Robert Altman created a movie that went against ge

nre, mocked Hollywood, and gave insight on peoples perception of Indians. Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bulls History Lesson was made for the bicentennial. It is a story about a cowboy and Indian show that starred Bill Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. Cody is a culture icon in this movie, with examples present throughout the film. The story takes a turn when the show is able to hire Sitting Bull as one of the entertainers. But the hiring of Sitting Bull proves to be more of a hassle then anything else for Cody.

Western genres usually have many of the same elements. It has tough cowboys who are forced to dual at some point with an enemy, whether it be another cowboy or Indian. It takes place in western-like places with dirt roads and saloons. But this film is different. It has those elements, but it does not take on the role of a typical western film. Cody is known around the country. The show is known around the country. It is like a small community with tents and small homes set-up all over the set. People travel out to see the show which seems to be in the middle of no where in some small western town. The show turns into a money making machine. This is when Cody especially becomes greedy and wants more and more. It gets to the point where this legend in his own time starts breaking down because of his drinking. He fires the shows originator and what appears to be his manager and hires someone else. The new man in charge behind Cody seems to be more of a Hollywood type manager. The kind who can get as much as he and the show can handle. This is when he brings in Sitting Bull. Through all of this, Altman is able to mock Hollywoods ways and steer away from a western genre while keeping it a western type film.

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Altmans first step in getting away from Hollywood was by filming in Canada, where it is cheaper to film. The show is a typical movie business atmosphere. The “American show” is something very familiar to Americans. This was a perfect example of how Hollywood works. Yet it was outside of Hollywood. People would get fired at the drop of a hat and people would forget many important things in life. This was because people, especially Cody, would be so wrapped up in the show they would eventually go crazy. A perfect example is when Cody takes out his gun and starts to shoot at the mistress bird. One of the biggest misconceptions of people is the misconception of the cowboy. This film shows how Hollywood depicts cowboys: as acrobatic horse riders, aggressive gun shooters, abusive alcohol drinkers, etc. This film is the perfect example of what the movies make of the west and of cowboys. It all says it in the title of the show, Buffalo Bills Wild West.

Cody, played by Paul Newman, is the leader of this show. In a time when cowboys where not as common due to the railroad and barbed wire, Cody had to give a little extra to the people that would come to watch him. With the help of his background cast, people would pay to see him. When he is performing, he looks like the nicest man in the world. There to be everyones friend and to entertain them. But you see what he is really like when he is “behind the scenes.” As viewers, people do not see how actors really act off screen. Someones favorite actor could really be a very nasty person. You do not know. You see how Cody acts because you see him on and off the stage. He is treated the same by all though. Like he is a god. The best example of Codys stature is when the opera singer is singing at the party when the president is there. In almost every shot, there is a picture of Cody. The pictures are all similar. With a proud look on his face like he is watching over all his people, up on a pedestal. You see pictures of Cody in the beginning before you even see him. This may prove people feel he is more important then he really is. What does Cody have that other people do not have? He is just a regular person entertaining people. He is seen as superior though.

Cody as a regular person. “Where is my real jacket,” he states when going through his closet. He is not always Buffalo Bill. But people treat him like that. Also, when he takes is wig off for the first time, you see a totally different person then Buffalo Bill. You see Bill Cody, the regular guy that just wants his own jacket.

Besides Cody, Sitting Bull is seen as the person who will really put the show through the roof. However, it is not that easy. Along with Sitting Bull is a small tribe. At one point, the tribe was massive and powerful. Now they have slowly diminished to less then 100. The Indians are used to living there own way. And now Sitting Bull is forced into this show business atmosphere. Through a translator, it is clear what Sitting Bull wants. Through a dream, he is told if he goes to the show, he will be able to meet the president. He finally meets him, yet the president does not want anything to do with his requests. In fact, he does not even let him ask the request. This shows the racism that was very present in the turn of the century.

The show knows that Sitting Bulls only reason for being on the show is for money. It will produce more people coming to the all ready popular show. The reenactment of Custards last stand is not how the Indians remember it though. Sitting Bull is difficult to work with and does not have the effect Cody thought it would. However, it all seems worth it when he turns a gun on the president and fires well above his head, scarring the entire audience and cast. Sitting Bull is one of the causes of Codys breakdown. However, the breakdown can all be blamed on his obsessive behavior for the wild west show.

Robert Altman created this wild west film to show that many American perceptions of cowboys and Indians, and the west come from movies. Hollywood created these stereo types all the time. Without the films, what would people think of when they heard the phrase “wild west.” That is what film is though. It challenges the mind and as Orson Welles said, “Film should suggest things, evoke more then what you see.”


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