“Sitting Bull says that history is nothing more than disrespect for the dead.”
With the help of his producer (Joel Grey), publicist (Kevin McCarthy), and relative (Harvey Keitel), William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Paul Newman) hires Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) to be part of his popular traveling show, which also features sharp-shooter Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) and her husband (John Considine). But Sitting Bull — speaking through his agent (Denver Pyle) — has different ideas for his act, and is a source of constant consternation to Cody.
Robert Altman’s follow-up to Nashville (1976) was this revisionist western — loosely based on Arthur Kopit’s play Indians — about spectacle, celebrity, and myth-making in late 19th century America. Unlike the character played by Joel McCrea in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill (1944), Newman’s Cody is openly disparaging of Indians, and only interested in using them to further his own fortune. Indeed, Newman is presented as a wig-wearing narcissist who believes his own legend, has a buffoonish lust for busty operatic singers (Noelle Rogers and Evelyn Lear), and wants to deliberately avoid the man (Burt Lancaster) responsible for sparking his fame. Filmed on location at Stoney Indian Reserve in Alberta, Canada, the production looks great, and features Altman’s characteristically innovative directorial style. Memorable moments include an extended sequence in which President Grover Cleveland (Pat McCormick) and his new wife (Shelley Duvall) are given a special viewing of the show on their honeymoon, and the President refuses to hear Sitting Bull’s “one simple request”; this heartbreaking depiction of our country’s literal silencing of Indians makes its point clearly. I’m also fond of scenes featuring Chaplin as the fiercely talented and self-competitive sharp-shoot Annie Oakley — but other elements of the film are less successful, and Newman’s final soliloquy seems ill-suited at best.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Geraldine Page as Annie Oakley
- Excellent period sets
- Fine cinematography and direction
No, though it’s certainly worth one-time viewing, especially for fans of Altman’s work.