Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is a 1976 DeLuxe Color revisionist Western directed by Robert Altman and based on the play Indians by Arthur Kopit. 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 filmed in Panavision.
As in his earlier film MASH, Altman skewers an American historical myth of heroism, in this case the notion that noble white men fighting bloodthirsty savages won the West. However, the film was poorly received at the time of its release, as the country was celebrating its bicentennial.
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. Much to Cody's annoyance, Sitting Bull proves not to be a murdering savage but a genuine embodiment of what the whites believe about their own history out west. He is quietly heroic and morally pure.
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. An enraged Cody fires him but is forced to relent when star attraction Annie Oakley takes Sitting Bull's side.
Like many of Altman's films, Buffalo Bill and the Indians is an ensemble piece with an episodic structure. It follows the day to day performances and behind-the-scenes intrigues of Buffalo Bill Cody's famous "Wild West Show", a hugely popular 1880s entertainment spectacular that starred the former Indian fighter, scout and buffalo hunter. Altman uses the setting to criticize Old West motifs, presenting the eponymous western hero as a show-biz creation who can no longer separate his invented image from reality.
Altman's Cody is a loud-mouthed buffoon, a man who claims to be one with the Wild West but lives in luxury, play-acting daily in a western circus of his own making. Cody's long hair is a wig, he can't shoot straight any more or track an Indian, and all his staged battles with ruffians and savages are rigged in his favor. However, this does not keep him from acting as if his triumphs are real, or plaguing his patient entourage of yes-men with endless monologues about himself.
Most of the film was shot on location in Alberta, Canada, mostly on the Stoney Indian Reserve. Frank "Sitting Wind" Kaquitts, who played Sitting Bull, had been elected the first ever chief of Alberta's Nakoda (Stoney) First Nation, after three bands had amalgamated the year before.
Despite a lackluster reception at the time of its release, the film has since been regarded more favorably, with a "fresh" 82% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote "It's a sometimes self-indulgent, confused, ambitious movie that is often very funny and always fascinating."
In 1976, the film was entered into the 26th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Bear.