Whether people like this movie or not depends on how much they like Altman’s company, his sensibility, voice, attitude. His films are the work of a jovial host at a party, slightly drunk, extremely sociable, good-naturedly prankish, always snooking a crook at certainties, pomposities, not always making sense but wanting everyone to have a good time, keep them all talking, sometimes simultaneously, whilst still making sure the conversation’s at a certain level and that the music is good.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, made in the aftermath of Watergate, takes on one of the great icons of American popular culture and explores how cultural myths are designed, generated and propagated, the difference between those myths and history, the inter-relationships between money, show-business and politics, and how the whole thing is a circus anyways.
Shot near Calgary in Canada –in itself a sleight of hand worthy of the film — at the foothills of the Rockies, with the majestic mountains always in view, nature, certain and seemingly ever present, a silent witness to the vagaries of culture, the film has a very American sense of space, spectacle here is not contained in a theatre but is outdoors with dozens of horses, hundreds of people, encampments, all by a river. Looking at the film it seemed to me that certain actors are graced with presence: Geraldine Chaplin, Harvey Keitel, and Shelley Duvall need do nothing but be and, at least as seen through a camera, our eye would be drawn to and delight in them. Others, who do need to give a performance — Joel Grey, John Considine, Pat McCormick — give good ones and are a pleasure to see.
The central problem in the film is the dullness of Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill. The role requires an icon, and he certainly is one. Moreover, he is a great actor. So what’s wrong here? I think part of the problem might be that he’s not playing to the camera. For a star such as he, the camera would normally find him, he would naturally be the central focus. But Altman doesn’t work that way, His is a roving camera, one that usually stays some distance away from the players and tries to include as many of them in the frame as possible. There are a lot of long and medium long shot and Newman’s is not a commanding physical presence at a distance. The role really requires an extrovert who’s not afraid of risking being ‘too much’. Burt Lancaster, who is great as Ned Buntline, the writer and Legend Maker, would have been even better as Buffalo Bill; he would have given it the carny oomph that is simply beyond Newman.
See in the scene above what a showman Lancaster is, his removal of his glasses to get down to business, his pointing with his hands, ‘here you are in the glorious flesh’, the shake of the head, when he says ‘what a sight for sore eyes,’ the way his head tilts upwards and his arm reaches out when he says, ‘like planting a seed and watching it grow into a tree,’ the tilt of the head and the extension of the hand on ‘You make it easy Bill’. One could go on. Lancaster’s thrilling because he is always playing to the audience in the best sense; he’s aware of and in dialogue with it. In other movies, Newman can also be thrilling, because his purpose is always to inhabit character, and let the audience find the thrill in that. But he comes alive here mostly when the camera comes to him in close-up. But Bill Cody is meant to be carny, circus, showman, bigger than life, the outward outline of an advertisement that so persistent it becomes myth at the price of truth. Lancaster conveys that energy, that showmanship, that engagement with audience response, even his final exit, as his horse jumps the fence, is a flourish. And it’s that kind of flourish at the heart of the film that would made it even better than it already is.
The costumes are by Anthony Powell, the design is by Tony Masters, and Paul Lohmann is the cinematographer: the film looks smashing and is a real pleasure to see.