J. Lee Thompson, 1977
Starring: Charles Bronson, Jack Warden, Will Sampson, Kim Novak
The White Buffalo is one of the oddest and most interesting films I’ve seen in a long time. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by the accomplished J. Lee Thompson, whose works run the gamut from The Guns of Navarone (1961), Cape Fear (1962), and Mackenna’s Gold (1969) to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), the astounding Canadian slasher flick Happy Birthday to Me (1981), and 10 to Midnight (1983), this represents one of his many outings with inimitable action star Charles Bronson. Sadly, this was Bronson’s last film for United Artists and ended his string of blockbusters. Panned at its release, there is probably not another western like it and it deserves some new attention.
The plot is simple, but unbelievable. Wild Bill Hickok journeys west because he is haunted by dreams of a murderous white buffalo. He encounters some unfriendliness, but makes it to the mountain territory to hunt down the rampaging buffalo. He is forced to team up with Crazy Horse, an Indian warlord struck by grief because the buffalo killed his daughter. Together they must get revenge, so that her spirit can rest.
This is one of those rare films, that when you describe the plot and personalities involved, seems like it shouldn’t exist. Charles Bronson as an aged, syphilitic Wild Bill Hickok, hunting down a white buffalo, a la Moby Dick, with the help of Crazy Horse. Hickok doesn’t wake up from his nightmares screaming, he wakes up firing both pistols into whatever happens to be in front of him. Though this is far from a perfect film, it is eerie, dreamlike, and thoroughly steeped in the symbolism of death. The snowy mountain setting and barren landscapes represent one of the finest elements of the film. The cinematography from Paul Lohmann is impressive, and even though the set sometimes feels cheap, it is always lovely to look at. Particularly that enormous pile of bones in the beginning of the film, which immediately sets things off on atmospheric, almost surreal note.
There are some great actors in White Buffalo. All of them give solid performances, though some can only work with what the script gives them. I could never say anything bad about Charles Bronson. He gives an icy, subdued performance here and completely conveys Hickok’s disturbed frame of mind. There’s a surprising appearance from Kim Novak, in one her last roles before retirement, as Poker Jenny, a reformed whore who puts up Hickok for a night and tries to get him in the sack. He refuses, due to the syphilis and his obsession with the buffalo. John Carradine makes a brief, but fitting performance as a gravedigger, Clint Walker (actually a quarter Cherokee, though not playing an Indian in this film) puts in an usual turn as an antagonist, and Slim Pickens has a great, if too short role as the carriage driver. The prolific Jack Warden is Hickok’s surly, racist ally and is outshone by Will Sampson as Crazy Horse, who does a fine job with the limited material given to him.
The buffalo is suitably demonic and feels more like a supernatural force than a crazed biological entity. For the curious, white buffalos do exist, though they are supposedly born once in every 10,000 buffalos and are/were sacred to Native American tribes. The buffalo here, designed by Carlo Rambaldi, is a little silly, but the close ups are terrifying enough to be plausible. This is helped with some menacing cinematography and sound effects. As someone who grew up watching The Last Unicorn about a million times, it reminds me a lot of the Red Bull.
Though the ending doesn’t quite pack the punch it should, it is one of this quiet, melancholy film’s few flaws. The script is confused at times, seemingly throwing in subplots just to stretch out the running time. There is also some hilarious dialogue, both intentional and unintentional. Hickok’s interactions with Crazy Horse are painful examples of earlier, wildly racist westerns, where Native Americans are forced to speak in stilted, deadpan tones and use sign language, forcing a five word sentence to take ten minutes to express. Kind of like Entish, except offensive. There are also a lot of great, intentionally funny lines, such as “Don’t cornhole me, young sass,” which is said to Hickok.
Not everyone will enjoy the serious, slow paced White Buffalo, but it will be very rewarding for certain film fans. I encourage you to seek it out of you like westerns, particularly unusual ones. This is sort of a mythic, horror-western hybrid that will probably only appeal to those with active imaginations. There is a basic DVD release from MGM.