Buffalo Bill and the Indians B-
This was Robert Altman’s offering for the Bicentennial celebration, a cold, cynical piece of nostalgia, which divided critics and failed to bring audiences to the theater.
“Truth is whatever gets the loudest applause” is the film’s motto, which the sardonic Altman seems to embrace completely.
Debunking western myths even more than he did in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Altman’s “Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” or “Sitting Bull’s History Lesson,” is a satire about the increasing gap between western history and legend in show business-obsessed America.
Unfortunately, “Buffalo Bill” was released right after “Nashville,” which is considered to be one of Altman’s two or three undisputed masterpieces, a provocative meditation on the state of American society and politics, which is also fascinating artistically and visually.
Structurally, “Buffalo Bill” is a mess, but thematically it is ambitious and worthy of a second look as an honorable failure (emphasis on both words).
The film is too feckless to give the supportive irony that Paul Newman’s brave performance requires. Too bad that this is the only collaboration between the iconic Altman and the popular Newman.
Altman’s vision is personal, through reportedly his protégé, Alan Rudolph, contributed considerably to the story and screenplay. Their treatment is loosely (very loosely) based on Arthur KopiT’s play, “Indians,” which was far more provocative than the film.
The rambling tale, such as it is, aims to comment on the tenets of and interconnections between American history, American mythmaking, celebrity worship, and showbusiness, all issues that Altman has dealt with before (and would also handle after this picture).
Paul Newman plays the megalomaniac “Buffalo Bill” Cody (William F. Cody) as a conflicted and haunted man, forced to embody the legendary public persona created for him by writer Ned Buntline, aided and abetted by his producer and his publicist, perpetuating myths of white triumph over savage “Injuns” in his Wild West show, as audiences cheer him on and buy his merchandise.
A good deal of the story is set in the tent community, which houses Buffalo Bill, his show Wild West, and his entourage, celebs, hangers-on, performers, and members of the audience.
It’s the task of the producer, Nate Salsbury (played by Joel Grey right after winning the Supporting Actor Oscar for “Cabaret”), to bring the show into shape and form. He is assisted by the publicist, Major Burke, who may have his own agenda.
In the saloon, mythmaker Ned Buntline, boasts about how he had discovered and created the show’s star, but his version is far from being accepted as truth or fact.
Meanwhile, we get a glimpse of Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin), another legendary figure, practicing her métier, sharpshooting, with miniscule targets, assisted by her weak husband, Frank Butler (also known as “the world’s most handsome living target”).
Some melodrama prevails, when a new act arrives, introduced by the publicist as “Foes in 75—Friends in 86.” At Cody’s request, Salsbury is trying to get Buntline out of the way, claiming, “Nothing personal. We’ve just signed the most futurable act in our history, and I don’t want anything or anybody interfering with it.” He adds, “Nostalgia ain’t what I used to be.”
Indeed, when Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) joins the troupe with his interpreter (Will Sampson), his request for authenticity threatens to throw a wrench into the proceedings.
Regardless of how Bill feels about the “facts” (if there is such thing), he must bow and defer to the tyranny of democracy, to the shifting tastes and preferences of the paying public.
Running time: 123 Minutes.
Directed by Robert Altman
Screenplay: Altman and Alan Rudolph
Released: June 24, 1976.
DVD: May 8, 2001
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