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.
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.
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.
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.
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.