At the time the film was dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences, in part because its deflation of American myths could hardly compete with the Bicentennial. But also because the critics couldn't see past the obvious satirical element to the more complicated themes that Altman explored.
Altman is not content merely to satirize the West, because he understands that America's gift for self invention and self-serving myth making is really what sets it apart, what makes America "exceptional." Altman is interested in the power of fiction, and he argues that in the contest between reality and fiction, neither is a clear winner, but genuine art, rather than mere showmanship, is every bit as consequential. When the opera singer entertains President Cleveland, the president yawns, but Cody and his band of liars are moved to tears because as showmen they recognize the power of a really good show.
And this is what ultimately distinguishes Sitting Bull from Bill Cody. As Ned Buntline observes, "I was thinking about Sitting Bull. Just put yourself in that Injun's place. You sit in your tepee and dream. And then you go to wherever the dream may take you... it might come true. And you wait for real life to catch up. Injuns gear their lives to dreams. And what an injun dreams, no matter how far-fetched, will wait until he dies to come true. The white men - they're different. The only time they dream is when things are going their way." The real conflict is not between a mythical and a real West, but between competing dreams, as played out in the contest between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, who bests Cody at his own game. Sitting Bull is not just the real deal — a real chief and a real horseman, who can easily slip away from camp without being tracked down by Cody (thus spoiling his reputation as a famous tracker) — he is also the superior myth maker. And he authors his own myth, whereas Cody is the invention of Ned Buntline, as Ned reminds him toward the end of the film. In the end what matters is whose myth is the more powerful, the more convincing, the more enduring. Cody appears to have the last word by staging a phony act in which he slays Sitting Bull, but Sitting Bull defeats death itself by appearing before Cody after having been murdered at Standing Rock. Sitting Bull had the patience to wait until real life caught up with his dreams.
Many consider the film a minor effort, but take a closer look and you'll find that it exemplifies all of Altman's strengths as one of the most original and individual of America's directors in the 70s.
2 out of 3 found this helpful