From Bonanza to Buffalo Bill: Robert Altman and the Western

Introduction: Altman’s Last Stand, or Buffalo Bill and the Indians and the Bicentennial Western

[I]n Paris they referred to McCabe [& Mrs. Miller] as an anti-western and they called it the “demystification of an era”. That was my reason for getting involved in McCabe in the first place because I don’t like Westerns. I don’t like the obvious lack of truth in them. I see no reason to go back to the reality of it and then tell the story. [1]

In mid-1976, while the United States was inharmoniously celebrating its Bicentennial in the wake of economic uncertainty, the international oil crisis, the final capitulation in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, the competing narratives of national and social history brought to the surface by the Bicentennial itself, and so on, Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson was tentatively released into cinemas. [2]  The film received a lukewarm critical response and an even less enervating public reception, returning only around one-seventh of its then large $6,000,000 budget. [3]  Starring Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill (aka William F. Cody) and Burt Lancaster as Ned Buntline, Bill’s key chronicler and mythologiser (though one amongst many in reality), [4]  alongside what Altman biographer Patrick McGilligan calls a typically Altmanesque “allspice cast”, [5]  it is something of a watershed film for the often iconoclastic and combative Altman: an amalgam and summation of the often revisionist genre experiments he had worked on in television and cinema over the previous 20 years and the more exploratory, experiential and panoramic type of film he is probably best known for today (see, for example, Nashville [1975], Short Cuts [1993], and Gosford Park [2001]). It was Altman’s “biggest” film up until that time, and leads into a string of movies that struggled significantly to find audiences, critical acclaim and even commercial release.

Although Buffalo Bill and the Indians is an atmospheric film seemingly teeming with life – featuring a widescreen frame bustling with activity, a percolating multitrack soundtrack featuring numerous competing voices and sounds, and seemingly inattentive to or bored with the linear propulsion of conventional storytelling – it nevertheless projects a supremely desiccated, staged, even inert view of its subject. As Helene Keyssar has argued in her important book on the director, Robert Altman’s America, and despite the degree of agitation and restlessness superficially attached to the film’s central character, Buffalo Bill and the Indians is a contradictory work that is “ironic and contemplative, controlled yet expansive, historical and mythological”, and “has a stillness at its center that appears to contradict its very existence as a motion picture”. [6] Altman himself has called the film an “essay”; [7]  while Altman scholar Robert T. Self argues that the director made a “history lecture” [8] rather than the action picture executive producer Dino De Laurentiis somewhat fancifully, considering Altman’s commonly restless and iconoclastic approach to filmmaking, expected and desired.

Although hardly uniform in its negativity, Charles Champlin’s review in the Los Angeles Times typifies the generally underwhelming critical response that initially greeted this once highly anticipated film: “His [Altman’s] films are sometimes pretentious and sometimes exasperating but they are not often boring, although the latest, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, is all three.” [9]  Although it has been subsequently discussed in terms of its contribution to the revisionist Western, its critique of one of the key historical and mythical figures of the genre, and its staging of both Buffalo Bill’s Wild West itself and the stage-play it is based upon, Altman’s film has seldom been considered in relation to the director’s broader interrogation of the genre, starting with his work on episodes of numerous TV Western series in the early 1960s. [10]  It has also been consistently undervalued and critiqued in relation to Altman’s earlier McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), a film that Pauline Kael famously celebrated as a “beautiful pipe dream of a movie” [11] and Self, by any measure the most important writer on Altman’s exploration of the Western, devoted a whole book to. [12]  Of the various books written on Altman since the late 1970s, Keyssar’s stands out for its focus on the director’s approach to both the broader question of “America” and how his work engages with mythology and history. Although she gives no particular weight to her discussion of Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Altman’s approach to the Western more generally, she does position her astute analysis of the film within a chapter she calls “Democratic Vistas”, covering a group of films preoccupied with screens, spectacles and monitors of one kind or another. [13]  Her analysis also fits closely with Self’s examination of Altman’s common concern with “show business”, and how Buffalo Bill and the Indians “closely examines the concept of stars in relation to a sense of self, of social identity, and the entertainment industry. The film’s story projects a rich density of fact and fiction, of history, legend, and personal vision.” [14] Nevertheless, aside from the recent work of Stephen Teo, [15]  and the still very McCabe & Mrs. Miller-centric monograph by Self, most writers have been content to look at each of Altman’s contributions to the genre on their own merits or in relation to other themes, ideas and filmic examples situated across his work. As the opening quotation indicates, Altman himself has been dismissive of any approach that recognises a particular affinity towards the Western in his work.

