Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)



Director:  Robert Altman.

Starring:  Paul Newman (Buffalo Bill/William F. Cody), Joel Grey (Nate Salsbury), Harvey Keitel (Ed), Kevin McCarthy (Maj. Burke), Mike E. Kaplan (Jules Keen), Bert Remsen (Crutch), Burt Lancaster (Ned Buntline), Geraldine Chaplin (Annie Oakley), John Considine (Frank Butler), Frank Kaquitts (Sitting Bull), Will Sampson (William Halsey), Robert DoQui (Wrangler), Denver Pyle (McLaughlin), Pat McCormick (Grover Cleveland), Shelley Duvall (Mrs. Cleveland).

Competition between two versions of western history: Buffalo Bill Cody's version of a glorification of the conquest of the west by brave men such as William Cody himself or Sitting Bull's version of an emphasis on the destruction of a people by a rapacious nation. 


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody) and Nate Salsbury are trying to run a Wild West Show.  To make the show an even greater success, they have decided to enlist Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Sioux in a recreation of the Battle of Little Big Horn where Gen. Custer was killed (even though Sitting Bull was not at the actual battle).  Real history is not important to Buffalo Bill. Heroism and the glorification of America is the important thing.  He doesn't care if the history is not factual.  He prefers the fantasy to the truth. 

But bringing Sitting Bull into the show starts a nightmare of difficulties for Buffalo Bill and a struggle for whose version of history will be dominant.  Buffalo Bill is very serious and even a bit solemn about his responsibility that the white rather than the red version dominates in history and in his show. 

Ned Buntline, who made William Cody into Buffalo Bill, provides a running commentary on the whole affair from the local bar.  Buffalo Bill asks his partner Nate to get rid of Ned, but Nate tells Ned that Buffalo Bill himself will have to ask him to leave. 

The small and frail Sitting Bull arrives with his spokesman, the giant William Halsey (a Sioux).  Everyone thinks that Halsey is Chief Sitting Bull and are shocked to learn that it is the little guy who is the chief, not the big guy.  (They would have much preferred Sitting Bull to be William Halsey.)  Buffalo Bill's problems start as soon as the chief arrives.  Sitting Bull wants blankets not just for him and his show staff, but for all his remaining 106 Hunkpapa Sioux (out of the 10,000 or so not long before).  Sitting Bull does not want to set up his tents by the river but across the river on top of Flat Ridge.  And the chief will not sign any contract. Sitting Bull adds through Halsey that he will stay only until he sees the Great White Father (that is, President Grover Cleveland).  All this starts to send Buffalo Bill into a tizzy:  see what you've gone and done, you have upset Buffalo Bill.  Buffalo Bill wants to be the top man and his version of history to be the dominant one. 

Buffalo Bill receives a letter from his wife in which she tells Bill that she wants a divorce for he has had way too many extra-marital affairs for the marriage to continue.  Bill has a predilection for physically large opera singers and will get rid of the one he has when a new one comes along.

During rehearsal for the show, Bill's version of history has Custer being shot while his back is turned to the Sioux.  This is a version that is unacceptable to Sitting Bull and he will not participate in any battle recreation.  Buffalo Bill becomes so frustrated with Sitting Bull and Halsey that he shouts at them: "You got 'til noon to get out of here.  You're finished, through." 

One of the stars of the show, the great sharp shooter Annie Oakley, is very fond of Sitting Bull.  She decides to leave the show.  She tells Bill that if he sends Sitting Bull to the Standing Rock Reservation, they will kill him.  Bill cogitates about it, but finally says, all right "The little bastard can stay." 

In the actual show the cowboys riding fast come out first followed by the Sioux.  Then comes the trick riders followed by buffalos running through the arena area.  And finally, Buffalo Bill makes his grand entrance.  He is magnificently dressed and on a beautiful white horse.  His long blondish hair is very striking.  (It turns out that Bill actually wears a wig to make himself look more imposing.)  Bill looks like a true American hero.  This is followed by a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. 

And then the announcement is made for Sitting Bull:  "The most feared, the most murderous, the most colorful redskin alive, the battling chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux."  And here comes this small man riding his horse.  He at first is disappointing to the audience for he doesn't appear to be a man who is fear-inspiring and murderous.  The audience boos, then laughs and finally claps for Chief Sitting Bull.  Bill is a little shaken at the audience approval.  (He was hoping that Sitting Bull would be humiliated by the entire experience.) 

The showmen see the Indians taking down their tee-pees and then see Sitting Bull and a group of his colleagues riding away.  Buffalo Bill is outraged and tells everyone:  "Boys, I want a posse."  A dejected Bill returns without Sitting Bull.  He is so angry that he tries to shoot his newest opera singing girlfriend's beloved canary with his six-shooters, saying "I hate birds."  And then Sitting Bull and Halsey show up.  They had not left the show.  Sitting Bull through Halsey says that he will do the great gray mare dance in the arena. 

Jealous of Sitting Bull, Bill does not want the chief sitting next to Annie during the group photo shoot.  "Folks won't like it" he says.  But Sitting Bull and Halsey will not cooperate.  Before the photo can be taken, the group is disbanded during the excitement over a wire just received from President Cleveland saying that he will spend his first night of honeymoon with his new wife at the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. 

Bill tries to put on a great show for the president.  But things don't go exactly like he planned.  For one thing, Annie ends up shooting her target-holding husband in the arm.  And then Sitting Bull has the nerve of making a simple request of the president.  But, in a very cynical and humorous scene of the ineffectiveness and incompetence of  American politicians, President Cleveland won't even listen to Sitting Bull's request, constantly talking over Halsey and saying it can't be done, it isn't done.  Sitting Bull is so disgusted that he turns around and leaves without having his request heard. 

Bill finally heads over to the local bar to get rid of Ned Buntline.  Buntline tells him: "Buffalo Bill, the thrill of my life to have invented you."  Buntline then takes his leave and rides away. 

The news arrives that Sitting Bull has been killed at Standing Rock.  And, in a way, this is better for the show.  For now Halsey will play the part of Sitting Bull who challenges Buffalo Bill to a duel in which the much smaller white man kills the giant Sioux chief. 

Bill has dreams of Sitting Bull in which he continues his struggle for dominance over the chief.  He tells the chief about his fans:  "I give them what they expect.  You can't live up to what you expect and that makes you more make-believe than me, because you don't even know if you're bluffing."


Great holy cynicism! American history as just so much showbiz?!  And from what I've seen of the treatment of American history by politicians, Hollywood, and 4th of July speakers that probably isn't too much off the mark. Is there that much difference between putting a guy like Oliver North on TV from putting Chief Sitting Bull in a Wild West Show?  America has always been a country of low-brow culture and that probably isn't going to change any time soon. 

Anyway, this is not a serious historical drama, but a parody.  And it is also a comedy.  Buffalo Bill takes himself so seriously and his lies are such big whoppers that you just have to laugh at him and his show.  I found myself chuckling over quite a few scenes in the movie.  Bill and company are just so over-the-top that they are humorous in what they say and do.  I like the movie. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


See Buffalo Bill (1944).


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