Definitions

history lesson

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

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is a 1976 revisionist Western directed by Robert Altman. It stars Paul Newman as Bill, with Geraldine Chaplin, Will Sampson, Joel Grey, and Harvey Keitel.

The film was poorly received at the time of its release, when the country was celebrating its bicentennial. As in MASH, Altman skewers an American historical myth of heroism, in this case the notion that noble white men fighting bloodthirsty savages won the West.

Plot

The film opens in 1885 with the arrival of an important new guest star in Cody’s grand illusion, Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) of Little Big Horn fame. Much to Cody's annoyance, Sitting Bull proves to be not a murdering savage but a genuine embodiment of what the whites believe about their own history out west--he is quietly heroic and morally pure. He also refuses to portray Custer's Last Stand as a cowardly sneak attack: instead, he asks Cody to act out the massacre of a peaceful Sioux village by marauding bluecoats. Enraged, Cody fires him but is forced to relent when star attraction Annie Oakley (Chaplin) takes Sitting Bull's side.

Altman's Interpretation

Like many of Altman films, Buffalo Bill and the Indians an ensemble piece with an episodic structure. It follows the day to day performances and behind-the-scenes intrigues of Buffalo Bill Cody's famous "Wild West Show," a hugely popular 1880's entertainment spectacular that starred the former Indian fighter, scout and buffalo hunter. Altman uses the setting to criticize Old West motifs, presenting the eponymous western hero as a show-biz creation who can no longer separate his invented image from reality. Altman's Cody is a loud-mouthed buffoon, a man who claims to be one with the Wild West but lives in luxury, play-acting daily in a western circus of his own making. Cody’s long hair is a wig, he can't shoot straight anymore or track an Indian, and all his staged battles with ruffians and savages are rigged in his favor. However, this does not keep him from acting as if his triumphs are real, or plaguing his patient entourage of yes-men with endless monologues about himself.

Most of the film is shot on location in rugged Alberta, Canada.

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