A group of Indians enter the Mayflower campus as the narrator informs us that “The great chief of the Sioux tribe Sitting Bull, is here with us. And he’ll be in the same arena with the noblest white skin of all”. Altman and DP Paul Lohmann shoot the group with a telephoto lens, much like Bill who watches it using a spyglass. We see Bill through a zoom-in as well, as he tries to catch sight of his opponent. One Indian of an imposing stature wearing a red shawl stands out from the rest in the group. Everyone in Bill’s crew is convinced that that man is Sitting Bull. Their Sitting Bull is a based on an idea of how a formidable Indian should ideally look like – a Sitting Bull that would really set the box office on fire – than on facts. Even before the group enters the campus, we hear legends and myths about Sitting Bull. Even the audience is led to believe, thanks to Altman’s casting and framing, that the man in red is the real chief. A gaudy theatrical entry, backed by stereo-typical race-based music, brings Bill to the welcome ceremony where he learns too late that the small man behind the one in red is the real Sitting Bull. Altman himself frames Newman heroically sitting on the horse and supervising the crowd on ground. When Bill tells the chief: “Me and my staff are the best at what we do. And what we do is make the best look better”, we realize that Bill is the prototype of the capitalist industrialist, America’s first CEO, trying to hit peak efficiency and performance.
Upon learning the identities of both the Indian in red and Sitting Bull, he assures them before he takes leave that the latter won’t be mistaken for a ‘below average run-of-the-mill Indian Chief’: “I just wanted to welcome you here to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. You’ll find it ain’t all that different from real life. Gentlemen, Injuns…”. Different from real life it ain’t, but not in the sense Bill means. If Bill is the CEO of the organization, Nate is the CFO. In their encampment, after the meeting, the crew discusses the future. Nate says: “We all know sociable chaff is cheap but history, real history is hard come”, as if it’s a commodity to be acquired as soon as possible. As Nate segues back to singing hosannas to Bill, Altman cuts back and forth to the Indians planning to pitch their teepees across the river. Even before the company learns of this and finishes ridiculing the idea, it notices that the Indians have already completed their mission. Bill tries to act normal and tells the crowd that it is better that Sitting Bull stays across the river so that he can watch him all the time. This is the second time when the film draws comparisons explicitly between Bill and Bull. Bill’s a man, as would be clear in the ‘soprano’ stage of the film, obsessed with his own image. Here he is, for the first time, wanting to watch Sitting Bull ‘all the time’ from his chair. He then goes on to theorize that an Injun always turns down your first offer.
Soon enough, Sitting Bull and his right hand Halsey (the Injun in red , Will Sampson) visit Bill and co. to talk about the chief’s stint at the Wild West show. When Halsey, Sitting Bull’s mouthpiece, speaks in Native terms about the latter, Bill tries give back imitate “the same kind of murky logic” that Halsey used. Burke intervenes to tell that Sitting Bull was there to ‘relive his history for thousands of paying customers’. Altman isolates the two parties completely, never allowing them to be seen together, like a turn-based strategy game, cutting across the table every time someone speaks. Halsey demands blankets for the whole clan (agreed to, thanks to the “benevolence of Buffalo Bill”), six weeks of advance (also eventually agreed to since Bull will be here until the unlikely even of him meeting the president of the country) and rights over photographs of Sitting Bull (at which Bill loses it, the corporate head that he is). Meanwhile, Bull is attracted by a music box, although he does not know its function. Music plays a key role in the film, both as performance accompaniment and as indicator of culture.
An abrupt cut from the meeting brings us to the arena where Bill is practicing sharp shooting takes us right into his personal life: a letter from his wife accusing him of affairs with milk maids and opera singers and of being a chronic drinker and calling for a divorce. Another collage of performances at the playground – shooting, whipping, horse racing – before Burke introduces Bill to the second singer – a coloratura – in the film. After a quick chitchat ripe for Freudian mining, Bill is told by Nate that President Cleveland will not be coming to the Wild West and that Bull will be stuck there for life. Nate asks Halsey to come with him to demonstrate the kind of show he will be involved in and also says that their production team is the only one to show the reds and the whites without taking sides – another reminder that his Wild West show is more a business enterprise predicated on sale value than ideological enterprise based on political value. In the demo, a black American stands in for Sitting Bull because, Bill tells us, “he’s the closest we got on our staff to a real Injun”. Bull is not impressed. Halsey tells Bill and co. that the war didn’t happen the way it is being depicted in the demo and that Bull wasn’t in the field at all. Altman composes both Bull and Bull in the same frame and at either end, as if trying to balance each version of the war.
Cut to Bill’s private room, with Margaret the Contralto singing. We learn that Bill’s long hair is fake and that he hopes they become real one day. The opera makes way for faint Native chants during the evening, as Bill ponders. He tells Margaret that she has to leave because he has to concentrate on Bull. Of course, he’s also thinking of Lucille the Coloratura. This seemingly minor shift is followed by a key scene in which Halsey and Bull revisit the Wild West team for another unplanned meeting during the midnight. The apartment is filmed as if it is dingy. Indian artifacts adorn the walls like prizes. No one is awake and Bull reaches for the music box. Halsey wakes Bill up and he is frustrated that he has been caught without his false hair. In a pretty charged conversation, Halsey asks Bill to rewrite the script and to present a version in which the hero McLaren was a mass murderer who slew women, children and dogs without provocation. Nate pacifies Bill before he erupts and tells him that they could still pull it off with proper arrangement and music. It’s a dynamic scene with a war field like atmosphere where the battle is for representation of history. It is here that the portrayal of the Wild West show as an (subconsciously) ideological apparatus rich with possibilities of alternate apparatuses and meta-narratives becomes most literal and most pointed. Bill stays silent, takes a swig off his glass, sits alongside Bull and urges in vain for a heart-to-heart conversation. He takes offense to Halsey’s claims the “he murdered women, old men, and children”. It’s a remarkable moment of character exposition. Halsey was talking just about Custer but Bill can’t help but hear that it was all about him. It is as though he believes that he stands in for Custer and that takes responsibility of the entirety of white history at the frontier. Right after that, Bill throws the first of the two side-splitting tantrums in the film: “You have till noon to get outta here!” and walks off the meeting with a murmur; “It’s harder being a star than an Indian”. It’s harder not being any star, but this particular star of this particular show, who has taken upon him subconsciously the burden of being answerable to both his predecessors and successors.
The next day Bill is told that Annie Oakley, the moral centre of the film and the only person who finds any sanity in Halsey’s claims, is planning to leave with the Indians. He decides to call her back. She asks Bill why he can’t listen to Bull for once to which he replies: “I got a better sense of history that that”. Writer Alan Rudolph said elsewhere (but which many writers attribute to this film – I didn’t find it here) that history is what gets the most applause. And Bill’s sense of history is, at least on an unconscious level, just that. At this point, we assume that Bill’s just lying through his teeth for sustaining his myth and don’t suspect for a moment that he might be believing in what he is saying. Annie’s obstinacy forces Bill to retain Bull. (Altman makes space for a sight gag to comment on Bill’s situation). The first show goes underway and plays to packed houses. Bill makes his entry just before Altman cuts to Buntline in the bar trying to sketch another theory for Bill: “No ordinary man would ever take credit for acts of bravery and heroism he couldn’t have done. And no ordinary man would realize what huge profits could be made by telling a pack of lies like it was the truth. No, Bill Cody can only trust his senses. And when his senses fail him he might see things as they really are”. As the Legend Maker gives us first signs that it isn’t as simple as a willful obfuscation of truth that Buffalo Bill is executing, Bill rides into the arena to an uproar followed by the anthem “Oh Say, Can You See?”. Like most genre heroes from Hollywood, Bill is truly professional, unapologetic about what he is doing and really loving that he’s excelling in it.
After Annie Oakley’s act, in which she misses twice – but covered up – and a couple others, Sitting Bull’s big show comes up. Bill tells Halsey that Bull will discover now what show business is all about and that he’ll come back to him begging for more. “Sitting Bull’s going to suffer a worse defeat than Custer ever did. Custer got to die. Bull’s just going to get humiliated”. Nate announces Sitting Bull as the most murderous redskin alive. With clichéd Injun music blaring, the small-framed Bull enters the arena modestly and amidst catcalls. He really wasn’t what people were expecting. They didn’t want the real Sitting Bull but the ideal Sitting Bull. But as a pair of Indians sings Native American chants, along with which Altman presents a low angle zoom into Sitting Bull composed against a banner of his, befitting a mythical hero, the crowd comes back to life. It’s a strange moment where the audience seems to have found the authenticity they want in this show. With this sort of music, it appears that this Sitting Bull makes a good Sitting Bull. Altman here seems to be throwing light on cinema’s own myth-constructing process where the best – and not necessarily just – image and the sound conspire to create a lasting falsity that people can trust. Bill, watching from behind screen, is stunned; his mouth agape as Bull returns and the screen falls over him. Envy might just not be everything.