Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting - Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s Hi [Powerhouse - 2020]
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson is a comic western directed in 1976 by the legendary Robert Altman (Mash, Nashville) and featuring an all-star cast including Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill, Joel Grey as Nate Salisbury, Kevin McCarthy as Major John Burke, Harvey Keitel as Ed Goodman, Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley, Shelley Duvall as the first lady, Mrs Grove Cleveland and Burt Lancaster as Ned Buntline.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians.. takes a satirical look at “The Wild West shows” that travelled around the United States and Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The film starts with the arrival of native American Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) who has become the latest name to agree to perform as part of Buffalo Bill’s travelling vaudeville show. Sitting Bull, however, has an ulterior motive, he has had a dream that suggests to him that joining Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” will get him the chance to meet the US president in order to petition him for something his people would like.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians.. is a pretty damning indictment of the racially prejudiced attitudes of white Americans towards native Americans. Paul Newman is great as Buffalo Bill, playing him as an ignorant, bigoted buffoon whose minions sycophantically seem to hang on his every word. Bill’s show is more about entertainment than preserving an accurate portrayal of real American history, whilst Sitting Bull believes in a truthful depiction of the past. The two men clash over this issue; however, Sitting Bull reluctantly agrees to take part in the show in exchange for cash upfront but refuses to be portrayed inaccurately. He agrees to ride around the arena on his horse and dance, nothing more. Bill wishes to portray Sitting Bull in the show as a murderous savage, however, this butts up against the real, thoughtful, and well-natured individual that is Sitting Bull and makes for an interesting comparison. We are reminded at this time of the old adage about history being written by those on the winning side. The rest of the film is really about the two men and how we are to compare the two, Buffalo Bill becoming ever more the ludicrous, bigoted, brash showman whilst Sitting Bull remains the quiet, humble man trying to do something for his people while he still has life in him.
The performances are good, particularly Newman who is believable as the arrogant showman Buffalo Bill, other performances of note include Charlie Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine, as sharpshooter Annie Oakley, Joel Gray as Nate Salisbury and Will Sampson as Sitting Bull’s interpreter William Halsey. The film is an odd one, it doesn’t seem to have a regular structure, it lacks the usual narrative thread to hold it together, however I quite enjoyed this quality. It allows the film to kind of amble along at its own pace and does its own thing, something Hollywood films are rarely allowed to.
The film is unusually coloured to begin with, however, Altman insisted upon antique colour timing to give it an authentic feel. The good news is this new high-definition transfer looks crystal clear and the colours are extremely vibrant with no colour bleed to speak of. The film is presented in two different cuts both the 124-minute directors cut and the 105-minute producers cut, for the purpose of this review I viewed the longer director’s cut. There is a wealth of great bonus material, particularly an archival on-set documentary featuring rare footage of both Altman and Newman, and most interestingly a clutch of silent film footage featuring the real Buffalo Bill and the stars of his “Wild West Shows” as well as the usual trailers, image gallery, TV spot and interviews. Overall, Powerhouse has done a cracking job on this limited-edition release of one of Altman’s underappreciated gems, both the print and the bonus materials making this upgrade a very worthy addition to the collection of fans of this type of cinema.Darren Charles