The White Buffalo(1977), starring Charles Bronson an directed by J. Lee Thomson, is a moody, atmospheric Western that attempts to add horror elements to the genre.
The unprecedented success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws(1975) led to an influx of countless monster movies, like King Kong, Orca, The Swarm, etc… Jaws was basically a marine adventure turned into a Horror\Monster film, with a ferocious shark at its center. This inspired other filmmakers to tweak elements of horror into other genres. Director J. Lee Thompson’s The White Buffalo (1977), was an attempt at fusing horror and Western genres, with the eponymous albino buffalo as its centerpiece monster. The White Buffalo was the second collaboration between Charles Bronson and director J. Lee Thompson – they would go on to make a lot more – and was adapted from the book of the same name by Richard Sale. The film was released in between King Kong and Orca, which were all produced by the Italian movie mogul, Dino de Laurentiis, and amongst the three movies, it is the best and, perhaps, the most misunderstood, as this is was not intended to be a regular monster movie like the other two. Combining the Western and Horror genres is not an easy thing to do, because Western is a very concrete, ‘moral’ genre, while horror is fluid and plays around with morality; and true to its concept, The White Buffalo emerges as a truly bizarre western, or rather an art-western, the last thing one expects from Thompson- the director of “Guns of Navarone”; Bronson- who was now an urban action hero post “Death Wish” and Dino De Laurentiis- who’s a bonafide hack, always trying hard to make carbon copies of other blockbuster movies. The film is nothing like any other movie this trio has been involved with; This is is moody, atmospheric and possessing of a dream like quality, as if the whole film is unfolding in the nightmares of the lead protagonist. Now coming to the lead protagonist(s), things get even more bizarre; the film yokes together two great figures of Western lore: the legendary gunfighter James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok (Charles Bronson) and the great Sioux war chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson), who both are predestined in their own way to chase down the eponymous animal. While Hickok’s intentions behind hunting down the animal is rather abstract: the animal keeps haunting him in his dreams. he decides the only remedy is to find and kill the creature. With the help of his old friend Charlie Zane (Jack Warden) – a ruthless “Indian Fighter” who accompanies Hickok out of greed- he sets out across the snowy plains, unaware that he’s not the only one looking for the fabled beast; for Crazy Horse, the mission is personal; he lost his daughter when the Buffalo went on a murder spree through their encampment, so now he should kill the animal and get its hide to wrap the dead body of his daughter. Then only his daughter’s spirit will be placated, and he can redeem himself in the eyes of his tribesmen, who has nicknamed him “the worm.”
The film is intended to be a broad allegory for the conquest of American West, and the relational dynamics that existed between the White European settlers and the native American tribes during the period. The White Buffalo is something that’s both representative as well as antithetical to both the races. For the “White Man”, White is representative of their own, but Buffalo is a symbol of the Native tribes with whom they are in constant conflict; while for the Natives, White represent the marauding invader, while Buffalo is their benefactor, who provides them with everything they need; the irony of both a white-man and a red-man hunting down the last albino forms the dramatic core of the film; and the fact that these two men are also last of their kind (in their own way) make the drama more poignant. Their benefactor acquiring the traits of their invader and becoming the destroyer of their tribe is the ultimate nightmare for the red-man, while A man-killing buffalo apparently intent on getting even for the thousands of buffalo slaughtered for their hides is the ultimate nightmare for the white-man. This connection is established rather graphically in the scene where Hickok arrives in Cheyenne by train; he is astounded by the buffalo graveyard: a great mountain of bones built up by buffalo hunters are piled high like mounds of white coal; the bones of buffalos killed to make way for the railroad; as well as for wiping out the food source for the unpliable plains nations. Also, While catching up with an old friend, we find that Hickok’s no friend of the Indians himself, with the Sioux in particular holding a grudge for his killing of “Whistler the Peacemaker”. Hickok is travelling under the pseudonym of James Otis, as he’s not keen to advertise his identity on the frontier after a sojourn to New York, considering that so many people want to claim his scalp for the sake of specific grievance or the desire to make a name. Hickok has just returned from performing on the New York stage with Buffalo Bill Cody, serving up that “mythology of the West” to audiences in the east. Along his journey, he encounters a cavalry officer with a score to settle (Ed Lauter as Tom Custer), a stage passenger with thievery on his mind (Stuart Whitman as Coxy), an old enemy (an unrecognizable Clint Walker as Whistling Jack Kileen) and an old lover (Kim Novak as Poker Jenny). Though each one of them try to stop him from proceeding further with his “mission” of finding and killing the beast that’s haunting him in his nightmares, Hickok is unrelenting and continues on in his journey.
