Buffalo Bill and the Indians Review
Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (to give the film its full title even if Momentum’s packaging department have not) follows The Left Handed Gun as another of Paul Newman’s portrayals of Western hero. As with that Billy the Kid picture it’s a somewhat left-of-centre take on its subject, though being a Robert Altman directed effort this isn’t strictly speaking a star vehicle. Which of course is the point as Altman and his co-writer (and future director) Alan Rudolph are debunking the mythology Buffalo Bill and his claims of being a great American hero and showman. Adapted from Arthur Kopit’s stage play Indians, there’s something of Nick Broomfield about Buffalo Bill and the Indians; rather than seeing the slick and professional side of the eponymous figure we are instead witness to his hair pieces, bad riding and manipulated marksmanship. Moreover, the figure of Sitting Bull is not played, as we are first led to believe, by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Will Sampson, but by “the li’l fella”, Frank Kaquitts.
Despite its stage origins Buffalo Bill and the Indians doesn’t pre-figure the approach of Altman’s 1980s adaptations (Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Fool for Love, Secret Honor), but rather follows the patterns established with MASH and perfected by the time of Nashville. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show allows for a broad, multi-character canvas told in the trademark multi-layered style of overlapping dialogue and, to a degree, narratives. Moreover, the show setting allows Altman to indulge in some witty and teasing self-reflexivity. The opening introduction is heard but not seen making it unclear as to whether it is part of the show or a voice-over to the film (a device repeated for the theatrical trailer). More ingenious is the decision to have the Buffalo Bill Band score the entire picture from within as it were, cementing the fact that this is, after all, just one big performance as well as providing an ironic commentary.
Yet for all this playfulness, Buffalo Bill and the Indians’ recreation of the past is utterly serious and sincere. It’s an incredibly textured film to look at with Altman displaying a typically deft hand at widescreen composition. Likewise, the casting of a whole host of character actors (from Harvey Keitel to Shelley Duvall) aids immeasurably to the authenticity - even if the likes of Kevin McCarthy and Joel Grey are barely discernible behind their period perfect whiskers - as well as having the welcome side effect of making the bigger names on the credits - Newman as well as Burt Lancaster in an extended cameo - downplay any potential Hollywood flamboyances and turn in subtle, intriguing renderings.
Yet whilst this all adds up to another Altman broad canvas, there is the niggling feeling that it’s merely concealing a rather narrow focus. Of course, some of his pictures could well do with being more sharply defined - Pret-a-Porter springs immediately to mind - but here the simple character deconstruction doesn’t prove fulfilling enough. Being lightly humorous (hence the earlier Broomfield comparison) in its approach it soon becomes overtly clear where Altman and Rudolph’s satirical intentions lie and as such the picture as a whole becomes vaguely predictable. Perhaps not in the strictest of narrative senses, though we are entirely clear as to what we are to make of Buffalo Bill and the Indians long before it has completed its course. As such we’re left with a film that can be appreciated on a number of levels, yet leaves one decidedly cold.
Though not utterly perfect, the picture quality for Momentum’s release of Buffalo Bill and the Indians is fine. The original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is presented and with anamorphic enhancement. Moreover, the image has the requisite sharpness and only occasionally reveals its age. As for the soundtrack, the original stereo is provided, again to largely fine effect. Certainly, there’s nothing problematic to speak of here, even if Altman’s multi-layered dialogue could cause problems. With regards to the supplementary features, Momentum have unearthed a contemporary featurette to sit alongside the trailer. Though it doesn’t exactly tell us that much about the film - and seems to think it is discussing a feature that doesn’t contain Altman’s satirical bite - as a tiny piece of history it still proves interesting. Indeed, any alternative to the usual EPK talking heads is going to be welcome.