“Times are bad and gettin’ worse. That’s when the show business flourishes, when times are bad.” (Burt Lancaster as Ned Buntline)
I don’t object to Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill because it ‘debunks’ William F Cody, though the timing of such a debunking, in the bicentennial, wasn’t perhaps ideal. In the early 1970s the Western movie had made rather a point of deflating erstwhile heroes. Doc had shown us a corrupt, cowardly and reptilian Wyatt Earp, Little Big Man had given us Custer as raving megalomaniac completely off his rocker and Dirty Little Billy had portrayed Billy the Kid as a sniveling and fairly revolting punk. It was natural that Cody too would ‘receive the treatment’. It was a cynical and bitter time, with the Vietnam War (and American Indians standing in as Vietnamese peasants in Westerns), Watergate, the resignation of Nixon, and so on. Movie makers wanted to show politicians as corrupt buffoons, soldiers as racist bullies, and former heroes as scoundrels and charlatans. Now it was Buffalo Bill’s turn. And after all, each generation is entitled to its point of view. If such a view can be even half justified (and let’s face it, the Earps, Custers and Billies of myth had an absurdly inflated rep hitherto) then writers and directors have the right to express a revisionist picture.
William A Wellman claimed that he spent months researching the real William F Cody for his picture Buffalo Bill but decided that the unfaithful, drunken charlatan he uncovered could never be brought to the screen. Destroying the reputation of great American heroes was not for Fox – especially in wartime (1943/44). Actually, Wellman felt he couldn’t destroy Buffalo Bill’s reputation, so he destroyed the film instead, but that’s beside the point. The point is that you could justifiably argue that a less flattering portrait of the great showman was overdue.
Personally, I think Buffalo Bill was probably a bit of a fraud, if an amiable one, and he certainly benefited from tales of his exploits which were exaggerated and inflated. I take my stand on Cody from Don Russell’s bio, probably a bit dated now (it came out in 1960) but well researched and serious, and Russell did not hide Cody’s faults and flaws but he also painted a picture of a genuine plainsman with courage and decency. But even if that’s wrong, and Cody was less than great, Altman’s portrait of him as a drunken, womanizing, vainglorious mountebank is still way over the top.
Nevertheless, as I say, it isn’t that which makes Buffalo Bill and the Indians a bad film, for me. There is a multitude of other reasons.
Robert Altman is a difficult film maker to pin down. As director, he’d made it big at the start of the 70s with M*A*S*H, which grossed $81.6m, then flopped in his version of The Long Goodbye, which took $0.96m. He could make really good films (Gosford Park) and junk (Popeye). Nominated for seven Oscars but not winning one, he was eventually given an Honorary Award “For a career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike”. OK. As far as Westerns go, after making episodes of many different TV shows, especially US Marshal and Bonanza, he only directed two features in the genre (you can’t count A Prairie Home Companion). His first, in 1971, McCabe & Mrs Miller, was a picture which certainly has its critics but which many, including your Jeff, find to be very good. Film critic David Denby wrote that in that film, “Altman achieved a myth of love and self-sacrifice in a western setting that was achingly beautiful and not the least sentimental.” But the other one, today’s review, was pretty much junk.
It’s quite difficult to see the film in the sense that there are many DVDs out there, all of different length. Like other prima donna film directors, Altman was furious at cuts imposed by those responsible for the commercial release of his film. The picture was entered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1976, and won the top prize, the Golden Bear, but Altman refused the award in protest over the re-cutting of the film at the hands of executive producer Dino De Laurentiis. De Laurentiis was probably not the greatest artist the movie business had ever produced but he was a shrewd judge of what sold and what didn’t. Film buffs often hold up their hands in horror at the butchery by studio execs of works of art, Major Dundee being an oft-quoted example, Heaven’s Gate being another, but myself, layman that I am, I don’t feel that such editing was always for the worse. So-called director’s cuts are not always better, in my view. There is a tendency for auteurs to be self-indulgent and present studios with a finished picture that is wildly overlong (and over-budget). Of Dances with Wolves, Howard Hughes in his book Stagecoach to Tombstone: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Westerns, wrote “Costner has since assembled an augmented 227-minute ‘Director’s Cut’, though the numerous explanatory scenes dispel much of the film’s mystery. This version does become rather self-indulgent and the images too beautiful, resembling a National Geographic postcard from South Dakota.” Anyway, I digress, and be that as it may, you have to choose your version. I watched the Kino Lorber one, with (unfortunately, probably) many of the cuts restored.
