first performed in 1968 and radically revised in 1969. “Suggested by” is even vaguer than the usual “inspired by,” and very little of Kopit’s work survives the transfer. Kopit’s “bad dream” is a much harsher vision of Buffalo Bill and the Old West, a classic piece of 1960s counterculture and Brechtian epic theater that forsakes linear chronology in favor of tableaux that fuse allegory, fantasy, burlesque, and agitprop. Its status as theater—staged as “theater in the round,” using a “mosaic” of theatrical forms from vaudeville and melodrama to expressionism and mime; props like effigies, masks, cages, museum cases, and dummy animals; and an obtrusive use of light and sound—is essential to its meaning, its disorienting form intended to disorient the audience.

Altman’s plucking such artifice into a “realistic” milieu has implications for that meaning. The Vietnam War that was raging during the extensive rewriting and staging of Indians is not, as in M*A*S*H, a subtext; Kopit wanted audiences to read My Lai into his re-creation of the infamous 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee by giving to a colonel in his play General William Westmoreland’s famous justification of U.S. violence in Vietnam. For Kopit, both Wounded Knee and Vietnam were “symptom[s] of a national disease.” He was interested in the bureaucratic process that facilitated the plunder and genocide of Native America and how that injustice was justified by Buffalo Bill’s popular entertainment. Only three of the play’s thirteen scenes are set in the Wild West Show; five reimagine an 1886 United States Commission at Standing Rock Reservation not in the film. Sitting Bull is allowed to speak for himself in Indians; a running joke of Buffalo Bill is that he communicates psychically through an interpreter.

Of course, why should Altman respect Kopit any more than he did Raymond Chandler in The Long Goodbye? The problem is that, by making Bill’s troupe endearingly innocent in their prejudices and cynicism and by keeping genocide off screen, Altman, for all his good intentions, evades what Kopit shows. Kopit implicated his audience in the long history of murderous American imperialism. The various references in Buffalo Bill to his previous films seem to suggest that Altman was reflecting on his filmmaking practice. The dissolve, a clichéd film technique, is self-consciously used once in Buffalo Bill, to elide—evade?—Sitting Bull’s murder. Nevertheless, for Buffalo Bill Altman creates a double perspective that allows his characters to speak “innocently” without the benefit of hindsight, and his audience to sneer in hindsight at that innocence. Quotes such as, “We do not know what glories await us in the future, but we do know of a past that laid the foundation” are meant to sound myopic and dangerous in the context of the disenchanted 1970s. Altman lets the audience off the hook; it is complicit with the sneering, not the innocence and what it represents.

Or he would have if there had been an audience. Although, or more likely because it chimed with a general mood defined by failure in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and America’s economic decline, Buffalo Bill was a flop at the box office.

Darragh O’Donoghue works as an archivist for Tate Britain, London.

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Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3