September 29, 2007

Review of Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History LessonBuffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is a 1976 revisionist Western directed by Robert Altman. It stars Paul Newman as Bill, with Geraldine Chaplin, Will Sampson, Joel Grey, and Harvey Keitel.

The film was poorly received at the time of its release, when the country was celebrating its bicentenial. As in MASH, Altman skewers an American historical myth of heroism, in this case the notion that noble white men fighting bloodthirsty savages won the West.
For more on the movie, go to Review of Buffalo Bill and the Indians.

4 comments:

russell said...

Writerfella here --
The original reviewer mentions that Sitting Bull is played by Will Sampson, then later correctly states that Sitting Bull is played by Frank Kaquitts and that Sampson in fact played the interpreter William Halsey. All the reviews quoted missed the mountains for the forests. Altman was satirizing the precursors of his own movie and TV industries and thus those industries themselves. Basically, his Buffalo Bill is making movies before there ever were movies. Indeed the plethora of actors and overlapping dialog was for verisimilitude, techniques that go all the way back to Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby. The audience believes what is occurring on the screen because it is so mundane.
Finally, writerfella can't believe that Rob actually wrote that, "the best movies condense and transform reality..." That from someone who previously has written scathing critiques complaining of films that indeed condensed and transformed their realities. Musta been a slow day...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

The "original reviewer" (i.e., Wikipedia) doesn't say Will Sampson was Sitting Bull anymore. I corrected it there and here.

If you read the reviews, they generally mentioned Altman's critique of show biz. I didn't focus on that point because it's not a Native issue.

Overlapping dialog does provide verisimilitude, but in many cases verisimilitude interferes with good storytelling. This is one of them.

Condensing and transforming reality isn't the same as ignoring and fabricating it. Which you'd understand if you knew how to analyze films.

Neither the reviewers or I mentioned any historical flaws in Buffalo Bill. If there were any major ones, they flew right by me.

Although I didn't mention them, I did note a couple of minor flaws. Sitting Bull is killed soon after he leaves the Wild West Show; I believe he died months or years later. And Grover Cleveland goes west to meet Sitting Bull; I believe Sitting Bull went to Washington to meet him.

These trivial flaws don't hurt our understanding of Buffalo Bill or the Indians. They're examples of the kind of "condensing" I was talking about. This kind of condensing happens in any historical drama and it usually isn't worth talking about.

What you apparently don't get is the difference between condensing and fabricating. Changing Sitting Bull from a holy man into an opportunist (in Bury My Heart) isn't a condensation, it's a fabrication. The same applies to changing the Maya from scientific geniuses to bloodthirsty barbarians (in Apocalypto). These falsifications of reality distort our understanding of the truth. Instead of enlightening us, they mystify us--and not in a good way.

Do you really not grasp this basic point of cinematic storytelling? That probably explains why you haven't written any movies worth mentioning. Sheesh.

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Wrong-o, oh Caped Crusader! Aren't Americans BOTH scientific geniuses AND bloodthirsty barbarians? Or is IraqNam just a bump in the road of American history?
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'
PS: How's THAT for condensation and transformation? -- w

Rob said...

Most civilizations have both scientific geniuses and bloodthirsty and barbarians. Usually the people who are progressive and creative predominate over those who are regressive and destructive.

Not so in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. His version of the Maya was almost totally negative, which ignores the real history and fabricates a false history.