Friday, July 28, 2017

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

Based on the play Indians by Arthur Kopit, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson is the story of Buffalo Bill trying to stage a Wild West show where he gets the services of a deposed chief in hoping to present a show for the American president. Directed by Robert Altman and screenplay by Altman and Alan Rudolph, the film is an unconventional western that explores a man’s desire to uphold his own mythological persona while dealing with the realities around him including his own conflicts with Native Americans. Starring Paul Newman, Geraldine Chaplin, Joel Grey, Shelley Duvall, Harvey Keitel, Will Sampson, and Burt Lancaster. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson is a whimsical yet engrossing film from Robert Altman.

Set in 1885 during the last years of a conflict involving Native Americans, the film revolves around a legend of the West who learns he’s gotten the services of the famed Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) for his show celebrating the West as it would prove to be more troubling as he would have to stage it in front of President Grover Cleveland (Pat McCormick). It’s a film that explores some of the behind-the-scenes moments of Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman) trying to stage this show as he wants to present the ideas of the West as something wild and with its own sense of mythology. The film’s screenplay by Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph doesn’t just explore Cody trying to present his stage show as this façade of what the Wild West was but is forced to cope with the realities of what really happened. Especially when he meets Sitting Bull who he thought was this savage that enjoys killing people but it’s revealed to be this very calm, quiet, and morally pure which complicate everything that Cody wants to stage to the people.

The script also showcase Cody’s attempt to play up this persona he’s created as he becomes upset over not just Sitting Bull’s presence but also the fact that Sitting Bull doesn’t want to compromise very much as his interpreter Halsey (Will Sampson) has to speak up for him. Cody would also get into some tension with some of the players including Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) who is more sympathetic towards Sitting Bull. After a stage show with Sitting Bull where Cody expected him to be booed, it goes the other way around as it destroys everything Cody wanted to present in his idea of the American West. Adding to this turmoil is the fact that Cody isn’t just getting older but he’s having a hard time living up to the persona he’s created as his loyal nephew Ed Goodman (Harvey Keitel) is forced to realize this while his biographer Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster) is trying to tell many about the many myths of Cody and romanticize to the people working at the show.

Altman’s direction is definitely stylish for not just creating a film that is quite chaotic and loose but also play up into this conflict of reality vs. myth with the West as its backdrop. Shot on location at the Stoney Indian Reservation in Alberta, Canada, the film does play into this idea of a man trying to recreate the Wild West in the middle of a forest near the Rocky Mountains as Altman would use some wide shots to establish the beauty of the location. Yet, he would go for more intimate shots in the usage of close-ups and medium shots as it play into the events happening behind the scenes as everyone is trying to stage the show. The presentation of the shows are quite lavish including the recreation of the Battle of Little Big Horn which shows Cody trying to show the battle from his view but the reality turns out to be more troubling.

The conflict of reality vs. myth is what is at stake in the film as Altman showcases these scenes where Cody is surrounded by things that aren’t real as he has opera singers as lovers, a biographer trying to embellish his legend, and people working with Cody trying to create the greatest show possible. Yet, there are things in the second half that showcase Cody’s struggle to create this myth in a moment where Sitting Bull and some of his people from his tribe have left as Cody and his men try to find them. What happens is that unveiling of the reality that Cody couldn’t face as he has to maintain his persona as this mythological figure of the West to President Grover. Though there are times the sense of looseness in the film does meander a bit for the film’s pacing, Altman does try to maintain a sense of liveliness to capture a moment in time with its protagonist being unaware of what is ahead. Overall, Altman creates a very intoxicating yet offbeat film about a legend of the Wild West trying to stage the ultimate show to present his vision of that world.

Cinematographer Paul Lohmann does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography in using some gorgeous natural lighting to capture the beauty of the locations in the day along with some lights for some of the scenes set at night. Editors Peter Appleton and Dennis M. Hill do terrific work with the editing as it’s mostly straightforward with a few jump-cuts to play into some of the humor and moments of the show. Production designer Anthony Masters, with set decorator Dennis J. Parrish and art director Jack Maxsted, does amazing work with the look of the sets for the stage show as well as the room where Cody sleeps in as well as the bar and a few other places at the circus area.