The first impression on seeing this film is that it meanders. It’s not a straight story, more a series of episodes. Altman’s trademark dialogue, with characters talking over one another and much mumbling, is probably more ‘authentic’ in a way – people do talk like that – but that doesn’t make it good cinema, and it reinforces the lack of narrative flow. The central idea of the film, Cody’s relationship with Sitting Bull, isn’t strong enough to constitute a plot. And that fact that it is all filmed in one location, purportedly the Wild West’s winter 1885/86 encampment near what is now Cody, Wyoming, adds to the static and non-flowing unfolding of the tale.
The picture is appealing in one way. Filmed in Panavision with 4-track stereo sound in Canada, on the Stoney Indian Reserve, near Alberta, and shot by Paul Lohmann, who had done Nashville with Altman the year before (and you sense that Altman was often at the camera giving instructions himself), the film looks and sounds good. So at least there’s that.
Furthermore, much of the acting is excellent. However false the portrayal of Cody might be, Paul Newman did a great job of projecting it. I’ve never been Newman’s biggest fan as far as Westerns go (though I suppose in many ways Buffalo Bill is hardly a Western), and this was his last. He’d started as a method-acting Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun, rather over the top to be honest. He was excellent as the cynical and cold-hearted Hud (if you call that a Western; I do), then he starred in the overwrought Rashomon homage The Outrage. He did his best Western in 1967 with Hombre (Hud, The Outrage and Hombre were all directed by Martin Ritt), he was Butch to Robert Redford’s Sundance in the monster mainstream hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and then three years before Buffalo Bill he’d been Judge Roy Bean, over the top again, in John Huston’s over-the-top picture The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. So in fact most of Newman’s Westerns were ones in which he played a noted Western character, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, Judge Roy Bean and Buffalo Bill. But all of these were closer to caricatures than characters.
In fact, Buffalo Bill started out as a project re-teaming Newman and Butch Cassidy director George Roy Hill. Although Hill dropped out, Newman remained on-board, and he later said that Buffalo Bill was one of his favorite roles.
The same David Denby quoted above wrote of Newman in The Boston Phoenix that “in the early 60s, he was in an unrivaled position to fight for the central American roles; no one else had his combination of charismatic beauty and ability. Instead, he wasted himself in inflated trash like Cool Hand Luke and WUSA, coy buddy-buddy movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, entertaining nothings like The Prize, and outright disasters like The Secret War of Harry Frigg.” That seems a bit harsh. I think that once you accept that Cody was a rather nasty fraud (and I agree that’s a stretch) Newman played him convincingly.
Geraldine Chapman was good as Annie Oakley, the markswoman who pretended to be a little miss, dressing accordingly, but in fact was a very shrewd married woman. John Considine overdid it a bit as her husband Frank Butler, and wasn’t too convincing, as little more than a nervous flunky, though that may have been the writing/direction.
A young Harvey Keitel was entertaining as Cody’s slightly bewildered and naïve nephew and factotum Ed.
I thought Kevin McCarthy excellent as booming publicist Major John Burke, Powers Boothe-ish in a way. And we had Burt Lancaster as dime novelist Ned Buntline (now there was a mountebank for you). He is persona non grata at the show. Bill avoids him and when they do run into each other he says he hasn’t done so before because theatrical manager Nate Salsbury (Joel Grey, billed as ‘Nate Salisbury’) can’t stand him. The idea in the movie is that Buntline ‘made’ Buffalo Bill, invented him even, but Bill doesn’t want now to admit it. Lancaster was rather good, I thought, as an essentially sad character and a Greek chorus of one.
