P.T. Barnum was 60 when he first took his “emporium,” oddities exhibition and giant circus on the road in 1870. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his “Wild West Show,” with its cast of several hundred people, hundreds of horses and a small herd of buffalo, debuted and hit the road in 1883.
And while Barnum was practically the inventor of “ballyhoo” and hype, and was the first to proclaim he was putting on “The Greatest Show on Earth,” anyone alive in the late 19th and early 20th century who saw both spectacles might beg to differ. “The Greatest Showman” is a matter of some debate.
There were few spectacles outside of the Roman Colosseum to rival the “Wild West Show,” a grand, chaotic pageant of “the taming of the frontier,” with famous cowboys, famous Indians, sharp shooters, lawmen and trick riders by the score.
And if there’s one thing filmmaker Robert Altman was known for in those heady days of his “M*A*S*H” to “Popeye” peak, it was pageants — sweeping, overpopulated tableaux of Americana that said something about the American psyche.
America’s politically-dubious modern wars to America’s “HealtH” fads, country music conservativism to the American way of “Wedding,” if it had a big theme and a lot of actors willing to play all the moving parts, Altman was in. It wasn’t the only sort of film he’d make over the course of his career, but it why we remember him, and how he bowed-out, with one last all-star spectacle, “A Prairie Home Companion,” in 2006.
“Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson” was an ambitious attempt to recreate the man, the myth-making and one of the defining spectacles of what people back then, and in the film, called “The Show Business.”
It’s got Paul Newman in the title role, with Joel Grey playing Bill’s partner, producer and “MC” of course. The big themes are the myth that was already settling in about the country’s noble struggle to “tame” the frontier, about the Natives slaughtered and displaced by that, the wildlife and ecosystems nearly wiped out, historic American racism and how all of that could be encapsulated in a single Big Show.
The film, which I must’ve seen in part or as a whole a dozen times on TV as it was a cable staple in the ’80s, never quite comes off. Nobody describes it as their favorite Newman film or the best of Altman. But channel surfing by a Buffalo Bill documentary sent me down the rabbit hole of wondering which towns I’ve lived in hosted “Wild West Show” visits while it was touring, and curious enough to make me want to see this 1976 epic again.
Set in the late 1880s during the Closing of the West that got underway in earnest while Grover Cleveland (appearing here) was president, “Buffalo Bill” limits itself to a single setting — rehearsing and performing on the outskirts of a Western “Fort” town in a self-contained village where all have assembled for this year’s tour.
“The Sure Shot,” Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin, a member of the Altman rep company at the time) is practicing new tricks with “The World’s Most Handsome Target,” her very nervous and unfaithful husband and manager, Frank Butler (John Considine).
“The King of the Cowboys,” Buck Taylor (Fred N. Larsen) is brushing up on his lassoing, trick-riding and cattle chasing.
The Indian raid on a settler’s cabin tableau must be rehearsed. “Fire,” the producer Nate Salisbury (Grey) agrees, would add to the reality of it all. Bill’s nephew (Harvey Keitel) plays a a functionary tasked with implementing Bill’s demands, as the egotistical, insecure star doesn’t like getting into the messy stuff himself.
The publicist and maestro of ballyhoo Major Burke (Kevin McCarthy of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” in a gloriously florid and over-the-top turn) makes sure there’s fresh press coverage of every new wrinkle in this year’s traveling epic.
But all are agreed, even the distracted, womanizing (with assorted opera singers) Great Man Himself (Newman), that they need something, someone new and someone big, a great name in the already-mythologized West, as a draw. They settle on one name, an imprisoned chief still given to visions, including the one in which he imagined how the Lakota would wipe out General Custer’s command at The Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull.
“I didn’t know he was in the show business!” “If he wasn’t interested in the show business, why’d he become chief?”
They “acquire” him, over the protests of his Indian Agent (Denver Pyle). And the movie becomes the story of blustery Bill trying to give Sitting Bull “a history lesson” in the events they recreate for the show, with the inscrutable, non-English speaking chief (Frank Kaquitts) intentionally and inadvertently schooling Bill and his entourage through a series of negotiations, power games and reminders of the actual history.
Will Sampson, most famous as the towering Native man in the mental hospital with Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” is Halsey, the quintessential “noble Red Man” and translator for his chief, who says virtually nothing. That doesn’t stop the translator from passing on his thoughts, demands and wisdom.
“Sitting Bull says that history is nothing more than disrespect for the dead.”
Screen legend Burt Lancaster plays “The Legend Maker,” dime novelist mythologizer Ned Buntline. He sits in the encampment’s tent saloon, an unwelcome guest spinning yarns and dropping aphorisms, but not embraced by Bill or show insiders because the man who “invented” Bill and much of the myth they’re peddling in this show knows the truth.
“Bill, any youngster like yourself who figures to set the world on fire best not forget where he got the matches.”
Returning to “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” all these years later, it seems to me that Buntline is where the movie falls short. Altman’s sense of ensemble gets in the way of a big theme, Bill’s racism softening in the course of his dealings with “the Injuns,” who are smart and principled, and his “colored” cowboys (Robert DoQui plays the head wrangler), and how “the show business” played and continues to play a huge role in softening America’s attitudes towards race.
The movie merely hints at things that the Hugh Jackman musical “The Greatest Showman” makes overt — acceptance, inclusion, fair play and equality are to be embraced, and those who reject that are to be scorned and ridiculed.
Altman and co-screenwriter Alan Rudolph, his protege (“Songwriter,” “Trouble in Mind”) certainly get around to the ridicule, and Newman nails every moment where Bill’s “tolerance” is exposed as racism.
“The difference between a white man and an Injun in all situations is that an Injun is red. And an Injun is red for a very good reason. So we can tell us apart.”
But a much larger role for Lancaster’s Buntline could have underscored that messaging, made the mockery more overt and funnier. Because ol’Burt could nail a punchline and puncture a myth with a twinkle.
“A rock ain’t a rock once it becomes gravel.“
With America staring at a belligerent minority’s efforts to re-mythologize history, sanitize the nation’s past and erase and replace facts with glossy propaganda via the public schools they so desperately want to discredit, defund and destroy, movies like this still have something to say to us. But the “History Lesson” of films like “Buffalo Bill” should be more pointed, bluntly-underscored and captured for all time.
The laughs are scattered hither and one that sticks with me is the way the “show” is trying out this patriotic song before each performance, a not-yet-national-anthem that the producer refers to as “Oh Say Can You See.” It’s hilarious hearing one of the greatest singers in Broadway history, Joel Grey, rush the tempo and outrun the cowboy band accompanying one and all, and utterly botching it.
Altman’s murky messaging in this Nixon-pardoning era satire stands out not as his greatest failure, as it’s entertaining in bits and pieces — lots of bits and pieces. But it is perhaps his biggest missed opportunity.
Rating: PG, some profanity
Cast: Paul Newman, Geraldine Chaplin, Joel Grey, Harvey Keitel, Kevin McCarthy, John Considine, Denver Pyle, Robert DoQui, Will Sampson and Burt Lancaster.
Credits: Directed by Robert Altman, scripted by Alan Rudolph, “suggested” by a play by Arthur Kopit. An MGM/UA release on Tubi, Amazon, other streamers