Robert Altman made great films, such as Nashville, The Player, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. What defined these movies was a great and engaging script that kept the audience involved for the entire film. Such is not the case with Buffalo Bill And The Indians. It as if Altman was in too much of a rush to make this film, because he wanted to make a statement about Native American history.
There were a lot of interesting bit roles in this film, but these characters were never developed very well. I felt robbed that not much time was devoted to explaining them a little more. Altman assumed that the audience understood that it was 1885 and the Wild West was now "tamed". That was clear, but still I feel that the film would have been much stronger if it began with a flashback to nine years before, explaining where each of these characters were at the time. That way we would have had more understanding for the points Altman was making.
For example, it is hard to believe that the great actor from the Heche days, Burt Lancaster, was reduced to this engaging and enigmatic role, who waxing philosophically, but we have no idea who he is and how he relates to Buffalo Bill. This is the downside of this film. The script seems winding. There is a lot of dull time where one is just yawning and wondering when this movie will start going somewhere. Is that part of the point of the film? Altman never makes it clear. It is quite possible the point was that this town in the prairie had basically become filled with bored, opportunistic townies who sought significance even if it was tormenting someone by hanging him up on a rope and swinging him like a baby.
In many ways this movie was uneven. For example, the ideas were brilliant. The idea was that Buffalo Bill was no longer the man he once was, but now just a money grubbing tool who made up myths and tales about his exploits. Buffalo Bill must have been a very handsome and engaging man in real life. He may well have been a great actor and promoter. You could not help like Buffalo Bill, and Paul Newman plays him brilliantly. Bill was also very childish, probably an alcoholic, who used to have infantile temper tantrums.
The racial arrogance was also very clear. Buffalo Bill was very happy to exploit the myth that Native Americans were just 'savages who brutalized women'. It was a terrible moment when Sitting Bull tried to speak with President Cleveland and was rebuffed and treated with contempt. I also loved the ending. Buffalo Bill had this mad and crazed look, like now he was the great hero he never was. He now was beating and defeating Sitting Bull, which was a complete fabrication of history to promote white man's ego.
I also loved how President Cleveland was just another part of the opportunism to seek significance from Buffalo Bill's mythology about how the West was really "tamed". Although he was "the Great White Father", he was mainly about finding a way to win re-election and defeat his opponents. There was another beautiful moment, where a woman sang an opera song, and the camera showed the various reactions of members of the audience. It was hard to determine whether they were awed by the beauty of her voice or bored. And that was a confusing moment for me, too. I did not quite get it. The whole movie was afraid to really state what it really wanted to state. There were great moments, but not enough to engage the audience and win it over.
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