Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976): Altman’s Revisionist Western, Starring Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster

Robert Altman directed Buffalo Bill and the Indians (aka Sitting Bull’s History Lesson), a revisionist Western film, largely scripted by Alan Rudolph, and inspired by Arthur Kopit’s 1968 play, “Indians,”

Buffalo Bill and the Indians
Buffalo bill and the indians.jpg

Theatrical release poster


It stars Paul Newman as William F. Cody, alias Buffalo Bill, along with Geraldine Chaplin, Will Sampson, Joel Grey, Harvey Keitel and Burt Lancaster as Bill’s biographer, Ned Buntline.

The feature was shot in Panavision by cinematographer Paul Lohmann.

The loose, episodic narrative structure centers on the performances and behind-the-scenes intrigues of Buffalo Bill Cody’s famous “Wild West Show,” a popular 1880s spectacle that starred the former Indian fighter, scout and buffalo hunter.

The story begins in 1885 with the arrival of an important new guest star in Buffalo Bill Cody’s grand illusion, Chief Sitting Bull of Little Big Horn fame.

Sitting Bull proves not to be a murdering savage but quietly heroic, an embodiment of what the whites believe about their own history out west.

Sitting Bull also refuses to portray Custer’s Last Stand as a cowardly sneak attack. Instead, he asks Cody to act out the massacre of a peaceful Sioux village by marauding bluecoats.

Cody, enraged, fires him, but he is forced to relent when the star Annie Oakley sides with Sitting Bull.

Altman skewers the American historical myth of heroism, in this case the notion that it’s the noble white men fighting bloodthirsty savages who had won the West.  He uses the setting to criticize Old West motifs, dissecting the western hero as a showbiz creation who can no longer distinguish between his fabricated image and factual reality.

The film was poorly received at the time of its release, as the country was celebrating its bicentennial.

A big commercial flop, it failed to recoup its production budget.


Directed by Robert Altman
Screenplay by Alan Rudolph, Altman, based on Indians by Arthur Kopit
Produced by Dino De Laurentis
Cinematography Paul Lohmann
Edited by Peter Appleton, Dennis M. Hill
Music by Richard Baskin
Distributed by United Artists (USA); Dino De Laurentiis Productions (overseas)

Release date: June 24, 1976 (US)

Running time: 123 minutes
Budget $7.1 million
Box office $7.2 million