Nevertheless, Buffalo Bill and the Indians can now be regarded as a key or at least emblematic work in the history of the “contemporary” Western, one that reflects an increasingly self-conscious preoccupation with the gestation of the form and the physical and material “realities” of Western life, as well as emerging shifts in the reception and production of “mainstream” American cinema more generally. [16]  Sometimes discussed alongside other “Bicentennial Westerns” such as Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976), [17]  Altman’s panoramic but still shrunken opus is symptomatic of a particular deflationary strain of the post-classical Western and a reflexive account of the symbiotic relationship between the broader genre and the development of American (and even international) cinema and other entertainment forms. Buffalo Bill and the Indians was one of 26 Westerns produced by Hollywood in 1976, and can be regarded as a key contribution to what Michael Coyne somewhat hyperbolically called the “Western’s last hour”, [18]  a moment proceeding a rapid decline in the genre that saw production fall to seven “Hollywood” features in the following year (and never subsequently really recovering). [19]  In the 1980s much Western production shifted to television and lower-scale, even regional feature production, mirroring an earlier, though partial shift to the “rival” medium in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Significantly, Altman was an important figure in both these moments of transition as well as in relation to the increasingly fluid boundaries that developed between the two mediums.

This essay will examine Altman’s final Western in light of his previous forays into the genre and explore its place within the director’s career as well as in relation to his specific approaches to film history, Hollywood and the formal and stylistic conventions of genre. This essay also aims to investigate what might have drawn Altman to the Western at specific moments in time in the 1960s and 1970s. It begins with a brief discussion of Hollywood’s broader representation of Buffalo Bill before moving onto an exploration of Altman’s relationship to the shifting ideas and conceptions of the Western genre, his important formative work in the generic domain of series television, and the revisionist and materialist tendencies of his “folk” Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller and “history” Western Buffalo Bill and the Indians . It highlights the ways Buffalo Bill and the Indians explores the histories of popular culture and myth, while claiming a significant continuity across Altman’s work in both television and film. Although this essay uses Altman’s final Western to frame its argument – and Buffalo Bill and the Indians is exceptional for the ways it foregrounds as its key subject the processes leading to the Western’s popular formation – it is equally an exploration of specific aspects of the director’s somewhat disparate work across the genre in the 1960s and ’70s.

Hollywood’s Buffalo Bill
Unsurprisingly for the director and the moment of production, Altman’s final Western takes an explicitly self-conscious approach to the construction of the Buffalo Bill legend.[20]  It is loosely adapted from Arthur Kopit’s more straightforwardly revisionist 1968 play, Indians, its single-word title more clearly and unapologetically communicating and siding with the shifting progressive ideologies and perspectives of the day. [21]  But by focusing almost exclusively on the short period of time in which Sitting Bull joined the spectacle of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (for four months in 1885; only a couple of years into its extraordinary 33-year run), Altman’s transformative adaptation provides an immediate counter to most other films about the legendary figure – particularly those made prior to the 1960s – that document the background and veracity of the legend rather than its circulation and plainly evident fabrication. For example, William Wellman’s colourful and generally cheerful 1944 Buffalo Bill goes out of its way to clearly demarcate its titular character’s progression from frontier hero to popular culture icon, and from events to their re-staging, while signalling the inevitable peaks and troughs of his widely circulated and fictionalised “career narrative” along the way. [22]  In the process, it totally fails to account for the fact that from the early 1870s onwards Cody moved freely between the West and the East, the frontier and the stages of New York as well as the pages of popular literature. For instance, some suggest that he wore his stage outfit while killing and scalping the Indian chief “Yellow Hair”: an action widely mythologised as the “first scalp for Custer”. [23]  In actuality, the creation of the popular image of Buffalo Bill coincides with the actions and events it claims to document and narrativise, and there is little sense of the clear demarcation between cause and effect, action and reaction, real-life adventure and its re-presentation that structure Wellman’s film. A number of other earlier films featuring the character of Buffalo Bill attempt to focus on a specific thread of this background legend. For example, Pony Express (Jerry Hopper, 1953) squarely positions both Bill Cody (played by Charlton Heston) and Wild Bill Hickok as key figures in the development of the westward mail routes, and makes claims for the progressive credentials of both in terms of their relations with Native Americans.

In contrast to these attempts to fully ground the spectacularised events of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in something like historical verisimilitude and direct experience, Altman’s movie makes us wonder whether the Cody it presents was on the Western frontier at all, and certainly has little interest in constructing a complex interior world or set of motivations or destinies for this character. Altman’s is a roaming but static situational film that contrasts significantly with the incident-filled and constantly progressing narratives of Pony Express and Buffalo Bill. As Altman somewhat disproportionately claims of his motivations while making the film: “we weren’t seeking to involve the audience with the main character at all”. [24]

