BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS
or SITTING BULL'S HISTORY LESSON

(1976)
With Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, Joel Grey, Harvey Keitel, Kevin McCarthy, Geraldine Chaplin, Will Sampson
Directed by Robert Altman

Reviewed by JL

A horse is a horse, of course of course...    Aside from McCABE AND MRS. MILLER and NASHVILLE, and portions of M*A*S*H and CALIFORNIA SPLIT, I have a lot of problems with Robert Altman.  While it's conceivable that a director could build a career doing nothing but variations on the same theme, Altman's trademarks have become formula to the extent that he's made essentially the same film at least a dozen times.  Typical Altman ingredients include a large ensemble cast, divergent and interconnecting storylines, and characters ripe for mockery.  A crisis or tragedy (usually the death of a prominent character) is the turnabout, whereupon Altman's mockery turns to bitter hatred.  Add overlapping dialogue and sloppy camerawork, and you've got yourself an Altman film.

     BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, an often-overlooked work, is far from one of Altman's best formula films, but for at least half its running time, it's very funny stuff.  I probably shouldn't enjoy it so much since Altman makes his main point in such a dishonest way, in that he lies about history in order to make the point that history is a lie.  It's true that William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody's legend was largely fabricated by Western writer Ned Buntline (played in the film by Burt Lancaster), but there's zero evidence to suggest that Cody was the clueless buffoon portrayed by Paul Newman.  And although Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was regarded as grand and first-rate entertainment in its time, Altman can't resist ridiculing its naive innocence.  Yet if you can put aside such considerations and regard Buffalo Bill and the Indians as an all-purpose lampoon of American myth-making, there's much fun to be had.  Newman gives one of his best and most incisive comic performances, the supporting cast is uniformly brilliant (including Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley, Joel Grey as Bill's malaprop-spouting manager, and Kevin McCarthy as a pompous and flamboyant p.r. man), and the film has a gritty and authentic period look.

      It's after the turnabout (the death of a main character, natch) that things fall apart.  The second half of the film suffers from a rambling monologue by Newman that overstates the obvious and brings the action to a grinding halt.  In addition, Altman's satire turns to cynicism at this point, a jarring shift in tone that rings false.  It is, nevertheless, a great half a movie.  3½ - JL

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