Costume designer Anthony Powell does excellent work with the costumes from the clothes that Cody wears as well as some of the actors to the simpler look of Sitting Bull and his tribe. Makeup artist Monty Westmore does nice work with the look of Cody as well as some of the makeup the characters wear during a performance. Sound editors Richard Oswald and William A. Sawyer do superb work with the sound as it play into the raucous sounds such as the overlapping dialogue and other things in and around the field for the stage show and circus. The film’s music by Richard Baskin is wonderful as it’s mainly an orchestral score filled with woodwinds and brass instruments that is often played on location to create this sense of pageantry into Cody’s own legend.

The film’s incredible ensemble cast include some Jerri and Joy Duce as cowboy trick riders, Bert Remsen as the bartender Crutch, Robert DoQui as an African-American actor who would often play the Indian chiefs in the stage performances, Bonnie Leaders and Evelyn Lear as a couple of opera singers who try to entertain Cody with the latter being the one who would sing in front of the president, Patrick Reynolds as the president’s aide, Patrick McCormick as President Grover Cleveland, and Shelley Duvall as the First Lady. Will Sampson is terrific as Sitting Bull’s right-hand man and interpreter Halsey as a man that is just trying to keep the peace and explain Sitting Bull’s view of things while Frank Kaquitts is superb as Sitting Bull as the revered Indian chief who rarely says anything as he maintains this presence of purity throughout the film.

John Considine is fantastic as Frank E. Butler as the husband of Annie Oakley who would often be the person holding her targets as well as deal with the chaos of the show. Kevin McCarthy is excellent as Major Burke as a military official who would be the one to get Sitting Bull to be involved as he’s this boisterous individual that likes to have fun and make sure everyone have fun. Joel Grey is brilliant as the producer Nate Salisbury as a man trying to keep everything in control while being announcer for the stage shows while Harvey Keitel is amazing as Cody’s nephew Ed Goodman as an assistant for Cody who is trying to keep him calm and deal with Halsey and Sitting Bull.

Burt Lancaster is marvelous as Ned Buntline as a journalist who is writing Cody’s biography as he tries to maintain that air of mystique for Cody though he is aware that the idea of myth won’t last. Geraldine Chaplin is remarkable as Annie Oakley as the famed sharpshooter who is seen with her right arm in a sling as she copes with not just her injury but the treatment of Sitting Bull as she becomes frustrated with Cody and his desire to present his idea of what the Wild West is. Finally, there’s Paul Newman in a phenomenal performance as Buffalo Bill Cody as a man that is trying to live up to the mythical persona he’s created as he copes with not just the reality of the West but also himself as it’s a performance with charm but also humility as it’s one of his finest performances of his career.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson is a vivacious film from Robert Altman that features an incredible leading performance from Paul Newman. Along with its great supporting cast, gorgeous visuals, and themes on mythology vs. reality, it’s a film that doesn’t play by the rules into the ideas of the Wild West though it does have a few flaws in its pacing. In the end, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson is a sensational film from Robert Altman.

Robert Altman Films: (The Delinquents) – (The James Dean Story) – Countdown - (That Cold Day in the Park) – M.A.S.H. - Brewster McCloudMcCabe & Mrs. Miller - (Images) – Thieves Like Us - The Long Goodbye - California Split - Nashville - 3 Women - (A Wedding) – (Quintet) – (A Perfect Couple) – (HealtH) – Popeye - (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) – (Streamers) – (Secret Honor) – (O.C. and Stiggs) – Fool for Love - (Beyond Therapy) – (Aria-Les Boreades) – (Tanner ’88) – (Vincent & Theo) – The Player - Short Cuts - Pret-a-Porter - (Kansas City) – (The Gingerbread Man) – Cookie's Fortune - Dr. T & the Women - Gosford Park - The Company (2003 film) - (Tanner on Tanner) – A Prairie Home Companion

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