Buffalo Bill and the Indians turns the approaches of many of these earlier, largely hagiographic and protagonist-centred films on their heads by emphasising the hollowness or shallowness of the legend and the impossibility of demarcating any useful distinction between actual events and their representation (or fabrication). Newman’s constantly preening and self-consciously performing Bill seems unable to distinguish between fantastical inventions about himself and those that have some basis in actuality; often consciously valuing accounts that promote a particular, self-serving idea of history. For example, when Sitting Bull suggests – through an interpreter, he is mostly silent throughout – that the show incorporate a massacre of Native American children and women, Bill refuses, explaining, “I’ve got a better sense of history than that”. It is this “sense” of history (and who holds it) that preoccupies and defines this very talky and often didactic film. But its reference to a more cataclysmic and genocidal idea of 19th-century American history is totally in keeping with many of the landmark Westerns of its era such as The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1968), Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970) and The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Altman’s film follows a long tradition of the postwar Western that incorporates the act of myth-making and storytelling into its narrative; the writer/journalist figures of Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun (1958), John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Walter Hill’s Wild Bill (1995) offer key, somewhat straightforward or obvious examples of this trope. It is also common for Westerns to represent the development of the forms and apparatus of modern popular culture, and its attendant media, as well as the circulation of stories and images related to particular frontier figures, at the moment of their “creation”. Films devoted to figures such as Jesse James – for example, Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James (1957) and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – often emphasise these moments. Altman has been very upfront about his film’s connection to this “tradition”, as well as its specific intentions in relation to its view of an emergent popular American culture: “Buffalo Bill was the first movie star […] the first totally manufactured American hero”. [25]

Unsurprisingly, some historians have argued that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was an important formative influence on the cinematic Western, helping to establish key motifs, dramatic actions (such as the Indian attack on the Deadwood Stage), and demarcations between various, clearly typed characters. [26]  It was also a shifting and incorporative spectacle that responded to the events of the day, including such things as the Chinese Boxer Rebellion in the early 1900s, paving the way for more hybridised and “impure” versions of the genre. Buffalo Bill’s widely travelled (including long tours of Europe) and massively influential spectacle is also arguably central in terms of the ways in which it staged such Western tropes within the landscape, granting them a sense of scale, corporeality, reality, and movement (as well as a conflation of actor and role) that moves the form closer to the cinema. This idea of the proto-cinematic qualities of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and the increasingly global attraction of this form and the commodified figure of Bill himself, is central to Altman’s conception, as well as somewhat inevitable considering the necessarily filmic rendering of the “show” in Altman’s movie. Buffalo Bill and the Indians provides something of a logical or inevitable endpoint to Altman’s journey through the Western. As I will go on discuss, the film exhausts or flattens many of the spatial and historical possibilities of the genre.

Altman and the Western Genre
Buffalo Bill and the Indians is also the last of an intermittent series of encounters with the Western that mark Altman’s work in film and television in the period from 1960 to 1976. This journey took him from single episode work on a range of TV Westerns in the early 1960s, and the more sustained engagement with the genre on the second season of the long-running Bonanza, to the elegiac, wintry, almost folk Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and finally to the more overt critique contained in the “self-conscious meta-western” [27] (27) Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Altman’s contributions to the Western consistently probe the atmosphere, sensibility, conventions and tone of the genre, leading John Wayne to call even his most respectful, and in hindsight almost neo-classical contribution to the genre (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), “corrupt”. [28]  Across many of these television episodes and films Altman traced the corrupting influence of capitalism and specifically big business on the development of the United States. For example, numerous episodes of the mostly comfortably optimistic, almost suburban Bonanza feature characters who attempt to exploit the landscape, while the title of McCabe & Mrs. Miller refers more directly to the formation of an incorporated company than the romantic entanglement of its two central characters and stars (Warren Beatty and Julie Christie). In Buffalo Bill and the Indians the whole purpose of the film is to explore the commodification of the West and its history through the restaging of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

Although, as indicated in the opening quotation, Altman has expressed something of an antipathy towards the form, his journey across series television in the early 1960s and New Hollywood in the early to mid-1970s meant that some kind of encounter with the Western genre was inevitable. In this regard, his career parallels several other key figures in the development of the “revisionist” Western such as Sam Peckinpah, who although he forged a more sustained relationship with the genre often worked on the same shows as Altman in the early 1960s. The contrast between their approaches to the genre – one elegiac and ultra-violent (Peckinpah), the other more superficially ironic but deeply concerned with broader movements and ideas of history and the spatio-temporality of the form – provides a map of some of the key trends and preoccupations of the post-classical Western. It is also a genre that has enabled Altman to address specific aspects of American society, popular culture, and the cult of celebrity and history – preoccupations that are characteristic of his other work, particularly in the 1970s. In some ways Buffalo Bill and the Indians is a natural continuation of the exploration of the relationship between politics, entertainment and spectacle that marked his previous and most famous film, Nashville. The film can also be discussed in relation to Altman’s common preoccupation with the “business” of show business, the commodification of history and culture (a revealing focus in the Bicentenary year of 1976), and aspects of the musical. In this respect, Buffalo Bill and the Indians is essentially a “putting-on-a-show” Western that borrows many of its tropes from such similarly themed musicals as 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933) and Nashville. But whereas Altman’s previous film managed to suggest a messiness and sense of life beyond some of its more schematic plotting, staging and characterisation, Buffalo Bill and the Indians is remarkable – despite the constant movement and chatter within the frame – for its insularity, restricted and fattened spatiality, and for how it positions audiences (that of both Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and the Western genre) in relation to this critical spectacle more generally. For example, its widespread use of the telephoto lens and the wide shot encourage the spectator to regard the composition as a tableaux, an image filtered through the parallel histories of photography, painting, illustration and the cinema. Although the look and feel of Altman’s film give some sense of life, they also give the impression that almost everything is appearing on a stage, collapsing the distinctions between show business, history and daily life. For example, when President Cleveland attends a performance he seems to just become part of the staging of the show.

