Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson [1976]

Robert Altman was often ahead of his time--once at the cost of being behind himself. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, a snorting exposé of the U.S. predilection for buying into heroic myths, opened on July 4, 1976. Clearly the film was positioned as the ultimate bicentennial event, Altman-style. But Altman had already delivered that a year earlier: the splendiferous, deeply disenchanted yet exhilarating Nashville. Both Nashville and Buffalo Bill are films about America-as-show business, hucksterism, and the rare miracle of performance. But everything Altman got so thrillingly right in Nashville, which teems with life and mystery and widescreen dynamism, came out flatfooted and obvious in Buffalo Bill, a cramped, smirky inside joke that ends up being on the joker. The setting is the base camp for Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, where the blustering Indian fighter of legend is gearing up for his latest national tour. Apart from sharpshooter Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) and her great friend, the Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), the show is populated by phonies and opportunists. Biggest phony of all is Cody (Paul Newman), whose fame has been based more on the penny-dreadful scribblings of Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster) than on any real accomplishments; even his long blond tresses are fake. Altman and cowriter Alan Rudolph (working from a play by Arthur Kopit) thump their insights about the Establishment's feet of clay as if they were breaking-news bulletins instead of countercultural clichés. Only the occasional ineffably mysterious Altman zoom shot offers relief. --Richard T. Jameson

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