In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “It has a message, it has things to say, and it never makes any bones about saying them openly and directly.”
“The difference between a white man and an injun in all situations is that an injun is red. And an injun is red for a very good reason. So we can tell us apart.”
For a long time, westerns always seemed to me like a genre for old men. Sure, when you watch old sitcoms from the 50s, or even in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, young boys are always portrayed as being obsessed with cowboys. But in my lifetime, westerns have always been watched by old blokes. A baseless theory that none the less gets more validity as I get older and like them more and more. As I increasingly seek westerns out, I generally only ever found further examples of the standard clichés that define the genre in its broadest terms. But today, I stumbled across a real anti western, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson.
William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Paul Newman) was once a frontier conquering, buffalo killing, man of the range. But when this movie picks up, he’s a cheap huckster, leading a cheesy troupe of performers in ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’. A kind of arena show for late 19th century rubes, notorious names of the day, like Cody and Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) pimp out their once good names, and resort to performing re-enactments of recent cowboy versus Indian events.
The notoriety of the show is kicked up a notch when they recruit the actual Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts). With plans to re-enact Sitting Bull’s defeat of General Custer, Cody initially sees the Indian chief as nothing more than dollar signs, but soon changes his perspective to see him as a great pain in the ass. While Cody is all about crowd pleasing spectacle, Sitting Bull sees it as an opportunity to highlight the oppression of his people, even taking his message direct to President Grover Cleveland (Pat McCormick).
The first sign that maybe I wasn’t about to see a standard western came in the opening titles, when the movie described itself as “Robert Altman’s Absolutely Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre!”. That’s a perfect example of a very specific kind of sarcastic hubris that always makes me inclined to like something. In those few words, I felt like Buffalo Bill and the Indians had clearly, and entertainingly let me know what I was in for.
In my introduction, I called this movie an anti-western, and I think that’s something Altman was really going for. It rarely goes more than a minute without showing a sign that reads, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”. It’s in the background of scenes, it’s in the foreground, it’s on placards that line every building, inside and out. But the thing is, there’s absolutely nothing wild about Buffalo Bill’s west at this stage in his life.
All pure artifice, all rehearsed, practiced and perfected down to the final detail. There’s nothing unpredictable or left to chance in William Cody’s world, until the arrival of Sitting Bull.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson has a message, it has things to say, and it never makes any bones about saying them openly and directly. But the genius of Robert Altman, and Newman’s performance, is that it delivers that message without ever overpowering the entertaining, and pretty hilarious showbiz satire that makes it so palatable.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson
Directed By – Robert Altman
Written By – Robert Altman, Alan Rudolph