Marcus Cole has argued that “the film is so knowing in its assumptions and their presentation, so calculated, so pre-digested, we wonder if there is any need of us as witnesses”.[29]  Although Cole’s statement is meant as withering criticism, it actually pinpoints the deliberately hermetic perspective of Altman’s final Western. Buffalo Bill and the Indians is remarkable for its sense of visual flatness and hemmed-in perspective. Although we are constantly reminded of the vast terrain beyond Buffalo Bill’s Wild West – the majestic, vertiginous mountains around Alberta, Canada standing in for the United States – the audience, the camera, and most of the characters, never venture out into it. This is taken to extreme levels when the telephoto lens is used to capture figures dotted on the distant horizon, or the Native American characters building their own camp across the river. Altman’s argument here appears to be about the development and falsity of the Western as a narrative form and society’s implication and culpability in its simplicities, redundancies, absences and restricted perspectives. This technique suggests that we are not needed as its witness but are witnesses nonetheless. If the Western is often defined and marked by a sense of distance – and the ability and necessity of characters to move through the landscape – Buffalo Bill and the Indians presents a very different notion of both space and destiny.

Of course, it can possibly be argued that its grounded, situated and restricted mobility is also reminiscent of the “frame” and the form of the cinema itself – a situated mobility that is equally characteristic of the revolving vistas of the Wild West show. This is a quality that is emphasised throughout Altman’s film, whether the show is in performance or not. In contrast, the sequences of the 1950 musical Annie Get Your Gun (George Sidney) set within Buffalo Bill’s Wild West emphasise the distinction between the painted backdrops of buttes and mesas and the fecund surroundings that frame the performance. Annie Get Your Gun is a celebration of the cultivated suburbia and countryside safeguarded by the domesticated spectacle of a performed West, while Buffalo Bill and the Indians recognises the far darker and more solipsistic dimensions of such a performance. The two films are studies in contrast: the drab browns, mustard yellows, dull reds and steely greens of Altman’s film almost diametrically opposed to the eye-popping, candy-coloured bustle of the circus-like shenanigans of Annie Get Your Gun; Newman’s blustering but deflated performance as the lecherous Bill (who has a predilection for opera singers) startling next to the grandfatherly presence of Louis Calhern in the “same” role.

The Ponderosa: Altman and the TV Western

In some respects he was my best director […] a giant among pygmies. He had a large share in the strength and popularity of the show. [30]

Altman’s contempt for, command of, and to some degree boredom with the frameworks of genres such as the Western – as evident in his desiccated and self-conscious approach to the form in Buffalo Bill and the Indians – can be traced back to his work on such shows as Bonanza (an arguably important formative experience he seldom wished to discuss), and the ways in which such television programs often rely upon the most basic formulations of genres as a means of enabling quick and streamlined production. Nevertheless, though often formulaic, this extraordinarily rich and fertile period of television Western production has been undervalued and under-analysed in accounts of the broader genre. Even its obvious impact upon the genre – whether positive or negative, enlivening or domesticating – has been understated. This has not been helped by the often-negative comments of some of the participants themselves such as Altman and specific stars of Bonanza. For example, the classically trained Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright in the series and was largely marginalised in Altman’s contributions, was withering in his assessment: “I feel I am an aristocrat in my field of endeavor. My being part of Bonanza is like Isaac Stern sitting in with Lawrence Welk.” [31] Aside from this, Bonanza certainly surfed the zeitgeist, taking its place as one of 31 weekly Western-themed television series when it was launched in September 1959. [32]  Altman’s work ethic was prodigious, and he directed over 120 episodes of series television between 1957 and 1964, including on such other Western-themed series as Sugarfoot, The Man From Blackhawk, Bronco, Maverick and Lawman during the period of the genre’s dominance of the medium in the early 1960s. Altman’s legend as a difficult, iconoclastic, speculative and sometimes unreliable figure was certainly well in place by the time of his career in television, and he often only worked on one or two episodes of most of these series. But in the early 1960s this was largely the result of working as a contract director for Warner Bros. and being rotated between a range of shows of various genres and tones. This was of course important training for his later work in feature films and the “New Hollywood”.