To understand the truly bizarre and foreboding nature of the film, one should see how a familiar Western situation is depicted in the film: right from John Ford’s Stagecoach(1939), a stagecoach filled with disparate characters on a journey through the wilderness has been part of many a Western, but you have never seen anything like the one depicted in this film. Hickok takes a stagecoach to Fetterman, after he comes to know that “Poker” Jenny has now become Widow Schermerhorn, and she’s now in Fetterman to open her own place. Hickok has been warned that the ride is dangerous as “the Sioux are riding the Bozeman Trial like Irish banshees.” but that doesn’t deter Hickok. The journey is given a nightmarish tilt; with rain and wind lashing the coach as it struggles to make its way through muddy roads in total darkness; suddenly, in the intermittent lightning, there appears the ghostly figure of Crazy Horse, riding through the storm. The riders cant make out whether he’s real or he is a ghost, because “injuns” don’t ride the country in such weather. The carriage is driven by Pickney (Slim Pickens in an amusing cameo), who keeps charging the horses, even as he and Hickok exchanges gunfire with Crazy Horse. Among the passengers is a foul-mouthed Irishman named Mr. Coxy, who makes the mistake of trying to rob Hickok. Hickok forces him out into the mud and rain at gunpoint. he is soon shot dead by Crazy Horse. The whole scene plays out more like an episode from a “Dracula” film: this could very well be Jonathan Harker’s nightmarish journey- travelling by coach- through the Carpathian mountains on his way to Dracula’s castle; this scene generates the same feeling of dread and foreboding made even more obvious when, on the road, Hickok and Picky comes across two copses of soldiers frozen to death in the snow, which they nonchalantly toss on to the roof of the coach and continues on travelling as if nothing strange has happened- they are used to people dying all around them. The film presents the West as not the “Promised Land” of John Ford Westerns, but an apocalyptic landscape of death and destruction. The Horror roots of the film is further boosted by the presence of horror icon, John Carradine, who makes a cameo appearance as Amos the Undertaker in Fetterman and who is seen in the following scene telling Picky and Hickok that he knows the two dead men in their cart , and they were arguing over a White Buffalo sighting. This whole episode is where the film is most successful in merging “Horror” and “Western”: the stagecoach ride, the presence of Native tribesman, the shootings, the corpses, the apocalyptic atmosphere.
Another great “Western action meets horror” highlight in the film is a stand-off in the snow covered mountains between Hickok and some cowboys, under the leadership of “Whistling” Jack Kileen- another bad guy Hickok managed to piss-off previously. Another eerie moment, with snow and darkness all around, and voices of the gunfighters and the sound of wind and Gunshots echoing back from the mountains creating a ghostly atmosphere; we find Kileen and his men pinning doing Hickok behind a ridge, from where he cannot escape. Here, Hickok is saved by Crazy Horse; in another nod to a legendary “horror” character, “The Wolfman.”; Crazy Horse, using his ingenuity as a native tribesman, sneaks up on Kileen and his men, pretending to be a wolf, and then when he’s sufficiently close, riddles them with arrows. Earlier, Hickok had saved Crazy Horse’s life when he was ambushed by some “Crow Indians”, now he has repaid his debt. From here on, Hickok and Crazy horse become partners in hunting down the albino. This also feeds into another subtext of the film, which goes against a traditional Western narrative, where the battles in the west were fought between the white men and the natives, here both Hickok and Horse faces threat from the members of their own respective races, and it’s the member of the opposite race that comes to their rescue. Even though they have extreme hatred for the opposite race, that doesn’t stop them from uniting to pursue a common enemy, which symbolizes both of them in some way.
The other times, the film is not very successful at this mix, and plays out more like a silly Western; like in the scenes were Hickok confronts an old nemesis, Tom Custer (supposed to be George Custer’s brother); he blows away Custer and his men in one of the silliest gunfights I have seen in a Western. More ridiculousness follows in the scenes featuring Hickok’s encounter with his ex-flame “Poker” Jenny (a rare 1970s appearance by Kim Novak), who tries to get him laid, but he rejects the “offer” , as he is carrying a “venereal disease,” and he doesn’t want to get her infected. Hickok has a dose of syphilis slowly corroding away his body and mind and can’t take bright light, and hence the pair of vintage dark glasses he perpetually wears. Hickok is unsure at first whether the prophecy he seeks to fulfil is real or just a product of his decaying wits, and this provides a nice running subtext to both the film and his character. But Soon enough, lying alone in Jenny’s bed, Hickok has the Buffalo nightmare again; he awakes shooting up the place and decimating some white buffalo heads. Guess, the “The White Buffalo” nightmare is also supposed to be a metaphor for his sexual dysfunction. But these are just too many metaphors and subtexts for a film that’s mainly designed to be a spooky adventure; sexual diseases chasing you down in your nightmares as a White Buffalo makes for a great Freudian psychoanalysis, but feels completely out of place in a film like this. I think the main reason for this uneven nature of the film is that director, J Lee Thompson, is a true blue “Journeyman” director, who is very good at making purely masculine genre movies. He is a terrific action director, who infuses the film with dynamism and vigor; he shoots with a mobile camera: the camera is always gliding into, or tracking the characters when they are talking or moving; he is also very good at establishing the mood and the chilling atmosphere of the film, but he is not good at marrying the various allegorical subtexts with its dynamic surface. He has made some truly thrilling genre pictures; like the WWII adventure, The Guns of Navarone, or the terrific crime thriller, (the original) Cape fear- with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, but he has also made a lot of truly awful movies (too many to name, a lot of them with Bronson). The White Buffalo is the strangest film he has ever made, and he wasn’t really the right director for the job, it needed someone with an esoteric cinematic mind to pull this off successfully, though, I guess, in the end the primary aim was to turn this into a Charles Bronson Western with a deranged buffalo as the chief villain.
