One of my dad’s favorite shows when I was a kid was M*A*S*H. I enjoyed the show too, but there was one thing that always baffled me about it. I couldn’t figure out why everybody liked Hawkeye so much. He always struck me as wide-grinning jerk. I didn’t understand why he was so loved by everyone at the 4077th. Then, in high school, I saw Robert Altman’s film “M*A*S*H,” the inspiration for the series, and then I got it. Donald Sutherland’s version of the character is soooooo much better than Alan Alda’s. Anyway, that began my fascination with Altman’s work. Sometimes it pays off in big ways and sometimes it makes your head explode, but he’s always an interesting director…I’ll give him that. Today’s film is Altman’s look at some of our images of the American west, using two of it’s most intriguing figures. It’s 1976’s “Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson.”
The story focuses on the aging old west figure Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman) and his crew of performers for his famous wild west show. Among them are his partner Nate Salisbury (Joel Gray), nephew Ed Goodman (Harvey Keitel), Major Burke (Kevin McCarthy), and, of course, sharp shooter Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) as well as her husband/assistant Frank Butler (John Considine). For viewers who are familiar with Altman’s other work, it’s hard not to look at this ragtag bunch and not make comparisons to the staff of the 4077th…though in this case we don’t get to know any of them nearly as well as we do in “M*A*S*H.”
There is talk among the crew that a new act will soon be joining them. Author Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster), who helped create the legend of Buffalo Bill through his dime store novels, believes his know who is arriving…the one and only Sitting Bull. Sure enough, a few days later Major Burke arrives with two Indians. Immediately, Buffalo Bill and the others assume that the larger one is Sitting Bull. Turns out, however, that this is a man named Halsey (Will Sampson…The Chief from Cuckoos Nest) who speaks for Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts). The legendary Indian leader is actually quite small and never speaks.
Almost immediately, there is a difference in opinion between Cody and Sitting Bull over the chief’s role in the show. Halsey explains that Sitting Bull will only stay with the show until he has the opportunity to meet and talk to President Grover Cleveland, who he believes will come to the Cody’s show in the near future. The two also disagree over the reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand which Cody proposes. Cody wants to portray it as a sneak attack by the Indians, while Sitting Bull wishes to show it as a Cavalry attack on the peaceful Sioux.
Sitting Bull ends up being a part of the show anyway, but he merely rides his horse into the arena. Cody figures the old chief will get booed off stage, but the crowd cheers wildly for him. Cody’s problems continue when Sitting Bull and some of the other Indians ride off without warning one day. Cody gathers a posse to track them down, but the legendary old west tracker is unable to find the elderly chief. Sitting Bull does end up returning and they all soon learn that the President (Pat McCormick) and his new wife (Shelley Duvall) are indeed planning on visiting the show. But Cody is determined not to allow the legendary warrior any time with the commander-in-chief.
In true Altman fashion, the story here is pretty slim and the film is very episodic in its format. The film mainly serves as an opportunity for Altman to skewer the traditional images of the old west presented in movies. The biggest victim is Cody. He’s presented as an aging clod, obsessed with his own image and fame. He even has a band that plays a fanfare when he majestically rides into even the most mundane situations. Yet he sees his own image fading all around him…from being unable to track down Sitting Bull when he flees to struggling to perform in the bedroom. I’m no historian, but from what I know of Buffalo Bill, it’s all a bit unfair. Ultimately, I understand what Altman was trying to say, I’m just not sure he chose the right target. Still, Newman’s performance is very good…hey, he’s Paul Newman, come on!
The other members of the cast also do well with the limited amount they are given to do. Will Sampson is definitely the stand out, approaching his part with simple strength and dignity. I also really enjoyed Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley, though again, she’s not given that much to do. Maybe I just haven’t seen her in the right films, but I’ve never been all that impressed with her as an actress. But here she brings a great fire to the role of Annie Oakley. I think the film may have benefited greatly had she been a bigger part of the story. I guess one of my main problems with the film is that like other Altman films, such as “M*A*S*H” and “Nashville,” we have a large and talented cast, but in this film their characters are never given much chance to develop.
“Buffalo Bill and the Indians” is certainly an intriguing piece. It’s got an interesting premise and a fantastic cast, but there’s no denying it’s flawed in it’s execution. In Altman’s long and varied career he’s made some masterpieces as well as some real stinkers…this film sits firmly in the middle ground.