Although Altman’s greatest work in television (at least in this earlier period; it is, of course, a medium he returned to throughout his career) is probably on such relatively groundbreaking shows as Bus Stop and Combat (on which he had a more central creative role for the first series, producing and directing half of the episodes), his work on the second series of Bonanza in late 1960 and 1961 represents his most sustained and refined work in the Western genre before the 1970s. Again, although Altman’s work on eight episodes [33] of the show demonstrates little of the experimentation to be found in some of his other television work – such as the strong use of locations, overlapping dialogue, mobile framing, especially the use of the zoom and crane, and ensemble casting (key pointers to his later feature career and all fully on display in a film like Buffalo Bill and the Indians) – it is still fascinating for specific, intense, off-kilter moments, and brief instances of stylistic invention. For example, there are snatches of mobile framing in an episode like “Dream Riders” that in many ways pre-empt the flights of fancy of 1970’s Brewster McCloud, while the common, even jarring mix of tones within individual episodes is also characteristic of Altman’s later work. Altman appears to hold a particular fascination for the character of Hoss (Dan Blocker), who features centrally in most of the episodes he directed. There is also a preoccupation with underlying violence and a strong moral trajectory, aspects that are equally characteristic of the show more generally. But we also need to recognise that Bonanza is actually one of the more substantial and articulate Western television series of its era. For instance, McGilligan calls it a “decorous, Freudian Western with scripts of literary pretension”, [34]  a description that sits in contrast to how we might now automatically think of the program after endless syndication and its ultimate, deadening 14-year run.

While it is probably a little far-fetched to claim a too profound correlation between Altman’s often highly interior and piecemeal work on a network show like Bonanza and the schematically anti-Western Buffalo Bill and the Indians, the director’s work in television does seem to have informed his approach to the cinema, in particular his dizzying work ethic, specific technical innovations, and ambivalent relationship to genre. These iconoclastic preoccupations become evident in such small elements as the broad humour of several of the episodes he helmed, the queasy, baroque melodrama of such entries as the soulful but overheated “Silent Thunder” (broadcast in December 1960), featuring Stella Stevens as a tremulous aurally and vocally impaired love interest, and even the bizarre contrapuntal editing of the call-and-response anvil hammering that opens “Sam Hill”. But these moments are collapsed and contained within a broader domestication of the Western and its genre trappings. They are set alongside the images of Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) and his eldest son (Adam) playing checkers, the plush night-time attire of the father and his boys, the almost suburban, uncluttered sheen of the interiors of the Ponderosa, and the endless storylines that deal with romantic rivalries between the brothers and the relationships between fathers and their sons and daughters. It is the fakeness, sets and interiority of Bonanza that stay with you, but it is the combination of these domesticated and, sometimes, wistful, even iconoclastic approaches to the genre that mark Altman’s significant contribution and establish a direct link to his later work in the cinema in the late 1960s and ’70s.

McCabe, Buffalo Bill and the Revisionist Western
Two basic interlocking strategies mark Altman’s work more generally. A panoramic form that encompasses multiple characters and stories and centres on a particular event, space or institution (see, for example, Nashville, or even Buffalo Bill and the Indians), and a broadly revisionist form that interrogates, critiques and pays homage to the genres and archetypes of classical Hollywood cinema (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye [1973], The Player [1992], etc.). On the surface these might seem to be distinct types or strategies, one protagonist oriented and the other ensemble based, one a critical dialogue with classical cinema and the other representative of a move on to other modes of narrative exposition, one with its roots in Hollywood and the other inching closer to the forms of European art cinema. But these distinctions and definitions make little sense of the shared ground of most of Altman’s films, and this is particularly true of the exhaustingly one-dimensional Buffalo Bill and the Indians and the more rounded and soulful McCabe & Mrs. Miller. For example, McCabe & Mrs. Miller follows the coordinates of the most rudimentary of Westerns, and is full of archetypal and clichéd characters and situations such as the loner/stranger who temporarily shakes up a frontier town, and the “prostitute-with-the-heart-of-gold” figure that Julie Christie’s characterisation of Mrs. Miller verges upon. But these classical or archetypal elements (also reflected in some aspects of setting and action) are undermined by the film’s opaque and idiosyncratic view of its characters, its less obvious choices of costume and some settings, its foregrounding of atmosphere and place (including the “atmosphere” of place, weather), and a technique that captures characters, both their bodies and voices, within pictorial tableaux that emphasise their relativity to the drama that is unfolding. Characters mumble, ramble and pontificate in Altman’s cinema but the camera often looks elsewhere, and sometimes even we, the audience, stop listening. This is as true of the asides and stumblings of Warren Beatty’s McCabe (“I’ve got poetry in me”) as it is of the bluff and bluster of Newman’s Buffalo Bill. A particularly pertinent example of this is found in the long rambling almost-monologues of Bill as he talks to Sitting Bull’s ghost. These halting exchanges are reminiscent of the embarrassingly candid admissions of Ronee Blakley’s Barbara Jean in Nashville: “I got people with… no lives… livin’ through me! Proud people. My daddy… died without ever seein’ me as a star! Tall, profitable… good lookin’… Custer was a good man! He gave the Indians a reason to be famous!” Buffalo Bill seems to almost be dreaming aloud here, as waves of memory, recollection, mythology and received history crash together in a seemingly revealing and important speech that is almost impossible to thread together and keep track of. The piecemeal vocal performance of Bill in this scene provides a synecdoche of the floating world of Altman’s film as well as how it views the commodification and “Hollywoodisation” of history: “He [Custer] gave the Indians a reason to be famous!”