But the visuals and some of the acting are about all the good I can think of to say about this film. It’s basically bitter and sullen, not a satire because satire involves humor and wit, and this has too little. Such laughs as there are seem to be sarcastic and at some poor person’s expense. Even at our expense if you believe that Altman is commenting on the cretinous nature of the ‘Western’ myth and the sad fools who enjoy it. Denby said the picture “must be one of the sourest movies ever made about America. Now and then a little good humor breaks through, but mainly this is a movie choking on its own bile.”
Altman and his screenwriter Alan Rudolph (who also worked on The Long Goodbye) used as a starting point Arthur Kopit’s 1968 play, Indians, which Alvin Klein in the New York Times said was intended “to open up the real savage story of how the West was won, to demythologize that old game of cowboys and Indians.” Kopit’s Buffalo Bill (played on Broadway by Stacy Keach) was a man who had betrayed his principles and abandoned his admiration of Indians and was now in middle age wondering where he had gone wrong. But the Altman/Newman version is an Indian-despising bully who is in a permanent alcoholic stupor and believes his own lies. Even his famed flowing locks are a wig.
Professor of Theater Michael Patterson wrote that “Kopit’s play was one of the first major pieces to confront the issue and to relate it to continuing genocide in South-East Asia.” So here we are again. Indeed, in the movie, Sitting Bull, through his mouthpiece Halsey, says he will only participate in the Wild West spectacle if Cody replaces an absurdist representation of Custer’s Last Stand (at which, Bull says, he wasn’t even present) with a re-enactment of the US Cavalry slaughtering innocent women and children in a defenseless village (presumably a reference to Custer’s attack on the Washita).
Bull is played, in his only film role, by Frank Kaquitts, a Canadian Indian leader and painter. He has very little to say, and nothing in English, because Halsey (Will Sampson, who would be Ten Bears the same year in The Outlaw Josey Wales) speaks for him, but Mr Kaquitts is good at looking enigmatic. Sampson is excellent, towering over the diminutive Bull. You’re never quite sure if what he is saying – and he’s a very canny negotiator – is coming from Bull or is Halsey’s own agenda. The Indians display a dignity and nobility which are the complete opposite of the fakery and self-serving buffoonery of the Wild West actors, once again, too much so – it’s caricature.
As for the politicians, President Grover Cleveland (Pat McCormick) is portrayed as a fake just like Cody, a pompous mediocrity who can’t utter any remark, no matter how banal, without an advisor first whispering in his ear what he should say. Altman is suggesting that politics and show business are the same thing. When Cleveland declares of Cody, “It’s a man like that that’s made this country what it is today,” you sense that Altman didn’t admire what the country was today (in 1976).
Vincent Canby in the New York Times said that Altman’s film dwelt “on the outer edges of commercially acceptable film form,” and he was right there. It’s self-indulgent and essentially rather pretentious. The picture is really about the making of stars, be they Western ‘heroes’, opera singers (who won’t shut up) or presidential frauds past or present). It’s just not a very interesting subject. And certainly in the version I saw, it often drags. Restore the cuts, I say!
As Dennis Schwartz put it, “The revisionist history lesson from Altman did not go over well with audiences, who stayed away in droves and chose instead to celebrate in 1976 the bicentennial celebration somewhere else.”
Herb Fagen in his Encyclopedia of Westerns says, “The film is basically dull and preachy, with Paul Newman turning in one of his weakest performances in the title role.” I myself don’t agree with the last part of that statement but do agree with the first. Paul Taylor in The BFI Companion to the Western said the film was “a dismally over-schematic sideswipe at the abiding values of sham and showbiz fakery inherent in America’s self-image.” Phil Hardy in his Encyclopedia of Western Movies called Buffalo Bill “Altman’s most schematic and least interesting film.” Brian Garfield in his Western Films said the film was “ultimately a failure and a bore because Altman is concerned with polemics rather than people.” And so on. The critics have not been kind.
I think Buffalo Bill and the Indians is more of a diatribe than a Western. You could (even perhaps ‘should’) watch it, once, but a great film it isn’t.