There’s potential in the idea of The White Buffalo. A pastiche of real world characters (Wild Bill Hickock, Crazy Horse, General Custer) with a mythical dream quest to kill a white buffalo could be an interesting adventure, and a commentary of the world of the mid-to-late 19th century American frontier. If only this movie didn’t make so many missteps towards an interesting goal.
The first bizarre notion is that this premise, which is about a clash of cultures, should be in part a monster movie. The White Buffalo is supposed to be a terrifying creature (a “spike” in the movie’s vernacular, which gets very thick.) And fresh off the success of the relative 1976’s King Kong remake, producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted another high-class creature feature.
The animatronic in King Kong was famously so unwieldy and ultimately unrealistic that less than half a minute of footage of it was in the completed film. If only that had been the case with the ridiculous-looking white buffalo.
It’s a creature of legend. Wild Bill Hickock (Charles Bronson in a ridiculous wig) has seen it in his dreams and is traveling back to the West incognito to find it. The creature rampaged through Crazy Horse’s camp, killing his baby daughter. He’s charged with finding the beast and taking his pelt to swath the girl’s body with. Until he does so, his name is taken from him, and he’s known as Worm.
The White Buffalo then careens through several very standard Western tropes and scenes. Most of them involve Wild Bill being taken for a greenhorn and shooting his way out. He also meets with a hooker with a heart of gold (Kim Novak), a vengeance-minded Captain Custer (Ed Lauter), and various others before reconnecting with Charlie Zane (Jack Ward), an old friend. They plan to find the white buffalo together – Bill to fulfill his dreams, Charlie for the $2000 he can get for the head and hide of a rare white buffalo.
The premise is thin, but a decent set-up for a movie, with the inevitable clash between Wild Bill and Crazy Horse providing an obvious point for a climax. But the execution, dialogue, and style of the film are so completely unfocused and odd that The White Buffalo regularly steps on its own feet.
The film was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who has made competent and even excellent films before including Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear. His Ice Cold in Alex is a marvelous bit of suspense, with its protagonists struggling against a brutal desert environment. That movie had a grim focus. The White Buffalo is like a shell full of bird shot, going all over the place. There’s not one, but two saloon shoot-outs. The first one is frenetic. The second involves a lot of sitting, staring, and a lot of split-diopter shots. A split diopter involves a convex piece of glass over part of the camera lens so that the image focuses at two places at one. It mimics deep focus and can be an arresting visual. The White Buffalo spreads split-diopter shots around as if the cinematographer owned stock in a novelty lens company.
Sometimes the visuals are spectacular. The last act of the film takes place in the snowy mountains, and there’s a mix of location and studio footage that really sells the frigid isolation. It’s a welcome distraction from another of the film’s oddities: the dialogue is written in a difficult to follow patois. “None of that pig pee you spigot out to these swill bellies.” “He’s madder than a wet mouse and don’t scare worth a hiccup!” “Maybe that demon horned bag of tricks has flimflammed us.” It’s not impossible to follow, but it feels much more affected than authentic.
The White Buffalo is about the Old West, and about the relations between the native tribes and the white settlers. Maybe the buffalo is an obvious metaphor for the settlement of the West. But it’s also Jaws, and Moby Dick, and that’s way too much thematic weight for a great movie. The White Buffalo isn’t. It’s an unfocused, often goofy 97-minute western that spends half its runtime giving the audience a greatest hits of western cliches before it gets near its main point. The performances and casting are a mixed bag (Charles Bronson at 56 was 17 years older than Hickock ever became.) Except for the titular animatronic monstrosity, the movie looks good. But it’s not much more than a curiosity, an artifact of a time where the Western was essentially dead, and no one knew how to bring it back.
The White Buffalo has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber classics. Extras on the disc include a commentary by film historian and Bronson chronicler Paul Talbot, and some trailers and TV spots.