The emphasis that Altman places upon ambience, atmosphere and the transgressive potentialities offered by such generic elements and formulas proves to be truly transformative. It is in these aspects that his films, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Buffalo Bill and the Indians are no exceptions, become iconoclastic and start to probe the structures, ideologies and basic content of established forms. This iconoclasm also lies in the ways in which either film deemphasises and cuts away from what might appear to be the central concerns of the narrative. This is particularly evident in the closing stages of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, where the beautiful and brutal snowbound fight to the death between McCabe and the “bounty” hunters is shown in “cold” long shot and is interspersed with images of the townspeople attending their burning church and, eventually, Mrs. Miller drifting away into an opium haze. As McCabe fights his inevitable battle to the death, other folks, and indeed the film itself, as communicated through the use of crosscutting between scenes and situations that never come together, look elsewhere, and the world moves on.

It is this final point that provides the key to Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The opening credits deliberately conflate the performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West with the film we are watching. A flowery title-card proclaims “Robert Altman’s Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre”, while the voice of a character announces: “Ladies and Gentlemen, you are about to experience not a show for entertainment [but] a revue of down-to-earth events that made the American frontier” (which actually sounds like some of the initial reviews of McCabe & Mrs. Miller). So the pictorial tableaux in Buffalo Bill and the Indians act to engulf the identity and subjectivity of the film’s characters. It is therefore unsurprising that Bill is introduced to us through a range of posters, announcements, proclamations, paintings, and so on (we are also introduced to several competing characters who each claim they coined Cody’s moniker) before he finally appears some time into the film (around the 13-minute mark) in the middle-ground of a crowded long shot. These kinds of effects can seem somewhat strained in Altman’s film, but in some respects that is precisely the point. Buffalo Bill and the Indians seldom allows us, through a range of techniques, to become subsumed or consumed by the questionable verisimilitude of genre.

As I’ve suggested throughout this essay, and other commentators have claimed, in hindsight it is probably apt to consider Altman’s contributions to the genre (even some of his TV work) within the now dominant form of the revisionist Western. As Jim Kitses has argued more broadly:

there now seems a strong argument for recognition of the revisionist Western as a discrete, dominant type. Indeed films that in whole or part interrogate aspects of the genre such as its traditional representations of history and myth, heroism and violence, masculinity and minorities, can be seen now to make up the primary focus of the genre. [35]

In this regard, like many Westerns of the last 60 years, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman’s most celebrated and discussed Western and a middle-point in his interrogation of the genre, can be considered as a kind of anti-Western, its characters’ romantic hopes and dreams floundering against the vicissitudes of “progress” and big business. In this respect the film is reminiscent of The Man Who Shot Valance and pre-emptive of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). It also shares many of the concerns, landscapes and geography of Anthony Mann’s The Far Country (1954), a film equally about the fading or dying of particular myths and territories. Rather than focus upon the myths of frontier, individualism and the destruction of the wilderness by “civilisation”, McCabe & Mrs. Miller presciently contrasts various models of entrepreneurship, situating the failure of McCabe as being largely the result of the mundanity of his business acumen and vision rather than his choice of business: whorehouse manager. In comparison, both Buffalo Bill and the Indians and Bonanza present more removed and mediated images of this transformation. Bonanza, like many such series of the golden age of the television Western, acts to exhaust and domesticate the genre through its endless repetition of characters, actions, situations, actors and temporalities. Buffalo Bill and the Indians more directly questions the foundation and validity of the Western and its essential basis in “show business” and various other forms of modern media.

Sitting Bull’s or Altman’s History Lesson?
So where could Altman take the Western after Buffalo Bill and the Indians, a film that consciously critiques and revises the form, nature, veracity and historical purpose of the genre? Altman’s final Western is a film that doesn’t just question the historical underpinnings of the genre, or seek to correct or redirect them, but calls into question its validity and very existence. This, ultimately, is the key to the film’s somewhat blunt and one-dimensional portrayal of Sitting Bull, an obvious representation of a noble Native American who refuses to engage with the creation of a myth and enter into dialogue about his place in the spectacle. Sitting Bull and the other Native American characters have a very different relationship to space and place, moving freely and successfully beyond the boundaries of the “show” and its majestic geographic surroundings. Sure, the ambiguous lesson of the title is one related to a correct version of past events (or at least a clear acceptance of opposing views and experiences), but the character of Sitting Bull simply refuses to perform and re-enact spurious versions of actual events (he claims to have never even been present at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, for example). His is a refusal of the Western’s legitimacy and Buffalo Bill’s place in a history of the land. Nevertheless, Sitting Bull does take up the invitation to become “part” of this historical fabulation for a short season… despite his lack of engagement there is no turning back.

