I can understand some of the arguments that people have made against this film through the years. Its revisionist history can seem pretty simplistic, and its depiction of Indians seems stereotypical and not particularly enlightened. Or at least that all seems true on first glance. But I can also understand why a few revisionist film critics, including some of us on IMDb, are beginning to re-examine Buffalo Bill. I've seen a couple of people refer to it as a masterpiece, and I'm very much leaning towards that direction myself. Even if one were to find its themes and message poorly done, it would be hard to deny the grand vision of Altman in this film. This is one of his most ambitious, perhaps surpassed only by Nashville. The entire movie takes place in and around Buffalo Bill's theme park-like show. The Wild West is pretty much dead, and Bill (played by Paul Newman), who famously hunted buffalo and fought with Indians, has encapsulated the experience in a little world all his own. He's shined it up into some rip-roaring entertainment, a sort of Hollywood before Hollywood existed. The film is as much a show-biz exposé as The Player (and I would say it's much more effective).
We meet a fantastic cast of characters, played by many of the best actors around giving wonderful performances. Among them are Joel Grey, Kevin McCarthy, Burt Lancaster, Harvey Keitel (really playing against type as Bill's goofy, childlike nephew), and Geraldine Chaplin (as Annie Oakley). Everyone, including Buffalo Bill himself, is deftly characterized in a very Altmanesque way. They wander through a semi-story, often seen and heard only in glimpses. Chaplin in particular, who gives probably the most memorable performance in the film, has very few lines. Mostly she characterizes Annie through her face. The Wild West Show is becoming more and more popular, and grossing more and more money. Their newest attraction is Sitting Bull, the man who famously defeated George Custer at Wounded Knee several years earlier. To have Sitting Bull for his show makes Bill extremely proud. In his mind, he has now defeated and subjugated the one Indian who really gave the white man a run for his money, and, by doing so, he has single-handedly tamed the West. Unfortunately for him, Sitting Bull is no subject. He has only joined the show because he has dreamed that, if in the show, he would get to meet President Grover Cleveland. We only once see Sitting Bull speak, when he attempts to talk to Cleveland. The rest of the time, his servant, Halsey (Will Sampson, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), speaks for him. While he's participating in the show, he wants to change it in order to make it more factual.
Altman's detractors will have a field day with Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The biggest complaint against the director, as it seems to me, is that he is overly cynical and hates his characters. I'll admit that that is sometimes true, but I also think that the detractors see that aspect where it just doesn't exist. It does exist in this film, however. Buffalo Bill is most certainly a target for derision. Most of the action in the film revolves around the man being humiliated by Sitting Bull. Bill thinks he's the greatest adventurer who ever lived, and the film delights in having him showed up by the Sioux chief. I do not believe that it is an artistically invalid to have a character as the central target of a satire. Network, made the same year, has Faye Dunnaway, for instance. Who can like her by the end of the film. The difference is, I suppose, that Dunnaway wins some pathos by the end of the film. Maybe that's a difference, anyway. Buffalo Bill might have a bit of it by the end of the film, I think.
The character of Buffalo Bill is a wonderful satirical target because he really exists in such a state of absurdity. Once a genuine American military hero, Bill Cody wrapped up his entire experience and put it inside a bottle. In that bottle, the Wild West grew more and more fantastic, and less and less real. The environment is controlled, the goings on are fake, and any bit of history is freely created. It's not unfair, I suppose, to say Buffalo Bill and the Indians has a somewhat simplistic revisionist history behind it, but, in a big way, it is itself about revisionist history. Buffalo Bill Cody was revising history, creating entertainment out of true, historical human misery. And that's not only the suffering of the Native Americans, which is at the forefront of the film, of course, but also white settlers. The film begins with a rehearsal of an Indian raid on homesteaders. The bigger message is that was what Hollywood did, as well.
Bill likes his world, loves it, in fact. It is a celebration of his ego (the film often focuses on the gigantic portraits of Bill, which certainly would garner much criticism from some people and I would agree that it's not particularly subtle, but I would also say that it is pretty funny at times). Sitting Bull, one of the greatest Indian leaders and, from most accounts, an enormously clever and skilled man, completely undermines Bill's superiority as soon as he arrives. A blowhard as big as Buffalo Bill deflates pretty easily. Sitting Bull's presence also works to make Bill finally look around himself and begin to question the false world he has erected around himself. This thread of the film is resolved, at least as regards the narrative, in the climactic sequence, where Bill encounters Sitting Bull in a dream. This sequence is probably the low point of the film, I think. It more or less spells out everything that the film has been building to, and it doesn't really accomplish anything new. We know Altman for his amazing and original climaxes, and this one is certainly not one of his best. Still, it does work in a strictly functional way, and it is followed by a truly interesting and exquisite final sequence. This final sequence, which I won't discuss in this review, is not merely restating what has already come before, as I believe many viewers will take it. This, I think, is where the character of Buffalo Bill claims his pathos. Paul Newman's eyes in that final close-up are both frightening and quite sad, in any number of ways. Any film as shallow as many people like to claim this one is would never have given rise to this much depth in one man's expression. If you watch it and don't see it, I really think you've missed the point.
Even if you don't buy into the content of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, it's hard to imagine being unimpressed by Altman's direction or any of the other technical aspects of the film. Many claim it to be a bore, but I think Altman was just light years ahead of his audience at times. It's very entertaining and especially very funny at times. There are any number of masterful sequences. In my opinion, it is second in achievement only to Nashville.