The White Buffalo (1977)
“The White Earthquake is Here!”
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Cast: Charles Bronson, Jack Warden, Will Sampson
Synopsis: Wild Bill Hickok hunts a white buffalo he has seen in a dream.
Widely interpreted as a variation on Melville’s Moby Dick (although actually based on the screenwriter Richard Sales’ novel) J. Lee Thompson’s The White Buffalo is a curious – and occasionally pretentious – hybrid of Western and Horror genres. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, who was also responsible for the same year’s Orca, in which another oversized white creature played a major part, The White Buffalo has to be considered an interesting failure, partly because it endeavours to introduce mystical and near supernatural elements without following through on them to a satisfactory conclusion, but also because it fails to create any kind of compelling insight into to the relationship between Charles Bronson’s William Hickcok and Will Sampson’s Crazy Horse.
In 1874, Wild Bill Hickok returns to the West after an unsuccessful stint in the East as an actor with Bill Cody. His return is motivated by visions of an encounter with a massive white buffalo which haunts his dreams, causing him to dwell upon his own mortality. Although he is initially told that the last known ‘White Spike’ was slaughtered a month earlier, Hickok learns from old friend Charlie Zane (Jack Warden, sporting a full and luxuriant beard and ‘tache) of another sighting and the pair of them set off in pursuit. Also on the trail of the creature is the legendary Indian warrior Crazy Horse, whose baby son it trampled to death during an attack on an Indian settlement. The two Western legends initially appear to be heading for a monumental conflict, but become united in their quest after Hickok comes to Crazy Horse’s aid during an encounter with another hostile Indian tribe.
Sleeping with Wild Bill was a hazardous diversion during this troubling – and entirely fictional – time of his life, simply because he had the habit of sleeping with a gun in each hand, and would awaken from his dreams of the White Buffalo with both of them blazing. The idea is he’s so terrified of the dream, that he believes the guns offer him some kind of protection from what it represents – his own death. He’s visibly aging, suffering from glaucoma, which requires him to wear some groovy shades to protect his over-sensitive eyes from the light, and possibly syphilitic. It’s only natural, therefore, that a man in his condition might become a little preoccupied with death, and that a man of Hickok’s legendary stature might choose to face his demons head on in order to exorcise them. And there are great possibilities in this idea, but writer Sales seems to hold back from going all out for the mystical angle, leaving too many tantalising questions unanswered and therefore failing to convince us that Hickok’s slaughter of the creature will provide any kind of therapeutic value.
Bronson gives a surprisingly strong performance in The White Buffalo, and receives able support, mainly from Jack Warner who, as Hickok’s whiskery sidekick, is almost a dead ringer for Toy Story 2’s Stinky Pete, but also from a host of noticeable names in what amount to cameo roles: these include Kim Novak, still luscious at 44, as an accommodating old flame of Hickok’s, Clint Walker as a heavily bearded villain, Stuart Whitman as a drunken traveller who fatally mistakes Hickok for a greenhorn on a stagecoach , and John Carradine as an undertaker. Slim Pickens and Douglas Fowley, who was by then a veteran of more than 200 movies, also make memorable contributions.
The White Buffalo was a box-office failure upon its release, partly due to its studio’s lack of belief in their product. Even with the studio’s support, it’s fair to say the movie wouldn’t have been a sizeable hit – although it would have at least stood a chance. It’s an intriguing premise for a story with some memorable scenes, but its weighed down by its own artistic aspirations and a pre-CGI monster that is clearly charging towards its prey on concealed tracks.
(Reviewed 31st May 2012)