The climax of the film, in which Hickok, his friend, Charlie Zane and Crazy Horse unite to take down the eponymous beast pays homage to the “Moby-Dick” roots of the source novel. This was made evident in the narrative up to this point but not so explicitly; both Hickok and Horse are Captain Ahab(s) in their own right, obsessed about killing a giant white beast (like Ahab in Herman Melville’s oceanic epic). In the climax, Crazy Horse takes to the high ground, buries an arrow ineffectually in the hump of the beast, and then leaps onto its back, stabbing it repeatedly with the same arrow, very similar to what Ahab does to the Whale in Moby-Dick. But there Ahab’s obsessions leads to his tragic end, but here Hickok helps out Crazy Horse in finishing off the beast. Hickok also gifts the buffalo’s hide to Crazy Horse, and they bid goodbye to each other, forever; as they remain great enemies, they should never cross paths again. The epilogue gives birth and death dates for J.B. Hickok (Born 1837, Murdered 1876) and Crazy Horse (Born 1842, Murdered 1877). Hickok was only 39 at the time of his death, but Bronson was 55 at the time of film’s release. Crazy Horse was 35 at the time of his death. Sampson was 43 at the time of film’s release. The choice to cast older actors was certainly a conscious one, to give the impression of men whose time was growing short. Both of them must have died pretty soon after killing The White Buffalo, thus completing the allegorical connection between these two characters and the deranged, extinct Albino.
One of the highlights of the film is its casting; Charles Bronson is as icy cool as ever and the fact he wears sunglasses throughout only makes him cooler; Bronson’s Hickok probes Bronson’s screen persona as a dealer of death, especially after the super-successful “Death Wish” and picks up the same notion of the Western hero who finds he has lived long enough to become a victim of his own legend. Bronson supplies the required melancholy and pensiveness to the character he’s physically and mentally decaying, and is fast approaching his death. In this part of his career, Bronson was trying to stretch himself by doing rather off-beat (by his standards) films; like the action-drama, Hard Times, an international spy thriller, Telefon, or the Western comedy, From Noon till Three, etc., but none of them were successful; the White Buffalo, that came at the end of this cycle, was a massive flop and pretty much ended Bronson’s reign as an A list star; he never graduated to the next level of stardom as Clint Eastwood did; from now on, he will be sidelined into B movie fare and Cannon films folder. Will Sampson as Crazy Horse gives the best performance in the film, his stoic warrior looking for redemption is a welcome change from his monotone, expressionless asylum inmate he played in One flew over cuckoo’s Nest. Jack Warden, Slim Pickens and the rest of the “salt of the earth” Western regulars are perfect for their roles. The language- the Western slang – used in the film is also really unique, I don’t know if it’s authentic to the period, but it does compliment the weird nature of the film. The most problematic aspect of the film is the eponymous villain: the pre-CGI, animatronic buffalo monster, who keeps charging and charging at the camera, but the concealed tracks on which it is charging forward is very visible. It was designed by Carlo Rambaldi – who created Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” – and looks more like a giant galloping puppet than any living entity. But here’s the thing: majority of the film was shot on a soundstage, mainly to evoke the dreamlike nature of the piece, and the artificiality of the snowy plains and caves is very much evident. So the sheer theatricality of the animatronic effects actually compliments the artifice of the film and even lend a a certain charm to the proceedings.
One element that unquestionably binds the film together with great authority is composer, John Barry’s superb score; starting with the opening dream sequence, Barry’s music successfully establishes a sense of foreboding, and the mood is maintained in the score throughout the entire film; The score does the most of heavy lifting in the sequences whenever the animatronic buffalo comes charging on the screen. Though this may not be one of his greatest scores, it’s still one of the great Horror movie scores. Barry was known for creating lush, romantic music, but here he does something more surreal and interesting. The music succeeds in its entirety where the film succeed only in parts. In the end, “The White Buffalo” is an odd, surreal hybrid of a western and monster movie that is not-great, or not even very good sometimes, but remains interesting throughout.