The White Buffalo was mega producer Dino De Laurentiis’s follow-up to his mega-hyped 1976 remake of King Kong—both released among the brief flurry of “creature on the loose” thrillers that followed Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Based on a novel by Richard Sale (who also wrote the film’s screenplay), the story follows Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson), who’s wandering the Old West incognito, haunted by dreams of an upcoming, snowbound confrontation with a gigantic white buffalo. The title creature is shown massacring a camp of Oglala Sioux as the film opens, resulting in the disgrace of a warrior chief who is renamed Worm (Will Sampson) and who eventually crosses paths with Hickok while both are in pursuit of the White Buffalo.
The movie is at once a typical Charles Bronson flick of the period (Bronson was churning out semi-realistic period westerns like Breakheart Pass and From Noon Til Three at the time) and one of the most bizarre curiosities ever released in cinemas. Although the combination of western and monster movie had been tried before (see Ray Harryhausen’s The Valley of Gwangi), the atmosphere and ambition of The White Buffalo’s special effects and settings was something new.
J. Lee Thompson wasn’t exactly David Lean, but he was a veteran director who could generate some real visual flair when given the time and budget. He expertly mixes gorgeous location photography with stage sets built to portray exteriors here, even convincingly crosscutting between the two during a gun battle midway through the film. The film’s climactic setting is an eerie mountaintop clearing full of snow, with a wide tree-lined avenue that the buffalo will eventually charge down. There are other effective visual touches: an opening avalanche along a raging stream, a massive pile of buffalo bones alongside a railroad depot, a grungy and realistic frontier town and a smoky tavern where a hired rifleman sits on a perch against the wall just in case of trouble.
Sale’s dialogue sounds authentic coming out of the mouths of good actors, overheated and fussily literary when spoken by bad ones. Bronson is somewhere in the middle. With his stringy, unkempt head of neck-length hair and bizarre period goggle sunglasses he looks more like some hippy ski bum than Wild Bill Hickok. Sale’s characterization of the gunfighting legend is much the same as Jeff Corey’s take in Little Big Man: he’s a haunted figure who’s made way too many enemies over the years, all of whom seem to be eager to take their revenge for past slights now. Thompson peoples the rest of the film with familiar western he-men: Slim Pickens as a dodgy stagecoach driver, Stuart Whitman as a vindictive passenger, Ed Lauter as a vengeful military man, towering Clint Walker as the awesomely named “Whistling Jack Kileen” and John Carradine, inevitably (but superbly) playing an undertaker who suggests to Hickok and Pickens that they leave a trio of newly killed settlers in the snow—“Keeps ‘em fresh,” he grins. Kim Novak also makes a brief appearance as an old floozy Hickok once bedded down. When she tempts him with more of the same Hickok explains that he picked up a dose of the clap a while back and Novak’s character theorizes that she probably gave it to him.
More pivotal than any of these other supporting characters is grizzled Jack Warden as a hard-bitten trapper with one eye who partners with Hickok through most of the movie, although he’s constantly chafing and itching to put a bullet in Will Sampson’s Sioux warrior. With Bronson and Sampson as essentially non-actors, Warden anchors the film, and the biggest mystery is why Thompson chose to hand the movie’s opening narration to Douglas Fowley as an irascible train conductor. Fowley’s career went back to 1933 and included over 300 films, but he comes off as a poor man’s Gabby Hayes and gets the movie off to a wretched start.
The White Buffalo was famously sold on the strength of its monster movie elements, but while they form the climax of the film they are something of a sideshow and audiences of the day were not convinced of the need to see a film about a marauding white buffalo. De Laurentiis hired Carlo Rambaldi and Mario Chiari to construct the buffalo creature as a full-size mechanical prop. This was done with disastrous results on Dino’s 1976 King Kong, but Rambaldi’s buffalo is a far more expressive and convincing creation. Thompson understood something that’s also demonstrated in the 1957 classic Night of the Demon but is rarely taken advantage of by modern, CGI-crazy directors: the spine-tingling horror that can be created by something at the far end of the frame that is seen to be coming inexorably toward you. Rambaldi and Chiari created a mechanical rig to make the buffalo buck and gallop wildly and while the apparatus is unfortunately visible in many shots of the creature, its effectiveness can’t be denied—several shots are quite hair-raising, particularly as the flailing, charging animal is clearly occupying the same physical space as the actors. That said, monster-lovers will have to fast forward through most of the movie to get their fill of the mayhem, as after the opening scene the creature only appears in a few brief dream sequences before the final, bloody and fairly satisfying climactic action.
That said, the movie is not about the White Buffalo, but about Hickok, his bloody past and the balance of his relationship between Warden’s and Sampson’s character. Before the story is done we find Hickok contrasted with yet another legendary figure of the west, and there’s something elegantly poetic about the ending title card that gives both men’s birthdates and the dates, one year apart, when both men were murdered. The White Buffalo is by no means a great film, but it’s an interesting one. Fair warning though—modern attention spans will rebel at the movie’s leisurely pace.
MGM recently joined Warner Bros. in offering on-demand DVD-R editions of their more obscure catalogue titles. In a way the DVD format was invented to preserve forgotten, impressive-looking movies like The White Buffalo, and collectors have been rightfully suspicious about the DVD-R format. Of course there are no extras but despite there also being no statements about the format being enhanced for 16×9 TVs, The White Buffalo played and looked great on my blu-ray player and it’s also showing on hi-def broadcast television. The image is crisp and the color sharp, even with an abundance of night scenes in the mix and the Dolby sound mix nicely displays John Barry’s moody, foreboding score.