BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, subtitled OR SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON, starring Paul Newman is definitely an overlooked movie by me. I had no dea it even existed until one of the local channels ran it on their hi-def, old movie and series channel.
Released in 1976, starring Paul Newman and directed by Robert Altman, this was another skewering of a legend in Altman’s own inimitable style. Buffalo Bill is portrayed as a cynical showman who would sacrifice truth in satisfying the masses. He hires Sitting Bull(the time period here is 1885 to stage Custer’s Last Stand as the Indians murdering Custer in a sneak attack from behind. Sitting Bull refuses and wants Cody to show the massacre of an Indian village, old men, women, children, and dogs(as the interpreter points out). An enraged Cody fires him, then relents after Annie Oakley takes Bull’s side.
Cody no longer seems able, or willing, to see himself as anything but a heroic figure, delivering long monologues to a veritable army of yes-men fawning over his every move. He can no longer shoot straight, his pistol shells loaded with bird shot, he can’t track anything anymore(when Sitting Bull and his people ride out one day, Bill takes off with a “posse” to bring them back, returning later without them, only to have them show up minutes behind him). The “battles” are staged to make him look the image of a “dime novel” hero, the image honed by Ned Buntline’s writings and he, of course, must live up to what the people expect.
An attempt to embarrass Sitting Bull in front of an audience, with the announcer on megaphone in a sonorous voice about the bloodthirsty savage, backfires. The small in stature chief rides quietly into the arena and his demeanor and nobility wins the audience over.
A quite good cast fills this ensemble piece. In addition to Newman, some of the other major players are Geraldine Chapman as Annie Oakley, Burt Lancaster as Ned Buntline, Kevin McCarthy as Cody’s publicist, Major Burke, Joel Gray as the producer, Nate Salisbury, Harvey Keitel as a butt kissing relative, Frank Kaquitts as Sitting Bull, and Will Sampson as Halsey, Sitting Bull’s interpreter. Smaller roles had Pat McCormick as President Cleveland, Shelly Duvall as Mrs. Cleveland, and Denver Pyle as as Indian agent.
I’m no expert on Cody and, knowing as little as I do of Altman, how much of this film was even close to the truth, I have no idea. As always though, I was entertained and that’s all I usually require of a piece of entertainment.
Here’s the trailer for the film: