The film now moves into its final and the most glorious set piece. What, in a lesser film, could have been simply an exercise in liberal white guilt is elevated into the realm of the unreal and the mythical: Bill’s King Lear-like descent into madness. We see, through a door, Bill waking up suddenly and telling himself that he doesn’t dream. Evidently he was/is in some sort of a sour dream. He is not in his costume and doesn’t have his wig on. He is, literally, stripped down from his mass persona to what he essentially is. He comes to the main room to see Sitting Bull sitting in full costume. Bill tells himself that Bull isn’t there at all. We realize that we are, in a way, in Bill’s psychospace. It’s just Bill and Bull now. Bill goes towards his bar, mumbling: “I hate women” for some reason. (The Coloratura’s probably insulted him and left him as well). The interiors of the room seem emptier than ever, almost Wellesian, with the camera carving out deep spaces hitherto unseen. Bill pours himself a big one. Bull sits alongside a poster of Bill. Cut to Bill. Cut back to Bull. He’s standing right next to the poster. Bill stares at him and says: “You ain’t even the right image”. Like an exacting filmmaker, the right image is what Bill is after in the whole film.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

He asks the absent Halsey to leave the room and shouts: “Chief! Halsey’s got all the brains. Except he doesn’t mean a word he says, which is why he sounds so real”. A man in the hyperreal highway, Bill’s idea of real is that which sounds and looks more authentic than one which is more truthful. The Wild West show, itself, is a simulacrum, with its own internal logic and without any relation to reality, whose value is measured with parameters like “performance” and “believability” rather than veraciousness, (Halsey, like Bill, is a man with an imposing outside and a seemingly nonextant inner personality. In a way, Halsey is an actor directed by Sitting Bull). Now, Altman’s film, itself, is highly ‘authentic’ in its period setting, eye-popping production design that is marked by an excess of brown colour, décor, costumes and character behaviour. Like many Hollywood films, it seems to take pride in how well it has been able to reproduce an era in fine detail. By critiquing this fetish for surface authenticity, Altman mocks his own film’s claims to veracity. Bill then goes into the adjacent room to “show Sitting Bull something about real”. He comes back with a buffalo skin that he claims he skinned when he was nine. Sitting Bull isn’t there. Bill goes back into his dingy storeroom. “God meant for me to be white” he mutters. The room is nearly dark. Bill in only lit from a far-off source. Only his profile is visible with yet another photograph of his in the background. For the first time in the film, he appears as a complete void with only an outline to hold on to. Bill has been reduced to the absolute lack-of-self that he is. He spots Bull opposite him in bright light. He tells him: “And it ain’t easy. I got people with no lives living through me. Proud people. People to worry about. My daddy died without seeing me as a star. Tall, profitable, good looking”. Another equivalence between Bill and Bull. Bill speaks about ancestors and their continued existence and their dreams like a Native American would. Bill takes responsibility for Custer’s (and American) legacy to such an extent that he simply cannot see himself apart from these figures of the past. Altman described Bill well as a man trapped in someone else’s dream for him.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Bill returns to the well lit main room, back to his surface, personality and image, and yells at Bull: “In 100 years, I’ll still be Buffalo Bill, star! And you’ll be the Injun”. Bill will by over-determined and Bull will be generic indeed. But this typecasting of both is not anything to be proud about. He goes on, before taking another swing and sitting near Bull: “You want to stay the same. Well, that’s going backwards”, without realizing that it is entirely true of himself as well. Bull is indeed Bill’s repressed guilt and a token of America’s repressed history that keeps coming back. (No wonder Bill traces it all back to his childhood). But he’s a lot more as well. Bill and Bull are very much like Ethan and Scarface of The Searchers (1956). Both Bill and Ethan see in the other’s eyes a deep abyss that is themselves. For Bill, though, there’s also a deep mimetic desire, which showed its signs every time Bull went into the arena with a loud applause, which attracts him to the earthiness of Bull more than the physicality Halsey. He tells Bull: “I’m curious, chief. My friends are curious. My women are curious. My fans are curious. And they pay me for it. I give them what they expect. You can’t live up to what you expect. That makes you more make believe than me. You don’t even know if you’re bluffing”. He realizes that the more he watches Bull, the more he realizes that he’s like him. But Bill, internally conflicted more than ever in this segment, resists (in his second hilarious outburst of the film): “The difference between a white man and an Injun, in all situations is that an Injun is red. And an Injun is red for a real good reason. So we can tell us apart”. Bill gets up and moves near the notorious photograph of him on the horse – a superego of sorts – that had taunted him all along. “Ain’t he riding that horse right? If he ain’t, then how come all of you took him for a king?” he says, looking directly into the camera, as though questioning once and for all, the film’s inherent and explicit mythicizing of both Newman and Bill. The voice might just be that of Altman. “Carve our names. And celebrate the event” cries Bill and exits the scene.

A new day, a new show. Nate yells out the last words of the film, which sound not much different from the first lines, thus closing the circle of historical appropriation and ethnic misrepresentation:

“Ladies and gentlemen. For the first time in the history of show business, Nate Salsbury and William F. Cody present a conflict between two of the greatest warriors in western civilization staged with spectacular realism. Behold Chief Sitting Bull warrior of the western plains who has murdered more white men than any other redskin spoiled more white women than any other redskin. This bloodthirsty leader of the Hunkpapa Sioux has challenged Buffalo Bill to a duel to the death! Sitting Bull is played by William Halsey. Buffalo Bill, called “Pahaska” which means “long hair” in Sioux accepts the challenge for his beloved country.”

“Spectacular realism” indeed. Halsey, possibly to save the rest of his clan, takes up the role of Sitting Bull. Finally, the show has someone who looks the part. The huge screen on the left opens up once again, abruptly revealing Bill against a beautiful frontier landscape (very much like the opening of The Searchers). The screen motif is central to the film and its visceral use here invokes (and critiques) traditional westerns with their awesome geography and mythical heroes powerfully. Bill gets down on the field, engages in a condensed hand-to-hand combat act with the substitute Sitting Bull, defeats him and scalps him. He’s scalped more than just Sitting Bull’s hair. He’s scalped an alternate history and possibly the truth as well. Bill gathers the scalp and walks atop a synthetic rock besides the upright flagpole bearing the American flag. The crowd roars, the music soars, Bill gloats. Altman’s camera zooms – and this is one of the best zooms in his body of work – into his face from afar, keeps going until his only his eyes are seen in the frame, composed against plain, blue sky. Bill’s image has become just too big for the frame, it has outgrown it. What was planted firmly in context in a particular geography and time has become a trans-historical floating signifier. Quite simply, Buffalo Bill will be.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

The most common complaint against Buffalo Bill and the Indians seems to be that the film exhausts its material soon, that it tells us little more than that Bill was a fraud and that it revels in beating a dead horse. Surely, reducing Altman’s film here to the story of a man who defrauded his audience is like saying Citizen Kane (1941) is the story of a selfish man and The Conformist (1970) is the story of an opportunistic man. It is true that the text of all these films is relatively thin, but these films open up indescribable emotional and intellectual avenues that would have been rather roundabout if attempted through the written text. Individually, these three films represent, for me, three great experiments with the filmic form as well as three films that make a strong case for cinema as opposed to text. Decidedly auteurist works, these three films also represent the respective filmmakers in top form, perhaps their best form. What Citizen Kane was to Welles and The Conformist was to Bertolucci, Buffalo Bill and the Indians is to Altman. It’s his masterpiece.

 

Section

IIIIIIIV – V

An L-cut to an elaborate set piece. It’s an after-show party for the president. The scene opens with the painting of Bill/Custer. Cleveland is greeting the performers. We see that the room is also decorated with paintings of Bill, as if closing in on those inside it, as if consuming them (it does consume Bill eventually, at least). The American flag, too, is ubiquitous, as it is everywhere in the film. Bill meets a fine-looking lady who, he learns, is a soprano. Her English is broken, with an Italian accent, The first lady introduces her as Nina Cavellini, who starts to sing. It’s the strangest moment in the film. Altman presents the entire song in the soundtrack, without his usual overlap of soundscapes, while he photographs the faces of those who are listening. It’s an assortment of reaction shots ranging from faces that are visibly moved, stunned, impressed, indifferent and plainly bored. This three-and-a-half minute song segment is truly out of character with the rest of the film, a blind spot that defies all theoretical evaluations. What we and the crew experience is an entirely alien cultural artifact, and this moment teases us as to how we should react to it: As high culture embodying the best of civilization? As a kind of imperial entity in foreign soil? Why should this be any more exotic than Native chants? The confusion is compounded when the bravura performance is followed by the first lady’s remark that she is always ‘trying to spread culture’. Bill asks Nina to stay for a few days so that he can show her the real Wild West. She replies, in good American accent (like how Nate speaks in Native tongue), that her secret life with General Benjamin is wild enough and turns his offer down. This is the last phase in the de-sexualizing of Buffalo Bill, so to speak.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

As Nina walks away from an overly embarrassed Bill, she spots Halsey and Bull at the entrance of the party. Ed attempts to shoo them away when Cleveland asks him to let the good comedians in. Altman cuts the ensuing conversation like how he did during the first meeting between Bull and Bill, isolating each party in separate frames. Halsey tells Cleveland that if he can do one particular thing for the clan, they’d be grateful. Cleveland hedges, doesn’t even listen to the request and turns it down. His wife cowers behind his gigantic frame. Halsey and Bull leave the place. Everyone congratulates president for his brave confrontation, as if it was a game of chess. Bill proposes a toast, chalking another theory about Indian chiefs and American presidents (“The president always knows enough to retaliate before it’s his turn”), and offers his personal bed for resting. He tells Cleveland that he will sleep under the stars, listening to the lullaby of the coyotes. Cleveland is floored. Bill walks away as a hero. A shot of Bull’s clan chanting. They’re probably mourning. Bill walks towards the bar, meets Dart, the African American ranch hand winding his cleaning work. He tells him that Injuns need to learn from coloreds instead of making a fuss and that his father was killed trying to keep slavery out of Kansas (It turns out that he was trying to keep blacks out of Kansas, hence slavery!). He offers Bert a chance to drink with him, but the latter declines this radical offer, making up a reason to leave.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Bill enters the bar, already on a high. The bar is dimly, sporadically lit, with brown and deep brown being the only colours the eyes can register. The mood is pensive, and it might well go into the zone of the nostalgic. It’s also empty, except fr the bartender and Ned Buntline. They sit for a drink. Ned tells Bill that he thought the latter didn’t really exist and that it is really surprising to see him in flesh. As he continues to heap praise on Bill, the camera starts zooming in, in a rather familiar fashion, into Bill’s reflection on the barroom mirror from over his shoulders. And just as Ned tells him that “In 100 years they’ll be shouting your name”, the real Bill is no longer in the frame. His image has pushed him beyond the margins. Mutual appreciation ensues and the camera zooms back while Bill recalls his good old days with Ned. Speaking about Nate not being able to stand the sight of Ned anymore, he utters this meta-statement: “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”. It’s a very complex moment that resonates on multiple levels. Firstly, Bill might well be talking about the West itself. The year is 1885 and a time when it has apparently become incredibly tough for stars like Bill to restore people’s faith in American heroes, their narratives and representational systems. Secondly, Altman’s film is a period picture shot in 1976 and set in 1885. So the nostalgia about the West (and consequently, the lawlessness, the rule of the gun, the romance associated with the frontier etc.) that Bill is talking about is doubly filtered. Thirdly, by 1976, the Western had ceased to exist as a major genre and Bill’s nostalgia about nostalgia is refracted through the unsaid nostalgia for the genre itself. Altman’s film, however, sits right in-between this inherent nostalgia on a subconscious level and the conscious knowledge of the dangers of nostalgia. Ned remarks that Bill hasn’t changed a bit, to which Bill replies: “I ain’t supposed to. That’s why people pay to see me”. Bill’s tragedy is that he’s condemned to be Bill – an unchanging image, a personality without a person, a surface without a center – for his entire life. One more time, we realize that Bill is not simply a charlatan raving for fame, but a star who simply has to be America’s national hero. Not an anomaly in the system, but its very logic. Ned bids adieu, announcing that it was the thrill of his life ‘inventing Bill’. Another zoom into Bill’s mirror image, as it stares at the man solemnly. Ned leaves, as a silhouette on a horse riding off into the blackness of night, to California to ‘preach against the vultures of Prometheus’.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Fade to the next day. Bill is at the dressing table, already with alcohol in his hand. A typical Altman shot takes us to him: the camera zooming slowly into Bill from afar, while the microphone has already reached him. The long shot of the visual and the close up of the mike produces an unreal effect that seemingly befits Bill’s current mentality. We see that he’s not in his elements. He makes mistakes in citing his records and is generally weary. The day’s show begins without Sitting Bull. Just as we wonder where Sitting Bull is, the man from the telegraph office rushes to Nate with the announcement that Bull was shot. Oakley breaks down. Bill appears from behind the huge screen into the arena. Altman cuts between his act and the commotion behind stage after hearing about Bull, indicating his isolation from the event. A shot of Bill waving to the crowd is immediately followed by the most unironic and solemn shot in the entire film. A zoom into the remains of Sitting Bull: a rosary with a Cross lying over the ashes of a campfire. (Sitting Bull being a Christian is never commented upon, although the Cross hanging from is neck is always conspicuous). The sound in the shot is made up of only the screams of vulture and other critters. It is here that, perhaps the only time, when the film presents a non-self-conscious moment, where it doesn’t undercut its own statement. The injustice done to Sitting Bull and his clan is most directly and affectingly registered.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

 

Section

IIIIII – IV – V

There’s an interlude here with Lucille, the Coloratura, where Bill apologizes for possible being a disappointment the previous night. There’s a clear parallel between Bill’s professional trajectory, in which he is increasingly convinced that he’s not ‘authentic’, his ‘performance’ is not good and not living up to expectations of his fore-fathers, and his sexual conquests, where he proceeds from the alpha male in total control, to a confident man holding ground to one being simply turned down, as chalked by the three opera singers of the film. This interlude more or less marks the start of Bill’s partial de-mythification (like McCabe in Altman’s previous Western) and we see his body language and tone softening down. Before he gets to conquer the Coloratura, he notices, by chance, that the Indians have begun dismantling their teepees and that Bull and Halsey are leaving the place. Enraged, he calls for a posse, to put up an improvised show: The Story of How Buffalo Bill Rode Into A Territory He Knew Better Than The Back Of His Hand And Reclaimed The Escaped Indians. As he comes back to his cabin to dress up, he updates Lucille about the situation and searches for his jacket. When he doesn’t find it, he shouts making a parody of whatever he is: “Dammit, where’s my real jacket?”. While the posse gets ready, Altman alternately cuts between the sunlit outdoors and the earthy indoors of Bill’s cabin, very much like a silent movie, implicating cinema (which endorsed the Western myths almost from its inception as a narrative form) in the Wild West’s codification processes. The coloratura herself is little more than a relic from the past.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

The posse leaves with grand musical accompaniment, Bill leading on a white horse and the rest following on brown ones. Buntline opines once again: “When Bill’s dressed for a ride and mounted on his stallion any doubts about his legend are soon forgot. Yes, Bill’s fine physical portrait hides any faults his mind possesses. But any tracker will tell you if you don’t know what you’re after you’d best stay home”. The Legend Maker seems to have progressively become a de-mythifier (or rather re-mythifier). And soon enough, Bill and gang return. Both the audience and the rest of the company at the campus see the posse in a long shot, with no sight of Bull or Halsey. The in-house band gets ready for a thunderous welcome. But as the group draws nearer, they realize that they haven’t got a good image to multiply the sound with, like a director who can no longer redeem a terrible scene with his score. Bill hasn’t come back with the Indians. The great story that he imagined would be written today was spoilt by reality, just like how the brave cowboy who dashed to spot Bull moments before, returns drenched and off his horse. Reality punctures a potential legend.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

The dejected posse returns in total silence. Bill enters the encampment and looks at the triumphant painting of himself (Custer?) on a horse. Altman zooms in on the painting, and then on Bill. Like a kid who’s failed his father, he stands nearly whimpering. Altman zooms in on the painting again, cutting Bill off the frame. Burke and Nate try to convince him that it is not his fault, and that Fort Ruth was never meant to be a prison in the first place. Burke suggests publishing in the papers that Bull escaped after trying to set fire to the arena. An apathetic Bill goes into his room, shuts the door. And we hear a gun shot, then two or there more. Nate and the rest are shocked and think Bill shot himself, as if suicide was the only act that would befit the situation and the legend that is Bill. We believe that too, thanks to how we’ve been trained by genres tropes. Again reality thwarts an apt ending and we all discover that Bill was merely trying to shoot the canary that Lucille has. Bill’s sharp shooting capabilities seem to have bid farewell, like his sexual prowess (reminding us of his pistol conversation with Lucille the first time they met), as he misses the bird each time. A frustrated Bill returns to the meeting room and finds Bull and Halsey at the doorstep. Surprised, he calls them in asks the reason for their departure. Halsey tells them that Bull was up in the mountains visiting the moon in its path and that the squaws were relocating the tents to a different part of the bank. Halsey tells Bill that Bull will do what he would like his people to see at the show: make the big grey horse dance.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buntline again: “Responsibility is a funny thing. It’s different for stars than for ordinary folks. That’s why stars spend so much time in front of mirrors. To see if their good looks can overcome their judgment”. The dentist, at whose place, he is in, urges him to spare the literalism for now. The patient – the audience stand in – winces in pain. Buntline stares at the mirror. Cut to Bill staring at the mirror, talking to his image. He is convincing himself that Bull lied to him and that he must have been hiding in the mountains. He says, furthering the equivalence between Bull and him: “Now I can understand why he lied to me. He’s got to look good in front of his people, same as I”. He ‘chooses to overlook the entire incident’ ‘generous and flexible’ that he is. The camera zooms out from the image before including the real bill in the frame, as if questioning who the real man is and who the image is. The whole crew assembles for a group photo in front of the office. Bill protests Bull’s standing near Annie Oakley. Halsey refuses to budge and asks $25 for relocation. Bill rejects the offer – another reminder that the enterprise is driver more by capital than ideology – and plans to manipulate the photograph later – like many modern day filmmakers – and move Bull to the Indian side of the photo.

One black worker – Burke calls him ‘darkey’ – at the telegraph office rushes in to announce that there’s a wire from the president. The assembly breaks and leaves (Bill, with self-made band music) for the telegraph office to learn that President Cleveland will be visiting Fort Ruth and staying for a night. Sitting Bull’s dream becomes real. Everyone’s surprised as well as excited about this. Buntline delivers another theory about Indian and white dreams and points out that things are starting to take an ’unreal’ shape. Cut to the night when Cleveland (Pat McCormick) comes to the camp. He is, as usual, introduced to us in a long zoom shot: a rather portly figure, a caricature of a man straight from Keystone two-reelers, sitting on a stage-like dais alongside his excessively lean wife (Altman regular Shelley Duvall). One crew member remarks, conflating politics and entertainment: “That bear is a star. He’s bigger than Buck Taylor”. Politics as entertainment and politics of entertainment are two ideas Altman’s film continuously chips at. McCormick’s performance here as Cleveland is akin to Timothy Spall’s much reviled portrayal of Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech (2010). It is meant to be hammy, to be obviously a ‘performance’. Like the Oscar winner, Altman’s picture is partly a chronicle of shows, of politics as performance and of stage presence as power. When Nate introduces with “Meet America’s national entertainer”, the camera lingers on Cleveland. Cut to Bill appearing fro behind the screens through a wooden arch on fire.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Bill, after a small stunt on his horse, welcomes the president and the first lady. Altman nearly center-frames with the torches burning in the background out of focus. Clearly, his film is consciously partaking in this legend-building activity. He calls the Wild West show as “the father of the new show business”, not the mother, suggesting the patriarchal codes that govern this organization. Throughout the film, women are seen either entertaining Bill or doing petty work around the campus, except, of course, Annie Oakley, who is the one woman who poses any resistance to Bill at all. Cleveland is told that Bill “writes all his original sayings himself”. Cleveland, who discusses with his adviser for every statement and gesture, like an actor consulting with his director, replies that all great men do that. The first act is by Annie and Frank. The president and his wife are visibly impressed until Annie fires a wrong one that goes through Frank’s shoulder. Like any great performer, Frank tries not to reveal this accident and wraps up the show. “The Show Must Go On” – That justification which sweeps every misfortune under the rug in the name of professionalism. For Frank, like many in the crew, a successful show is more important than anything else. Cleveland is agitated and confirms with Burke if this was all “a part of the act”. After a filler act depicting the induction of an Indian into the American family, Sitting Bull enters the arena, speaks in Native American tongue, takes out a gun, points towards Cleveland before firing towards the sky. Cleveland is gobsmacked. And so is everyone, before they realize that it was done to make the grey horse dance. Recovering, Cleveland jokes that it is no wonder that it was done by an Indian because it is an un-American thing to do. Again and again, the show pans out like Brechtian theatre, provoking the audience, before it is repackaged into the norms of standard theater.

 

Section

III – III – IVV

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.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

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.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

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.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

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.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

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.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

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.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

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.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

 

Section

I – II – IIIIVV

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

 

“Art is not the reflection of a reality; it is the reality of that reflection.”

- La Chinoise (1967, Jean Luc-Godard)

“In a violent and contemporary period of history, it is myth that invades cinema as imaginary content. It is the golden age of despotic and legendary resurrections. Myth, chased from the real by the violence of history, finds refuge in cinema.”

- Jean Baudrillard

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford)

 

Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and The Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson was made and premiered in 1976, when the country was celebrating its 200th anniversary of independence. Altman had already taken a stab at this bicentennial in his previous film Nashville (1975), where we are presented with a fragmented sketch of America as a nation at crossroads. Buffalo Bill is also Altman’s second western feature after the tremendous McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), which was nothing less than a re-imagining of the Western myth as founding of industrial capitalism. It is interesting to think why writers Altman and Alan Rudolph embarked on this project of adapting Arthur Kopit’s play and resurrecting the figure of Buffalo Bill at all. If McCabe tried to clinically de-mythicize the archetypal Western hero, it didn’t do as much to question its own myth-creating properties. In Buffalo Bill, Altman’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink method finds precise articulation in the text and the text, too, lends best to a stylistic that is as diverse and off-kilter as Altman’s. All his directorial techniques serve both aesthetic and thematic purposes in this film, especially the overlapping, conflicting soundscapes and imagery (used effectively in a film that is explicitly about conflict of narratives and ideological contestation) and the notorious zoom (altering, illustrating and mocking the protagonist’s persona). Utilizing sound and image in complex, inventive ways, Altman not only critiques popularly represented Western myths but also their modes of representation, especially when it comes to the film’s own. Throughout, the ceaselessly self-conscious film undercuts its own criticisms by questioning their assumptions and authority to such a successful extent that we begin to take everything that it claims with a pinch of salt. A searing portrait of the West (and the Western) as a deadly mixture of patriarchy, nationalism, entertainment and unbridled xenophobia, Buffalo Bill finds Altman at his caustic best.

In fact, self-critique begins right from the first frame as fanfare blares over a monochromatic United Artists logo, registering its own status as an entertainment product. The first image we see, likewise, is near-mythical and patently ‘Western’: a surreal landscape, out of focus, which the American flag being hoisted cuts through. The opening credits appear in a gaudy typeface and a faux title for the film reads: “Robert Altman’s Absolutely Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre!”. The message is clear: Buffalo Bill is no finer than the typical roadside fair or, as we would see, Bill’s own Wild West show in every aspect. As the bugle plays on tirelessly, as it would do throughout the film, the camera pans gradually to the ground as if establishing the scene and the history of the West. The first spoken words in the film are heard as the narrator announces:

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. What you are about to experience is not a show for entertainment. It is a review of the events that made the American frontier. In less than 15 years, this nation will celebrate the 20th century. We do not know what awaits us in the future but we do know the past that laid the foundation. And that foundation was not built from heroes but from the anonymous settler. Their home was but a shack roofed in with sod. One door shut out the wind and storm one window greeted the dawning day. These brave souls survived not only nature but the savage instincts of man, paving the way for the heroes that endured. So welcome to the real events enacted by men and women of the American frontier. To whose courage strength, and above all, faith this piece of history is dedicated.”

If we are to disregard the ironic stance that the film would take at the set of statements here, the opening scene so far plays out as the classic Western metanarrative, with the lone ranger conquering the savage frontier and building civilization from scratch. The attitude of the film, however, is akin to the opening ethnographic documentary of Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death (1957-2004), where we are shown and told the story of a glorious white couple teaching science, hygiene and table manners to kids and women of an African tribe. Given the year of both Altman’s and Jacobs’ films and the extent to which the portrayal appears caricatured, it is impossible to take the narrator’s words with a straight face. As a result, the film’s diegesis is split open, much like The Player (1992) -the one film that is closest to Buffalo Bill in terms of how it functions – where the possibility of cordoning off the narrative universe is thwarted right from the first shot.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

As the “savage” natives raid on white women and children, moving around them on horses in circles, like a strip of film around a bobbin – serving a thematic function, which reaches apotheosis in the final scene, as well – we witness the film’s actual title being displayed: Buffalo Bill and The Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, the subtitle in the title serving a special purpose. And as the cowboys turn the tables on the raiding Indians in a story justifiably without context or the specifics, the acting credits play on. Instead of an actor’s name being mentioned against the name of the character he/she plays, we see it alongside the “type” of the character – The Star, The Producer, The Publicist, The Indian, The Indian Agent, The Legend-Maker etc – calling to attention the film’s own myth-building. And suddenly, another voice different from the narrator (Altman? the show’s director?) shouts: “cease action!” and it is revealed that what we had so far seen was rehearsal for a Wild West show. Dead men rise to their feet and makeshift houses are moved by horses. Some corrections are suggested to performers to look more authentic. One native is hurt and men say it “looks real”. However, we are still not sure where performance ends and where reality begins. We are still dangling without a reference.

Cut to the Legend-Maker and Buffalo Bill’s ex-producer Ned Buntline – played by a legend himself, Burt Lancaster – who recites the tale of how he made Buffalo Bill out of a scrawny looking kid on the street. Flanked by a bunch of supporting actors and bracketed by two pillars of the bar and his voice mixed with a feeble version of the now-familiar fanfare, Ned is introduced already, with a gradual zoom-in, as a fiction maker and a piece of fiction himself. Almost immediately after this we are shown another minor Legend Maker – the old guard who works at The Mayflower fair where Buffalo Bill’s performs – who chalks his own story about Bill to a bunch of Indian kids. There might be a little gesture of humour here in how everyone claims importance with respect to Bill, but it also off-handedly establishes the film’s major theme: history as a contested territory. It is here that we see Altman’s typically chaotic collage editing of for the first time as we move from the Legend Maker, to the guard, to one-handed sharpshooter Annie Oakley (the beautiful Geraldine Chaplin, who carries a baggage of vaudeville, showmanship and entertainment along with her name), to her husband and moving target Frank Butler (John Considine) to The Producer Nate Salisbury (Joel Grey) and to The Publicist Maj. John Burke (Kevin McCarthy).

But not Bill. We haven’t met Bill yet, although we have an idea of his stature from second hand sources. When Frank goes to meet him in a hurry, we hear Bill for the first time, almost throwing a fit. Even now, he’s hidden behind a huge promotion banner containing his image. As we would see, Bill is always hidden behind his ‘image’. By prolonging both Buffalo Bill’s and Paul Newman’s introduction, Altman’s film reinforces the mythic nature of both these celebrities. As Frank fills two glasses of beer to take to Bill (multiple actions unfolding simultaneously is nothing new to Altman’s cinema), Nate speaks about his performance as a black American in shows with another troupe he was associated with, before going on to typecast a few other nationalities: “There were times when I was asked to play a colored. Now do I look like a colored? But when I had to play a colored, I was a colored. I thought like a colored. I drank like a colored. I walked like a colored. I was a colored”. Nate is not (intentionally) sending up method acting, but his decidedly irrational belief that he could play a black American with total authenticity puts him on par with some of our celebrated ‘actors’. Much of the outlook of Bill’s crew, himself included, towards Native Americans is derived from this sort of epistemological confusion, a notion that they can truly understand, decode, model and replicate the Indian psyche.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

As Frank enters Bill’s room, we watch Burke vacating the room, assuring Bill about casting: “Everything historical is yours, Bill”. Soon, the word about his new story idea for the next season – “enemies in ’76, friends in ‘86” – spreads and Buntline figures that the foil for Bill would be no other than Indian Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), who would not be shot by the army until a certain Sioux treaty is signed, and would be humiliated and de-mythicized at the show. (“A rock ain’t a rock once it’s gravel”). When Bill’s nephew Ed Goodman (A stiff Harvey Keitel) doubts if Sitting Bull was interested in show business, one of the writers for the show replies, “If he wasn’t he wouldn’t have become a chief.”, betraying the group’s general inability to interpret the world outside of the parameters of entertainment business. This is followed by another legend from the old guard about Sitting Bill. We now have a bit of history about the Chief and some myths surrounding him before we get to see him at all, just like Bill. And this is the first of a number of instances where the film strikes an explicit parallel between the two “heads of clans”.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Following a surprise insert of a stunted zoom shot of Sitting Bull’s clan, Buntline talks about Bill’s dubious resolution to cut down on his drinks, after which the film cuts to a shot of the first of three opera singers who accompany Bill, as she passes by a triumphant painting of General Armstrong Custer, who Bill model’s himself after to an insane extent (that the painting could well be of Bill himself), on his white horse. (Arranged according to the scale of their singing, these three singers – The Mezzo-Contralto, Lyric-Coloratura and Lyric-Soprano played respectively by Bonnie Leaders, Noelle Rogers and Evelyn Lear – also form the thematic checkpoints in Bill’s self-delusive odyssey). It is only after this that we have the first glimpse of Buffalo Bill and Paul Newman – announced as America’s national entertainer by Nate – as he rides into a rehearsal show amidst heavy applause and fanfare, like a star. Another sequence with non-associative cross-cutting between Bill learning of Buntline’s return to the campus and of the hurt Indian’s passing and Nate welcoming the rest of the Indians around him to “America’s national family”. Nate gets instructions to have Buntline vacate the campus. He goes to confront Buntline. Nate is the one character in the film who acts most obviously as the writers’ mouthpiece, tossing off one provocative line after another. His lines would most probably be the ones to structure discourses surrounding the film. When trying to persuade Buntline to move out, he gives us this one out of the blue: “We’re gonna cody-fy the world” suggesting how he plans to make Bill a universal figure invading all imagination and the Manichean view of the frontier that that entails such a project.

 

Section

I – IIIIIIVV

(Continued from Part 1)

Fort Apache (1948)

Fort ApacheFort Apache (1948), first of the director’s cavalry trilogy, marks a stark shift in tone and attitude for Ford. It is from this film onwards that Ford’s view of the west becomes progressively unromantic. For one, the central protagonist, Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda), is gradually alienated from us. His actions seem increasingly misguided and the only force of sanity comes in the form of captain York (John Wayne) who acts as our mouthpiece in the film. Colonel Thursday is a prisoner of his own position in the army. He’s the first of Ford’s many men to show loyalty to external ideologies than to his conscience (“Tell them they’re not talking to me, but to the United States government” says Thursday). These men abandon what is essentially human for some vaguely defined concepts of glory and martyrdom (One can imagine how much Ford would have admired Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece). These are also invariably the men who believe in establishing hierarchies and locking people into rigidly defined categories that could systematically be manipulated and deployed (Ford’s reaction to such men would move from fascination to ambivalence to utter contempt, as is evident in his last Western). Consequently, the film, like most of Ford’s subsequent works, is full of petty rituals – ball room dances (compare this mechanical waltz with the divine dance sequence in The Grapes of Wrath), coldly worded field orders, automated salutations and bookish sentences. Ford would take a decade and a half to convert the cynicism of this film to a monumental tragedy.

3 Godfathers (1948)

3 GodfathersTo borrow Manny Farber’s terminology, 3 Godfathers (1948) is a very powerful termite that gradually grows into a giant white elephant (Compare John Wayne’s blue moon laughter in the first scene with his laboured theatrics towards the end). Yet another remake of a story filmed multiple times before, 3 Godfathers is the kind of movie that can pass off as a Sunday school lesson. Technically, Ford is at the top of his game here, walking through the film with ease, conjuring up one larger-than-life image after the other. But the film feels more like a showcase of Ford’s directorial skills than a coherent work driven by a vision. One also gets the feeling that Ford made this film more as an obligation and as a tribute to his one-time collaborator Harry Carey Sr. who starred in the film Three Godfathers (1916), which Ford himself remade three years later. Hence, the film seems more like a launching vehicle for Harry Carey Jr. that Ford was able to slip in between his cavalry trilogy. Complaints aside, it should also be noted how Ford manages to leave his fingerprints all over the film. At least, the first half hour is a complete throwback to Ford’s prewar Westerns. Glorious landscapes all over and even more glorious men cutting through them, mutually respecting lawmen and bandits of very high moral standards and the psychological tug-of-war they indulge in – one would think that the film just can’t go wrong from here. Sadly, it does. The last half hour is Ford sleepwalking though his material.

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)

She Wore A Yellow RibbonShe Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) is the best film in the director’s cavalry trilogy and, with the probable exception of The Quiet Man (1952), has to be his most personal work as well. Here we have John Wayne playing the old Captain Brittles, who’s just about John Ford’s age, ready to retire from the army in a few days. Like Ford, he’s a man who throws his weight around just to show how rough and demanding he is and within, he is a child. He’s like Colonel Thursday of Fort Apache on the outside (“I’m ordering you to volunteer” he says – a phrase that would recur in Ford’s later films) and Colonel Marlowe of The Horse Soldiers on the inside. Like Kane of High Noon (1952), he’s a man who feels responsible for the lives of his men even though he’ll become a complete stranger to them in a few hours. Moreover, the film is also about ageing, about giving up one’s game. Captain Brittles is a man who’s seen enough bloodshed in his life. His fervent wish is to save his men from sure death rather than to achieve glory or exhibit heroism (“Old men should stop wars” he says to the old Indian chief who wants to stay indifferent). One can’t help but think Ford might have intended this film to be a swansong of some sort. The most significant scenes in the film are shot at (artificial, accentuated) twilight that so directly registers the dread of being left alone. Brittles speaking to his deceased wife at her grave might be more than a sign of affection. It might be of desperation.

Rio Grande (1950)

Rio GrandeThe extremely eloquent and moving Rio Grande (1950) is evidently a thematic extension of the previous couple of films in the trilogy. If professional authority blinded Colonel Thursday of conscience and protected Captain Brittles from baring it, it prevents Colonel Kirby Yorke (John Wayne, perhaps reprising his role from Fort Apache) from bonding with his son. But there is also a sense of inevitability that permeates Rio Grande. Colonel York burns down his wife’s nursery as a part of his duty and pays the price for it. He also stays aloof from his son for he is his supervising officer. He keeps demoralizing his son and tries to siphon off any pride that the boy may have in his new profession. The question here is if one could really break such a barrier, giving in to emotionality or humanism. This idea of free will being overridden by man-made hierarchies echoes throughout in the film. Soldiers exhibit comradeship and honor among themselves whereas they stand stiff and unresponsive while dealing with higher officials (“I refuse to answer sir… respectfully” goes the reply, as it would elsewhere in Ford’s films). Rio Grande is gloriously lit and photographed and each of its images looks like a painting, a moment frozen in time. In this film too, it appears as if Ford is expressing something that is utmost personal in purely generic terms. And Wayne brings such honesty to the character that, when he comes in all white, for once, with a bouquet in his hand, you wish the film ends right there.

Wagon Master (1950)

Wagon MasterWagon Master is what one might call a “minor Ford” (shot in black and white with no stars), but that doesn’t do any justice to this superb Western. Less a story and more a journey, the film follows a pair of ranchers (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) who agree to escort a community of Mormons on their way to establish a new settlement. The crew on the road entirely consists of people relegated to live on the fringes of the society, the latter being just an arbitrary, prejudiced crowd anyway in most of Ford’s westerns. Ford’s most optimistic film, Wagon Master can be seen as the director’s vision of an ideal West – a place where all races and religions can coexist peacefully, a place where real joy comes from not amassing wealth, but by building a healthy and closely-knit community and a place where the only gold to be found is in the fertility of the soil. Ford counterpoints this vision of utopia by introducing the Cleggs family (which is sort of carried over from My Darling Clementine) that embodies everything that is lamentable about the frontier – racism, hooliganism and intolerance. Watching Wagon Master, one gets the feeling that Ford would have made some very great films (as if he hasn’t already!) had he taken to documentaries. Ford builds the film upon moments of commonplace magic, dwelling considerably on the everyday activities of the Mormons and upon shots of people travelling, moving ahead against nature’s odds and exhibiting a sheer desire to live.

The Searchers (1956)

Everything significant about The Searchers (1956) is off-screen, in its untold passages, unfilmed spaces and undiscussed possibilities. It is as if Ford was commenting upon the genre, and on his own brand of cinema, without ever breaking it down, as if he was repudiating the racist falsities hitherto bestowed upon the Indians by showing how much the white community shares those traits with them and as if normalizing the “demonic” acts of the Natives by presenting them as justified if done by the whites. The Searchers is a film with a mass of unresolvable tensions at the core, each of which threatens to take the film apart. “He’s got to kill me”, says Ethan (John Wayne) about Scar (Henry Brandon). He knows as much about Scar as he does about himself. What are Scar and Ethan are but the same person born on either side of the frontier? Both are old timers who prefer revenge over justice and who believe that each of them has complete justification to kill the other. When they look at each other in the eye, what they are staring at is, in fact, the abyss within each of them. It’s not just Ethan and Martin who are the titular searchers, it is Scar too. That’s why The Searchers is, at heart, a tragedy. Somehow, Ethan seems to know his condition and that his choice of an artificial racist ideology over his conscience (unlike Martin) has done him more harm than good. Consequently, the journey, like the film itself, becomes a quest to define, once and for all, what Ethan is.

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

The Horse SoldiersThe Horse Soldiers (1959) is set during the American Civil War and unfolds primarily from the point of view of Colonel Marlowe (John Wayne), an officer in the union army who plans to blow up a key railway line to disrupt supplies to the Confederate forces. Locating the story within civil war helps Ford to comment on the war without taking sides, unlike the earlier films. Also in Colonel Marlowe’s cavalry is surgeon Kendall (William Holden), whose mere presence irritates Marlowe to no end, and a prisoner Miss Hunter (Constance Towers). As in My Darling Clementine, the Fordian male bonding is between a doctor and an army man. Hunter sees the doctor’s profession as one that saves lives and the army man’s as one that kills. Marlowe, on the other hand, considers doctors as parasites who want people to be sick and, perhaps, his kind as those who want then to be healthy. It is only towards the end of the film that Marlowe comes to realize that his grief of losing his wife after a failed operation is no more sorrowful than the doctor’s angst of not being able to save a patient who has come to him for help. This sense of empathizing with the ‘other’ forms the backbone of the morally complex work that is The Horse Soldiers. When the confederate army is, actually, made of school kids and old men, it’s hard not to see the futility of a war that is fought just for the sake of wiping out one side.

Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

Sergeant RutledgeIf The Horse Soldiers was Ford empathizing with the Tories and Cheyenne Autumn would be him empathizing with the Native Americans, Sergeant Rutledge (1960) is Ford making amends for the under-representation of the African-Americans in his Westerns (This near total absence of African-Americans is startling given that Ford has made more than one film dealing with the Civil War). Basically a courtroom drama uniformed as a Western, but also historically particularized, Sergeant Rutledge is Ford tackling the issue of racism head on. The film unfolds piecewise, moving from one incomplete perspective to another while keeping the truth at an arm’s distance, so that the audience is never completely allowed to vindicate and sympathize with protagonist Rutledge (Woody Strode, ironically given the 4th place in the title credits!). It is interesting to imagine how the audience would have reacted to this kind of a narrative structure in the pre-PC era in which the film was made, especially given that the central drama involves a young black man and a white adolescent woman – arguably the most scandalizing combination of them all. Despite the fact that the film has some pointed writing (“What does it all add up to, sir?” Rutledge asks an edgy Tom Cantrell (Jeffery Hunter), who is not entirely free of racial prejudices and acts himself as one might be led to believe, coldly exposing the latter’s disbelief in him), Sergeant Rutledge suffers from Ford’s heavy-handed direction. Ford attempts earnestly to develop a mythical African-American hero in Rutledge, but the effort seems more like calculated posturing than genuine legend building.

Two Rode Together (1961)

Two Rode TogetherTwo Rode Together (1961) could be seen as an unequivocally liberalist reworking of The Searchers that resolves the irreconcilable tensions of the earlier film and takes a clear cut political stand. One could say that this is the film The Searchers would have been had there been no man called Ethan Edwards. Ford makes this clear by resorting to a plot that resembles that of the previous work (There is much intertextuality in the film, with characters, actors and lines being directly borrowed from the previous film) and commenting very strongly on the racist tendency espoused by some people of the white community at the frontier. A white boy who was captured and raised by Indians is traded back for some weapons by corrupt antihero sheriff Guthrie “Guth” MacCabe (James Stewart). The white community is asked to identify the boy and claim him back. The scenario has all the uneasy trappings of a slave market and that may just be the point of the film. And the sharp character arc that Guthrie undergoes could well apply for the whole of Ford’s cinema. Despite its occasional flourishes of melodrama, there is much left unanswered in the film and its take on mob mentality, fear of miscegenation and domestic racism leaves one very agitated. And yes, Two Rode Together has the greatest dialogues in all of Ford’s Westerns that are delivered with such panache that the film feels almost Hawksian. The conversation between Stewart and Widmark at the riverbank, spanning several minutes, is a sheer joy to watch.

How The West Was Won (1962)

How The West Was WonAn omnibus film directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall and starring just about every living actor that you would associate with Westerns, How The West Was Won (1962) is the kind of film that cries out: “Look at me. I’m epic. Worship me”. Indeed. Made for Cinerama and shot in such spectacular fashion (that it might have well set the trend for present day epic cinema), I can imagine how viscerally enthralling it would have been to see it in its original projection. John Ford apparently directed the segment on civil war that comes halfway into the film. With the trappings of an episode from late Kurosawa, Ford’s segment is an uninspired piece of filmmaking starring John Wayne, who could easily have been replaced by a John Wayne impersonator here. The film, likewise, could have been titled “How the Western Was Won” for the work seems more like a reverent pastiche of great Westerns through the ages than a conglomeration of myths about the Wild West. Conservative to the point of being laughable (and this might have really turned off Ford, given the kind of films he was making at that time), the film has two well made segments that hold it together. The first is the charming interlude involving Gregory Peck and Debbie Raynolds which is actually a romance dressed up as a Western. The second redeeming section is the strikingly directed final half hour, which plays out in a High Noon-esque, traditional fashion that infuses the film with a spirit that is missing in the first two hours.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceThe proper place for John Ford’s greatest Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), is not among Ford’s other westerns but among films like The Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Ordet (1955) and Winter Light (1962), for it is a spiritual work of the highest order. By the time the film ends, you almost get the feeling that all that you saw was a pair of eyes piercing the pristine screen. In the film, Ford examines what essentially comprise the soul the Western – Law and Morality – through three different embodiments of these entities – the good legal Ransom (James Stewart), the bad illegal Valance (Lee Marvin) and the good illegal Doniphon (John Wayne, a Farber termite, delivers the performance of a lifetime). The Fordian dialectic between tradition and modernity is at its most intense here, with Ransom’s civilization making way for Doniphon’s way of the gun. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a textbook for genre filmmakers on how to light, stage, shoot and cut a film. Every second of the film, you feel you are there, in the midst of the action, living with the characters. The film is like a stretched rubber band, ready to snap any moment, with every character pulling the film’s moral center towards himself/herself. A tragedy of monumental proportions (It is from this film that The Dark Knight (2008) borrows heavily from), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is perhaps the one film that Ford should be remembered by. “When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend” says a newsman in the film. His voice might just be of John Ford.

Cheyenne Autumn (1964)

Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn (1964) has widely been labeled as Ford’s official apology letter to the Native Americans for having usually cast them as bloodthirsty savages. If one follows all of Ford’s Westerns from The Searchers onwards, one would see that the film is also a logical conclusion of a trajectory. Cheyenne Autumn is a highly liberalist film, but it does not present a primitivist’s view of the Native Americans. Sure, it portrays them as a proud and peace-loving race, but Ford is more interested in treating them as a group of individuals who may or may not conform to stereotypes and perceived cultural truisms (“He is your blood, but he is not you” says the new clan leader). Actually, Ford endorses individualism more than ever in this film. He underscores the need for individual decision making and the need to act according to conscience. Elegiac in tone, as if mourning national and cinematic mistakes of the past, the film is almost entirely defined by its harsh, godforsaken landscapes. The central comical segment with Stewart as Earp should be disregarded for that’s how the director’s cut of this film would have turned out to be, even if it serves both as a throwback to pre-war Ford and as a hilarious critique of the racist tendency commonplace at the frontier townships. From Americans hiding in a hut from an Indian onslaught in Straight Shooting to Indians being imprisoned in a barn by the Americans in Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s Westerns, spanning nearly half a century, seal the filmmaker’s position as a chronicler of both the history of America and the history of American cinema. Rife with, well, Fordian compositions, Cheyenne Autumn is a fitting, if not the ideal, farewell to Westerns for Ford and to Ford for Westerns.

Directed by John Ford

John Ford

John Ford 
(1894-1973)

Maine-born John Ford (born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna) originally went to Hollywood in the shadow of his older brother, Francis, an actor/writer/director who had worked on Broadway. Originally a laborer, propman’s assistant, and occasional stuntman for his brother, he rose to became an assistant director and supporting actor before turning to directing in 1917. Ford became best known for his Westerns, of which he made dozens through the1920s, but he didn’t achieve status as a major director until the mid-’30s, when his films for RKO (The Lost Patrol [1934], The Informer [1935]), 20th Century Fox (Young Mr. Lincoln [1939], The Grapes of Wrath [1940]), and Walter Wanger (Stagecoach [1939]), won over the public, the critics, and earned various Oscars and Academy nominations. His 1940s films included one military-produced documentary co-directed by Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland, December 7th (1943), which creaks badly today (especially compared with Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series); a major war film (They Were Expendable [1945]); the historically-based drama My Darling Clementine (1946); and the “cavalry trilogy” of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), each of which starred John Wayne. My Darling Clementine and the cavalry trilogy contain some of the most powerful images of the American West ever shot, and are considered definitive examples of the Western. Ford was the recipient of the first Life Achievement Award bestowed by the American Film Institute, and was the subject of Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary, Directed by John Ford (1971). He died in 1973. [Bio Courtesy: All Movie Guide, Image Courtesy: Star Pulse]

 

Mythmaker extraordinaire John Ford made over a hundred films in his career that now spans half of cinema’s lifetime. Even though these works cover a number of genres, Ford’s name has become synonymous with the Western. The Western as a genre originally had a specific historical context, but, as Bazin elaborates, it went on to become a narrative template, with its own clichés, conventions and myths – a form that needed content. Interestingly, Ford’s Westerns are a mixture of both kinds. The events in his films are historically particularized while the emotions that drive them are universal. Likewise, Ford himself is a historian and a humanist, a documentarian and a poet, a reporter and a raconteur. His cinema is an encyclopedia of American history, but it is also a treatise on human goodness. The eternal conversation between the human and the political dimensions in Ford’s Westerns is ingrained in the director’s aesthetic itself, where human drama is often juxtaposed with historical events (The latter may have given birth to the director’s semi-static compositions that serve the purpose of both establishing a scene and letting an action unfold in the same shot). Furthermore, Ford’s Westerns are documents about the evolution of the genre itself. No other director apart from John Ford can claim to have witnessed the evolution of the Western in its entirety. Each of his films carries within itself the spirit of its age, its cultural norms and the ever changing ambitions of the genre (In one early silent Western, the word “damn” is graphically censored while the word “chink” is retained. In fact, the self-censorship – or a lack of it – in Ford’s films helps trace out the general outlook of Hollywood towards many social issues).

Godard once remarked that it is only in Hitchcock’s films that the viewer remembers specific objects in the story more than the story itself. Similarly, Ford’s is a cinema which consists of a number of gestures and glances and, in the most brilliant instances, is made of just those. In the best of such moments, these gestures attain such clarity, individuality and grace that a comparison to Bresson shouldn’t invite surprise at all (Here’s Glenn Kenny on transcendental style in the films of Ford. Go figure.). To borrow what Donald Richie said about the director’s protégé Kurosawa, the battle in a Ford film is always spiritual and is won even before the actual fight starts. There is also something implicitly Bressonian about the way Ford uses his actors. It is a known fact that Ford casts the same set of actors very often in his films. The reason might be purely logistical, but the effect is startling, to say the least. By having the same actors play similar kind of roles over and over again (a technique that stands in direct opposition to Bresson’s, but nonetheless achieves the same effect, amusingly), he converts them from Method actors to icons, from White Elephants to busy termites and from the “signified” to the “signifiers” (to open a new can of worms). Beyond a few films, John Wayne didn’t have to convince people that he was a man from the West. The very image of him prompts the audience to take that as a given and to expect the only variation possible from him through his gestures, quips and postures, which is what Ford’s cinema is all about. This effect is compounded by Ford’s occasional tendency to be intertextual and to refer to his previous films through repeated characters, lines and situations.

Kumar Shahani once commented that it was just impossible not to think of the Odessa Steps or Eisenstein while shooting scenes involving a mass of people. Likewise, it is near impossible not to think of Ford while shooting vast horizons, especially when they are adorned by people moving in a file (Bergman’s Dance of Death is one of the very few shots that could emulate its inspiration). The horizon, along with the dusty skies, misty atmospheres and imposing silhouettes, helped Ford create some of the most iconic images and awe-inspiring heroes that cinema has ever seen. Even if the films themselves aren’t entirely successful, there are frames, shots and scenes in them that stay with you forever. Ford uses his musical score to multiply, rather than manipulate, the effect that an image has. His camera always seems to be placed in a position where the audience feels the maximum impact of a particular shot. But apart from these static compositions, what is remarkable in Ford’s films is his dynamic use of screen space that clearly shows Ford’s preoccupation with the material nature of the medium. His choreography and blocking of actors and deployment of action on multiple planes are two practices that elucidate Ford’s incisive knowledge about the representation of three dimensional spaces. If Tati made great silent films in sound, Ford’s early films reveal that he made great “talkies” before the advent of the technology (Ford is not unlike Tati in his judicious use of the screen area). One could go on about Ford’s genius and influence, but I think it is best to end this brief summary here – on the topic of silent cinema and talkies – for Ford’s cinema, like Chaplin’s, could well be just about the dialectic between “the image” and “the word”. The image in Ford’s films serves to mystify, creating larger-than-life beings who are worthy of worship. The word demystifies them, bringing them back to ground to reveal that these demigods are merely humans, living among us.

 

[Note: Many of Ford’s numerous Westerns are either partially or completely lost. By my calculation, less than two dozen survive and are in circulation. The following couple of posts deal with all the “complete” Ford Westerns that I could get my hands on]

 

Straight Shooting (1917)

Straight ShootingStraight Shooting (1917), John Ford’s first feature length work, is a terrific Western that would rank among his best works. A number of things that would much later be deemed “Fordian” seem to have had their roots in this very film. The doorway shots and horse-rear compositions, which would eventually open and close a multitude of scenes in the director’s future works, are all present here in their utmost glory. The directness and economy of expression and the lived-in authenticity of the film (The acting in the film is strikingly naturalistic, revealing the schism between realist and theatrical filmmaking and even before the advent of sound) would later turn out to be features that define Ford’s cinema. Shooting outdoors sure does limit Ford’s depth of field, but the director already seems to be attempting to employ deep focus so that large chunks of action can unfold with their spatial tension intact. At the heart of the narrative is the trademark love triangle of Ford’s and, from here, he would only go on refining the relationships between its participants. The absence of multiplicative music is nearly compensated by visual underscoring techniques such as circles and ellipses that highlight the key moments of the film (this was probably the general studio trend). There are scenes taking place during a heavy downpour that could pass off as Kurosawa but for the costumes. But the icing of the film is surely the close-up shot-reverse shot of the hero and the villain before the showdown. Ford has already cracked the code: The secret’s in their eyes.

Bucking Broadway (1917)

Bucking BroadwayBucking Broadway (1917) is really a screwball comedy masquerading as a Western (The film appears to have been written entirely around its climactic action set piece!). Primarily a reworking of the country rat-city rat tale, Bucking Broadway follows a young ranch hand’s journey to the city of New York and his subsequent attempts to win back his girlfriend from a fraudster in the city. This film might be seen as Ford’s petition for a cinema with sound and the film virtually cries out for a voice (Ford actually throws in a scene with a piano in the film). However, most of the humour here is slapstick and some of the indoor sets look straight from a Sennett production. There is no real tension between the characters or within plot points and one always knows where the film is heading (the film itself has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek). But it is probably here that Ford is on his most experimental ground. For one, he dabbles in hypnotic chiaroscuro lighting, which he would only rarely use in the future (not considering the tinge of expressionism that graces his films now and then). Then there are the glorious horizons, that Ford frames off-center (almost always at the top of the frame here, as if pressing the characters down), as he would do very frequently in his Westerns. Finally and most importantly, there is the remarkably judicious use of all the three planes of the film image (The final brawl scene at Columbia Hotel toys with the focus of your eyes and presages the breakfast scene in The Searchers by about four decades).

Just Pals (1920)

Just PalsJust Pals (1920) was apparently the first film Ford made for Fox Studios and the change is palpable. While the earlier couple of Westerns were transparent about their motives, with their trump cards being grand action set pieces, Just Pals leans more towards the sentimentalism and innocence epitomized by the films of Chaplin. In fact, Just Pals has a striking resemblance to The Kid (1921), where too a happy-go-lucky tramp is deeply transformed after he takes in an orphan – a scenario that would recur in many Ford films. As a result, the film is closer to the works of Capra than of Ford, with a preference for disarming emotionality over awe-inspiring grandeur. Given that the film plays hardly for an hour, it is commendable how much drama is packed into these precious minutes (There are at least three major concurrent conflicts in the film). Also noteworthy is how the film is more in line with the aesthetics of silent cinema than with those that Ford had developed so far. There are probably more close-ups than Ford would have liked. However, what both of them have in common is the strong sense of morality that would become the calling card for both Ford’s cinema and silent cinema at large. The film is fairly liberal and as inclusive as it can be. The love and contempt that Ford respectively has for socially marginal characters and the coterie that shuns it would echo in almost all of Ford’s Westerns that follow, where the conflict is translated to one between conscience and the law.

The Iron Horse (1924)

The Iron HorseSelf-proclaimed chronicle of the construction of railroad in the heartlands of America, The Iron Horse (1924) is a film that wears its epic nature on its sleeve. This is perhaps the film that the famed poetry of John Ford comes to the fore for the first time. This is perhaps also the first John Ford Western to recognize the often conflicting relationship between personal and national histories. An old man dies at a makeshift camp, two labourers dig his grave as the old man’s daughter stands mourning, the train carrying the rest of the company begins to leave, the two men quit working and join the train (“The old soak’s deep enough”), the girl watches on. The film contains many such instances of juxtaposition of personal anxieties with national ambitions – a theme that would permeate every substructure of the director’s Westerns. Other would-be Fordian elements that are present in this film are vignettes depicting camaraderie among the working class and sequences of barroom humour that implicitly comment on what law and order mean in these ever expanding, never clearly defined frontiers. The Iron Horse takes a sharp detour from the politics of the previous film with its text book conservatism and plausible xenophobia. Immigrant workers from Asia and Europe are the cause of most of the problems but they eventually unite when there’s a raid by the savage Indians! And all’s rosy once the national objective is accomplished. Ford would take a few decades to fully grow out of this world view.

3 Bad Men (1926)

3 Bad MenMenI’m going to go out on a limb and proclaim that 3 Bad Men (1926) is Ford’s first Western masterpiece. Here’s where Ford the filmmaker truly meets Ford the epic poet and Ford the painter. Set during a gold rush in Dakota, in the lands previously belonging to the Sioux, the film charts the attempts of the three titular bandits to escort the daughter of the decently deceased mayor across the plains and away from the scheming mind of the local Sheriff. Hilarious, eloquent, tragic, grand and moving all at once, 3 Bad Men is a fitting farewell to silent Westerns for Ford (sadly, it bombed at the box office) that embodies both the innocence of silent cinema and the splendour of Ford’s brand of filmmaking. One could almost swear that this film was a talkie, for the dialogue (much deadpan comedy and lots of sarcasm!) and acting here is highly naturalistic and it seems as if the director was all set for the sound revolution. But then, being silent is also the best part of the film because it prevents it from flaunting its biblical overtones and its themes of sin and redemption – a temptation that a few of the director’s talkies give in to. Rife with iconic shots, including one stunning two-way dolly that could sit alongside the legendary tracking shot that Murnau would pull off next year, and backed by a terrific 2007 score by Dana Kaproff, 3 Bad Men is Ford at his mythmaking best.

Drums Along The Mohawk (1939)

Drums Along The MohawkDrums Along The Mohawk (1939), the first talking Western by Ford and the first of the director’s Westerns to be shot in Technicolor, is also arguably the first failure for the director in this genre. The failure is especially pronounced given the fact that the film was made during Ford’s most fertile period. The film is set during the American War of Independence (earliest time frame of all the director’s films) and follows the life of a newly wed couple (Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda) that’s expecting a child. With all its flaws and flourishes, Drums Along The Mohawk serves to demonstrate why Clint Eastwood is the most Fordian of all directors working in Hollywood today (followed by Spielberg who has been consistently revealing his indebtedness to Ford in his movies). One of Ford’s most cherished beliefs, as is apparently Eastwood’s and Spielberg’s as well, is the idea that the United States is a nation built upon great sacrifices and heroic acts of its founding fathers. That might explain why there are so many father figures (and, to a lesser extent, pregnant women and mother figures) in Ford’s films. However, here, the spiritual center of the film – the most critical component of Ford’s filmmaking – is almost completely hollow and the characters, somehow, seem to be sacrificed to uphold a vague, romantic ideology. But it is the Native American community that gets the rawest deal of them all, having been portrayed as unreasonable barbarians and regressive patriarchs. The shot of a bunch of women rejoicing, while pouring boiling water over an invading group of Indians, marks the nadir for Ford’s cinema.

Stagecoach (1939)

StagecoachTo say that Stagecoach (1939) makes up for the folly called Drums Along The Mohawk would be a gross understatement. It is one of Ford’s finest films and some might even call it the director’s greatest Western. It has been said that Stagecoach changed the way Westerns were made. I don’t know about that, but the film sure does take both the genre and the director to the next evolutionary level. An incisive sociocultural examination of frontier settlements, Stagecoach unfolds as a study of a bunch of characters, each of which would go on to become a genre cliché and the sum of which embodies a whole society. The motley crew is a mixture of marginalized people and bourgeoisie (a la Just Pals) the most striking of whom is a negatively shaded banker – a move that exemplifies Ford’s admiration for FDR and which presages the socialist spirit of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Ford apparently told Wayne once that the actor just needs to stare at infinity and that the audience, equipped with full knowledge about the character he is playing, would fill in the emotions themselves. That idea is manifest in this very film. We know nothing about this utterly fascinating, almost otherworldly, being played by John Wayne. But, along the film, we also have this feeling of having known him for a long time. It is perhaps for the first time that a Ford Western utilizes what lies beyond its narrative to enrich its story – a technique that would be taken to the extreme in the films to come.

My Darling Clementine (1946)

My Darling ClementineMy Darling Clementine (1946) was made after the end of the Second World War and at a time when Hollywood was bitten by the Film Noir bug. As a result, My Darling Clementine is the first of Ford’s Westerns to go beyond the boundaries of a traditional Western to embrace other genres. Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday is a character straight out of film noir. It is revealed to us that he is a surgeon disillusioned by the uncertainty and brutality that marks his profession. He assumes a false identity, that of a rugged gun wielding gambler (!), to escape this existential angst and resorts to chronic drinking to forget his past (Kurosawa, influenced by Ford as ever, would resolve this duality into two separate characters in Drunken Angel (1948)). Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) himself is the quintessential existential hero, taking up the role of the judge, the jury and the executioner upon realizing that there is neither an established law to provide justice not a divine force to punish his brother’s killers (This character would be resolved into two by Ford himself, in his greatest Western). When Earp throws the drunken Indian out of the bar, he may have been acting out a historical truth, but it is also his way of imposing order upon a world that seems to have gone astray like his cattle. That is, of course, till he meets Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), who is the film’s binding force and its sole symbol of moral purity and progress.

 

(To be continued…)

 

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