Release Date(s)1976 (December 9, 2014)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: C
- Audio Grade: C+
- Extras Grade: D
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson continues Robert Altman’s trend of finding the reality within the fiction, and vice versa. Released in 1976 to less than favorable reviews, it’s one of the more under-appreciated Altman works. It came along at a time when the U.S. was celebrating its bicentennial, not to mention the blockbuster success of Jaws with Star Wars on the horizon; so to say that a post-modern western (especially one that has strong ties to its original stage play counterpart) wouldn’t be well-received isn’t too much of a surprise.
Buffalo Bill Cody in real life was a man who got his namesake by hunting and killing nearly 4,300 buffalo and fighting in the Indian Wars. He later used his famous exploits to his advantage, opening his “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show to much financial success between 1883 and 1887. The film takes place during this time, telling of when the Native American chief Sitting Bull came to visit with him and perform in his show.
Robert Altman’s continued use of messy dialogue-heavy soundtracks with diffused lenses is partly what turns me off about the film. This specifically feels like a work that didn’t require that kind of style. It feels like it should be more perfunctory in nature and less stylish. Not that Altman is incapable of delivering a product that feels fresh or different, but I felt that this project didn’t need his usual overt touches. It feels more straightforward, and perhaps didn’t need Altman at all. The presence of Paul Newman, first of all, seems to be off-kilter most of the time. He doesn’t feel like he belongs in this ensemble, but then again, I couldn’t imagine Warren Beatty or Elliot Gould in it either. The cast does some great work, of course, but there are never any great performances or great dialogue pieces that stand out anywhere. Buffalo Bill’s character is interesting and the way that Altman paints him is certainly a different take, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. And Sitting Bull’s attempt to deal with Buffalo Bill in a sort of mischievous way doesn’t truly pan out either.
I’ve said elsewhere that I’m not a big Robert Altman fan, but I do appreciate some of his work and genuinely love a couple of his movies, but this is a case where it’s hard for me to defend the material. It’s taking a good idea and landing somewhere in the middle of the road with it, which is the worst kind of movie to me. This movie isn’t terrible by any means. If it were, it would be more memorable, but I felt mostly neutral about it while watching it. Some good performances mixed with an over-zealous style equals boring results, in this reviewer’s opinion.
The Blu-ray presentation of Buffalo Bill and the Indians only further demonstrates my point. This isn’t a horrible transfer, but its origins aren’t truly worth of the format it’s being presented on. Heavy grain is apparent within soft images, giving us just enough visual detail but never enough. Colors are quite warm and never really pop at all, although I don’t believe they were ever intended to. Blacks are decent, as are contrast levels, and this transfer seems to have been sourced from a poorer-quality print than usual. There are several film splices, lots of dirt, and specks on display. It doesn’t appear to have been artificially sharpened or tinkered with, however. The soundtrack, which is an English DTS-HD 2.0 track stemmed from the original mono, is only slightly more acceptable. The muddled voices have some boost to them, and there are some nice atmospherics to be had. Score also sounds pleasing as well. But overall, it’s a just hair above mediocre. It’s not bad, but it still borders on middle of the road. There are also subtitles in English for those who need them.
Extra material is extremely brief. You do get the vintage From the Prairie to the Palace featurette, plus the original teaser trailer and theatrical trailer, but other than that, it’s pretty slim pickings.
I wasn’t terribly impressed with Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. I think it might have had better potential with a different director at the helm, someone who would have wrangled in the performances and shot things a little more clearly. That sounds like backseat criticism, I know, but I just felt underwhelmed by it all. That being said, fans of Altman and his work should be pleased to finally have the film in high definition. That’s the only case in which I’d recommend this release. Otherwise, there’s a much better Altman western to watch: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (also in need of a high definition release – I’m looking at you Warner Bros.).
- Tim Salmons