Movie Review: “The White Buffalo” (1977)

That right there is a clearer picture of the titular beast than you’ll ever get in the movie. But that’s kind of okay. Like in “Jaws,” less is more. But this poster oversells the spectacle of this slow, ominous quest story.

Title: The White Buffalo (1977) IMDb
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Lead Actors: Charles Bronson (Wild Bill Hickock), Jack Warden (Charlie Zane), Will Sampson (Crazy Horse), Kim Novak (Poker Jenny), Slim Pickens (in a cameo)
Score Composer: John Barry
Length: 97 minutes
Rating (US): PG (in 1977, this could include a fair bit of swearing, from S.O.B.’s to “bastards,” “damns,” and taking the Lord’s name in vain)
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Wild Bill Hickock, old and plagued by nightmares of a murderous white buffalo, returns to the western frontier and, along with an old Indian-hating friend of his, joins up with the disgraced Sioux chief Crazy Horse, himself suffering from the death of his infant daughter, to hunt the evil, almost demonic, beast.
Reason for Watching: I like Westerns and Charles Bronson, and this film promised both, in addition to lots of action.
Movie Re-watchability: Not sure how re-watchable it is, but I was certainly absorbed the first time through. It’s slowness and general darkness probably means it’s not the most rewatchable of films, but I would like to see it again. Just not too soon.
Director Re-watchability: Thompson’s directing is rocky at times; that is, some of his cuts seem awkward, especially in action sequences, and for the first half hour you can’t quite tell where he’s going with the film. But in the end, he made a very effective, interesting film. I haven’t seen his other films, although some of them, like Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear are well-regarded.
Recommendation: It’s a strange film, to be sure, and not one high regarded in general. But I really found it fascinating. It’s most like a spaghetti Western, with its dreamlike moods, cold men, and harsh landscapes. But a spaghetti Western invaded by a dark monster straight from a myth or dark fairy tale. If you like spaghetti Westerns and don’t mind a touch of the supernatural or uncertain, you’ll probably find this movie as interesting as I did. Other than that, you just have to watch it yourself and take it for what it is. Don’t go in with many expectations, just receive it. It’s not transcendent, or astoundingly great, or any other superlative we like to use to denote the films we really want everyone to see. But that’s not to say it’s not worth your time. This is one of the more interesting genre exercises you’re likely to come across, whether or not you like it.

Key Thoughts

This is a surprisingly effective and unique film; ostensibly a Western, but proving to have more parts supernatural thriller and mythical quest. The premise seems so ridiculous that it’d have to be either a comedy or an over-the-top action flick: Wild Bill Hickock and Crazy Horse team up to hunt a evil white buffalo. Instead, this film takes itself completely seriously and, amazingly, succeeds. I’m not going to call this one of the greatest Westerns or any of that stuff, but it’s uncommonly absorbing and not quite like anything else I’ve seen.

The Western elements are thus: the setting, the tension between whites and Native Americans, the gunslinger of little words who is frequently attacked by snarling baddies wherever he goes but guns them down with hardly a blink (usually the Clint Eastwood role). Yet the main plot is part quest, part supernatural thriller: Hickock (Charles Bronson) is plagued by nightmares of the White Buffalo attacking him, and must confront the beast in order to keep from being driven insane; likewise, the Oglala chief Crazy Horse — who was stripped of his rank and name after weeping like a woman at the death of his infant child when the White Buffalo attacked his village — must kill the beast “in the old way” to regain his honor and provide peace for his child in the afterlife.

The White Buffalo itself appears nearly demonic — in addition to invading Hickock’s dreams even while he was living hundreds of miles away in the East, it stalks them from the shadows of snowy mountains, plays psychological games by making noises at night, kills their horses to deprive them of easy transport, and causes avalanches to intimidate them and cause mayhem. It reminded me of equal parts Moby Dick and the Red Bull from “The Last Unicorn”.

The movie is directed in a slow, slightly surreal, not completely steady manner. In the first ten minutes of the movie, I wasn’t sure if it was well made or not. The outside nighttime settings look limited, as if filmed on dark stages perhaps, the lighting was low and natural (often obscuring landscape or facial details due to darker-than-normal-for-movies shadows). The acting for the Native American characters is stiff and stereotypical of old Western portrayals — flat voices, no emotion, somber faces. And the White Buffalo itself is filmed mostly in lightning quick, almost shaky-cam shots, up close, so you can’t quite get a good look at it. Since it’s likely a big puppet they had, this kind of choppy shooting was probably to disguise the artificiality. And it works. Sure, we’re used to big CGI shots of creatures, and a bigger budgeted movie in 1977 could probably have done more, but this limited approach WORKS for this movie. It makes the White Buffalo more surreal, more monstrous, and more threatening. It’s not a real buffalo — it’s practically a demon! I think that’s the point, and it really helps build the suspense and eerie atmosphere for this movie. And this goes for the whole movie — as it progresses, the directing feels more assured and the narrative finds its focus.

The legendary OneyeBronson is one of the iciest action heroes of his time, all the moreso because of his leathered face and deep-set, stern eyes. He doesn’t emote much, but he doesn’t have to. His character is hard and driven, knows he’s done bad in the past and doesn’t apologize for it, but also seems to be looking for a way to atone for it. I think he ends up finding a way towards something resembling peace, by the end, although it’s not much, and you can decide for yourself.

A murderous ambush by some U.S. cavalrymen who hate Hickock doesn’t go so well (for them) after the bartender slides Hickock some guns, and the gunslinger (on the ground to the right) starts slinging.

The supporting cast are all pretty excellent, though may not notice until the end. Jack Warden starts as an entertaining cliche, but by the end becomes a more complex, and, in a moral view, tragic figure. Will Sampson plays Crazy Horse with solemn dignity; somewhat of a living caricature of the noble, steel-eyed savage, but with such presence as to match the ominous White Buffalo’s and lift this story further into the realm of legend. The character of dark-hearted Whistling Jack Kileen I swore was played by Gregory Peck, but in fact is played by towering, deep-voiced Clint Walker. A deadly, fearsome opponent even for the likes of Charles Bronson.

There’s very little humor in “The White Buffalo,” but it never gets as depressing as it threatens. I enjoyed it — it’s cool, if grim, and has a sense of honor about it. And it’s fascinating for how it mixes the genres of the Western, the personal quest, and the supernatural beastly thriller.

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

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