Friday, September 01, 2006


Buffalo Bob's Wild West Show

By Edward Copeland
Five years after Robert Altman made his Western masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he returned to the Old West with Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson. Whereas McCabe was dark and muddy and proved an influence on other Western tales such as HBO's Deadwood (read Matt Zoller Seitz's great interview with David Milch describing the film's influence

Buffalo Bill paints a vivid, bright and colorful canvas of the Old West, focusing on Cody's Old West show, where myth begat show business. In its way, Buffalo Bill aims for a satiric puncturing of the legends, but for most of the film it just seems to lie there.

Granted, anything after Beyond Therapy is a step up, but the movie never seems to find its focus. It finally does come to life more than an hour into its running time with some hilarious scenes involving President Grover Cleveland (Pat McCormick) and produces one truly great sequence toward the end with Buffalo Bill (Paul Newman) having a drowsy conversation with Sitting Bull's ghost in the middle of the night.

In the end, Buffalo Bill and the Indians aspires to be about artifice and fame that is manufactured rather than earned, something which would seem even more relevant today than it was then (John Mark Karr, I'm looking in your general direction), but it never seems to find its footing.

It certainly contains positive attributes that make it worth a look, but it is decidedly a lesser part of the Altman canon.

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Altman is in full debunking mode here, but this one too left me a little cold. I agree that Grover Cleveland's visit was a high point.
Couldn't disagree more. I think this is one of Altman's best films, and may even be my personal favorite (though it's hard to argue with A Wedding for that slot either). Newman's performance is a marvel, and it comes to its culmination in that penultimate scene you describe, which is indeed the best one. There's some stiff competition, though, in the form of the Annie Oakley shooting scene, with Geraldine Chaplin having a ball, and the wonderful welcoming festivities for Sitting Bull.

I wrote about this one on my blog too.
I think I agree with you. I think what the film has to say is pretty interesting, but under the criteria of holding the audience's interest while it says it, it fails.

I had to watch the film a couple times, to understand the plot, but then again i knew absolutely nothing about the film before watching it. I didn't even know who Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull were. I think that's what you mean about finding the film's focus.

This film moves at a lackadaisacal and disjointed pace. Films like MASH, McCabe and Mrs Miller, and The Player take their time telling the story and aren't exactly fast-paced but enough interesting things happen in the middle.

I also don't think I ever saw an entire battle recreated which I thought was a dissapointment. I saw one guy riding on a horse sideback for abour half a second, and there were scenes of people marching up ready to prepare for battle, and I'll admit the Annie Oakley secnes were cool, but I wanted more of that. Like Prairie Home Companion, I assumed that part of the entertainment of the film would be the the show within a show, and I don't think we saw too much of it.
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