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, based on Arthur Kopit’s 1968 play, “Indians.”

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 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 noble white men fighting bloodthirsty savages 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.