But the final scenes of the film suggest other possibilities, realities and histories that move beyond such a clear demarcation between events and their representation (as well as demonstrating the limited power and control exercised by individuals). The final two scenes shift the action forward five years and subtly demonstrate the increased professionalism and streamlining of Bill’s show. As elsewhere in the film, news of actual events (such as Sitting Bull’s eventual murder), filters into the camp but has little place within the spectacle’s circumspect view of past and present, its mix of dream and reality. The final scene features a staged fight to the “death” between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, a complete and obvious fabrication or dream of history that nevertheless seems curiously apt – Bill hyperbolically claims that Sitting Bull will never die as long as he is still there to be killed by him at every performance. Altman makes too much of the symbolic implications of this scene, the final image of Bill, lost, eyes madly glowing as he recognises his ability to create narrative and history, strangely reminiscent of the final leer of power exhibited by Marlene Dietrich’s Catherine the Great in Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934). But it is another transformation that is more significant here: Sitting Bull is played by another actor and this scene clearly instigates an even closer relationship between Bill’s spectacle and the soon to arrive Western cinema. It is both a starting and an endpoint.

After Buffalo Bill and the Indians the remnants of the Western in Altman’s work can then only be glimpsed in small moments of the modern day-set Fool for Love (1985), staged in a motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert, or the comic singing cowboy characters of A Prairie Home Companion (2006); in some ways a return to the comic styling and sibling rivalry (elements emphasised by Altman in many of his episodes in the series) of Bonanza’s Hoss and Little Joe. The passage from Bonanza to Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson is both an epic journey across major shifts in the American Western between the late 1950s and mid-1970s and one that really covers very little distance at all. Altman is a filmmaker who moved restlessly across genre and various modes of filmmaking and television production, his piecemeal but significant work in the Western reflective of his broader concerns with American history and myth, show business and entertainment, specific physical environments or institutions, the material qualities and affordances of sound and image, and the impact of popular culture on our understanding of the past. Although, on one level, Altman’s two cinema Westerns might appear to give access to the reality of the “past”, the director himself has questioned the veracity of such an approach: “I see no reason to go back to the reality of it and then tell the story”. [36]  Altman’s Westerns recognise the impossibility of returning to a moment before the popular formation and mythology of the genre. Each of his key three contributions, Bonanza, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Buffalo Bill and Indians, take different approaches to the impenetrability of this mythology. Ultimately, as David Thomson has claimed, “Altman’s America” is “a place of frauds and dreamers”, [37]  a “floating world” that embraces and questions the schemes, delusions and even grandeur of such characters as Hoss, McCabe, Mrs. Miller and Buffalo Bill. These are the people we spend time with while a church burns in the background.


