A film that became a legendary bomb, the 1977 Western The White Buffalo has been re-evaluated by movie fans in recent years and many consider it to be an underrated classic. Count me out of this assessment. The film is certainly unique: an ambitious attempt to blend the Western and horror film genres, but it falls short on most counts.The United Artists production stars Charles Bronson as Wild Bill Hickcok, who- for reasons never adequately explained- is haunted by terrifying nightmares involving him in a life-or-death confrontation with a giant white buffalo. I didn't know that buffalo come in colors, but I'll cede the point. (Given the dreadful styles of the 1970s, it's surprising the film wasn't titled The Plaid Buffalo.) Simultaneously, Chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) is having his own white buffalo problems. Seems the actual rampaging beast wreaked havoc on his village and killed his child. In order to restore his pride and stature among the tribe, he must hunt down and slaughter the animal- or be stuck with the monicker of "The Worm" henceforth. (This must be the Indian equivalent of "nerd".)
The two men are on obsessive journeys and are destined to meet up - but both feel they have the singular right to kill the buffalo. Hickcok meanders through some cow towns under an alias and hooks up with a mountain man geezer (Jack Warden channeling the ghost of Gabby Hayes) who decides to accompany him on his quest. When Hickcok and Crazy Horse do meet up, they end up saving each other's life in respective ambushes and declare themselves blood brothers. Despite this, each man is determined to be the one who slays the white buffalo.
The film is moody and atmospheric and at times is offbeat enough that, if it weren't for the Colorado scenery, one might suspect this is an Italian Western. Nevertheless, the screenplay by Richard Sale (based on his novel) is erratic and contains many disparate elements that never blend together in a satisfactory manner. The film is peppered with welcome appearances by many Western favorites (Stuart Whitman, Slim Pickens, John Carradine) but their characters are superfluous and smack of gimmicky cameos. Clint Walker shows up briefly, well-cast and playing against type as a villain. There is also the rather odd presence of Kim Novak in a nothing role as a good-hearted hooker who suffers the humiliation of being rejected by Hickcok even as he shares her bed. (This must be the first case of erectile dysfunction caused by a white buffalo.)
The movie was an attempt by producer Dino De Laurentiis to exploit the dying Western genre by finding a way to incorporate elements of Jaws. Despite the prestigious cast and the fact that this was a United Artists production, the budget was clearly skimpy. The film abounds with shoddy rear screen projection shots and some amateurish sets, particularly in the mountain sequences set at night. There's plenty of plastic snow and the sets are somewhat less realistic than a Christmas window display at Harrods. Then there is the titular character of which much has been written in movie lore. Apparently devoid of anything other than a $20 bill for special effects work, the white buffalo is generally shot in extreme closeup in very brief cuts to mask its ludicrous appearance. Although the buffalo is seemingly immortal and can crash through mountains of snow and cave walls, it never looks any more menacing than a slightly perturbed mountain goat. The analogies to Moby Dick also become a bit too obvious especially when Crazy Horse rides atop the beast, flaying at it with a knife. (just like Ahab and the whale- get it?)All of this is set to an atmospheric if somewhat low-key score by John Barry that fits the proceedings well.
Perhaps the most unintentionally amusing aspect of the movie is the initial meetings between Hickcok and Crazy Horse. The two men face each other and gesture with elaborate Indian sign language- despite the fact they are simultaneously speaking to each other in perfect English! This is as practical as using signal flags to communicate with a dinner companion and seems more suited to an episode of Police Squad.
Despite all of these criticisms, there is something admirable about the concept of The White Buffalo in that the film at least tries to be an original take on an age-old genre. It also represents one of the last movies in which Charles Bronson at least tried to stretch his acting muscles. With his saggy eyes and droopy mustache, he's perfectly cast as Hickcok. The failure of this film seemed to discourage his professional ambitions. With a couple of exceptions (Telefon, Death Hunt) Bronson went happily into B movie hell, churning out low-rent but profitable potboilers aimed at inner city and drive-in audiences. The shame of it is that he also encouraged once respected directors like J. Lee Thompson and Michael Winner to go along with him.
The White Buffalo was one of those major failures that initiated the end of the Western film genre, and it was Heaven's Gate three years later that nailed the coffin shut. The Bronson film has grown in stature as a curiosity in the ensuing years and apologists claim that the chintzy set pieces must have been intended in order to convey the dream-like quality of the plot. Much the same has been said of Hitchcock's Marnie, which was also heavily criticized for its abysmal sets, rear screen production work and use of matte paintings. However, in both cases the hypothesis seems unlikely. They were simply troubled productions overseen by directors who seem to have lost interest in their respective projects. Universal ended up losing money on the Hitchcock drama while United Artists was forced to pick up the tab for the buffalo bill, if you'll pardon the pun.
The White Buffalo has recently been released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The transfer is superb, which only makes the white buffalo look even phonier, but that just adds to the fun. An original trailer is included. Recommended, especially with the added bonus of that great artwork on the sleeve