[1] Altman in Robert T. Self, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Reframing the American West, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2007, pp. 55-6.
[2] For a nuanced and detailed discussion of the how the Bicentennial was planned, conducted and celebrated see Tammy S. Gordon, The Spirit of 1976: Commerce, Community, and the Politics of Commemoration, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst and Boston, 2013. Gordon argues that although some of the larger events organised to mark the occasion, as well as the large bulk of merchandise produced to “commemorate” it, did not reach anything like the audience expected by politicians, public institutions and organising committees, the Bicentennial was a greater success for grassroots and localised celebrations. The Bicentennial was also a groundbreaking national commemoration because it engaged with a range of often disparate and competing voices that had more fully emerged on the public stage in the 1960s and ’70s. In this respect, Altman’s film can be seen as a pertinent intervention into a number of these debates and concerns about the appropriate way to commemorate such a contested history and who had the right to “speak”. 1976 also marked the centenary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, an event that is indirectly referenced by the presence of the figure of Sitting Bull in both the film’s title and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West spectacular.
[3] This figure is cited in Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, a Biography of the Great American Director, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1989, p. 442.
[4] Approximately 557 separate dime novels were written about Buffalo Bill. Buntline only wrote four of these while the absurdly prolific Prentiss Ingraham contributed 121, 23 of these in 1896 alone. See Edward Buscombe (ed.), The BFI Companion to the Western, Atheneum, New York, 1988, p. 91.
[5] McGilligan, p. 442.
[6] Helene Keyssar, Robert Altman’s America, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1991, p. 267.
[7] Altman interviewed in David Thompson (ed.), Altman on Altman, Faber and Faber, London, 2006, p. 100.
[8] Robert T. Self, Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2002, p. 209.
[9] Champlin quoted in Mitchell Zuckoff, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009, p. 310.
[10] A partial exception to this is Michael Shapiro’s “Robert Altman: The West as Countermemory” in Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema, ed. James Phillips, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2008, pp. 52-67. Shapiro’s evocative and astute essay is mainly concerned with tracing the historical politics of Altman’s two features and does not generally place them within the broader developments of the genre or the director’s full career.
[11] See Pauline Kael, “Pipe Dream”, New Yorker 3 July 1971, p. 40.
[12] Self, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Reframing the American West.
[13] Keyssar, pp. 266-82.
[14] Self, Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality, p. 204.
[15] Stephen Teo, “Altman and the Western, or a Hollywood Director’s History Lesson of the American West”, A Companion to Robert Altman, ed. Adrian Danks, Wiley Blackwell, Malden, MA, forthcoming (2015). Teo discusses Altman’s two film Westerns (he has little to say about the TV episodes other than as apprentice work) in terms of their “alternativeness”, focus on the antihero and, most interestingly in relation to Buffalo Bill and the Indians, through Homi Bhabha’s conception of “third space” (an idea introduced but applied differently by Self in his book on McCabe & Mrs. Miller). Teo productively views the film’s approach to Sitting Bull through a postcolonialist lens.
[16] 1976 was the year between the release of Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and the first Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) movie. Film production, distribution and exhibition in America were all in the process of undergoing seismic changes that acted to disadvantage an essentially “art film” director like Altman and the increasingly niche appeal of the Western. The shift towards multiplexing, franchising and simultaneous wide release made it difficult for films to build audiences or rely on modest commercial success. Altman’s career for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s is marked by a series of financial failures, barely released films and an eventual shift back to television and radically smaller scale production. It is only in the early 1990s, itself another period of major changes in Hollywood that saw the partial resurgence of the Western and a shifting relationship to what is often called art house cinema, that Altman’s feature film career is properly resurrected.
[17] See Michael Coyne, The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western, I. B. Taruris, London and New York, 1997, pp. 166-83.
[18] Coyne, p. 167.
[19] Coyne, p. 167.
[20] Many of Altman’s films of the 1970s can be discussed in relation to their revisionist approach to genre such as the Korean war movie/service comedy MASH (1970), the detective film The Long Goodbye, the backblocks crime movie Thieves Like Us (1974), the “country” musical Nashville, and the romantic comedy A Perfect Couple (1979).
[21] Kopit’s play has a much broader scope than Altman’s film, covering events that range over twenty years and move beyond the more restricted focus of the show itself. For a fuller discussion of the differences and correspondences between the play and film see Carol W. Billman, “Illusions of Grandeur: Altman, Kopit, and the Legends of the Wild West”, Literature/Film Quarterly vol. 6, no. 3, Summer 1978, pp. 253-61. Despite many significant departures, Buffalo Bill and the Indians still probably represents one of Altman’s more faithful adaptations, even in terms of the level of the correspondence between the screenplay and the finished film.
[22] Cody even produced several of his own written accounts of his life and career. These include The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill (1879).
[23] Buscombe, p. 15.
[24] Altman in Thompson, p. 100.
[25] Altman in Self, Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality, p. 210.
[26] For a detailed discussion of this symbiotic and developing relationship see Kristen Whissel, “Placing the Spectator on the Scene of History: The Battle Re-enactment at the Turn of the Century, from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to the Early Cinema”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television vol. 22, no. 3, 2002, pp. 225-43. For a detailed account of Cody’s relationship to early cinema see Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History, Hill and Wang, New York, 2000, pp. 255-63. The first chapter of Kasson’s book also highlights the place of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West within a broader “invention” of the Western genre between 1868 and 1886, and specifically argues for its place in the cultural formation of US national identity.
[27] Self, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Reframing the American West, p. 57
[28] Self, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Reframing the American West, p. 56.
[29] Marcus Cole, “Buffalo Bill and the Indians”, Cinema Papers no. 11, January 1977, p. 269.
[30] David Dortort, one of the creators and producers of Bonanza, quoted in McGilligan, p. 173.
[31] Alvin H. Marill, Television Westerns: Six Decades of Sagebrush Sheriffs, Scalawags, and Sidewinders, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, 2011, p. 62.
[32] Marill, p. 60.
[33] The eight episodes of Bonanza Altman directed were: “Silent Thunder” (10 December 1960), “Bank Run” (28 January 1961), “The Duke” (11 March 1961), “The Rival” (15 April 1961), “The Secret” (6 May 1961), “The Dream Riders” (20 May 1961), “Sam Hill” (3 June 1961), “The Many Faces of Gideon Finch” (5 November 1961). Much of his work on the series is confined to the latter episodes of season two. “The Many Faces of Gideon Finch” is the only episode he directed in season 3.
[34] McGilligan, p. 174.
[35] Jim Kitses in Self, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Reframing the American West, p. 55.
[36] Altman in Self, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Reframing the American West, p. 56.
[37] David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th ed., Little, Brown, London, 2002, p. 14.

About the Author

Adrian Danks

About the Author

Adrian Danks

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published widely in a range of books and journals including: Senses of Cinema, Metro, Screening the Past, Studies in Documentary Film, Studies in Australasian Cinema, Australian Book Review, Screen Education, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Traditions in World Cinema, Melbourne in the 60s, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, Contemporary Westerns, B is for Bad Cinema, Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave, Being Cultural, World Film Locations: Melbourne and Sydney, and Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films. He is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley, 2015), co-editor of American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave, 2018) and is currently writing several books including monographs devoted to 3-D Cinema (Rutgers) and "international" feature-film production in Australia during the postwar era (Australian International Pictures, with Con Verevis, to be published by Edinburgh University Press)."View all posts by Adrian Danks →