Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Taking elements from a variety of sources, namely Moby Dick, Jaws and numerous westerns, director J. Lee Thompson's 1977 film The White Buffalo has to be considered one of the more goofy westerns out there, and would probably rank with such efforts as Orca: The Killer Whale (which this film is quite similar to) and King Kong Lives as being among producer Dino De Laurentiis's most whacko film productions. The film follows "Wild Bill" Hickok during the later years of his life, only now, instead of gunning down "Injuns" by the dozens, he's haunted by nightmares about a massive albino buffalo that he comes to view as being a harbinger of his own death. The film is certainly has one of the more odd stories out there, and owes more than a bit to Jaws, but much like Orca from the same year, even a familiar cast can't mask the fact that this surprisingly gloomy film is too ridiculous to take seriously.
Charles Bronson glares his way through yet another mediocre film in this role, taken the part of an aging Hickok. Plagued with nightmares in which he's stalked by a massive, charging white bison, Hickok sets out across the frontier into the badlands in search of the creature. Finding that, in many cases, his reputation has preceded him, he winds up in various gunfights and confrontations with thugs that do little to progress the story, but attempt to add some spark to the painfully dull middle stretches of the film. Eventually, Hickok, along with a stubborn prospector who joins him on his quest, meets up with the legendary Indian Chief Crazy Horse, who's on a hunt for the creature himself after it rampages through his village and kills several people. The three men wind up trekking deep into the mountains in search of the beast's lair, but tensions among the men threaten to destroy their alliance before they ever find the creature.
The film was based on a novel by Richard Sale, a sometimes film director himself, and one could imagine that the novel would at least be somewhat intriguing. The basic story is fairly unusual with a dash of historical detail thrown in to spice things up. In transitioning the work to the screen, however, Sale seems to abandon most notions of tension and excitement in favor of character development. This isn't, in and of itself, a bad thing; in the original novel, it's probably the reason why the book would make for a good read. Onscreen, however, The White Buffalo seems incredibly slow and lumbering. A film like Jaws in some ways worked through the "character development scenes" due to the fact that the killer shark had enough of a presence to keep the audience weary, making appearances every now and again to crank the tension up little by little. The White Buffalo has none of this; the buffalo makes precious little impression on the audience, and never seems like a threat in the least. Without the more rampaging beast elements to help the film along, Sale's script, despite having a unique but underdeveloped sort of mystic surrealism that pervades much of the film, sinks into a quicksand of western film stereotypes, and there's nothing to really warrant the viewer's interest.
Frankly, I'm somewhat flabbergasted as to what famed producer De Laurentiis saw in this project. There's a decent cast involved (Bronson could always fill seats, even when he's at his most stoic onscreen), and the remainder of the cast includes plenty of familiar faces - Will Sampson is somewhat one-dimensional as Crazy Horse (and seems to go against any common knowledge of how Native Americans behaved), but we also get Kim Novak, Slim Pickens and John Carradine lighting up the screen in small roles. Jack Warden is pretty entertaining as Bronson's blatantly racist companion, constantly threatening to shoot any Indians around and making several "colorful" remarks during the course of the film. The main problem is that the film never settles on its approach: should it be a western with animal horror overtones? Or a horror film set in the west? I'd say writer Sale and director Thompson attempt to make it more of a western with some horror film overtones, but the fact is that the film is just uninspired. The few thrilling moments are concocted rather haphazardly, and the sequences where one would expect the tension to be at its greatest are actually more absurd than exciting.
In this respect, part of the problem is that the titular creature is never convincing as the film's main "villain;" we almost forget about the rampaging buffalo for long stretches while the film plays cowboys and Indians, and when the creature is onscreen, it's more laughable than anything else. Any glimpse of the buffalo shows the beast stampeding, it's torso bobbing up and down and legs trampling about. It's quite obvious that each of these scenes uses the same mechanized model propelled on a bit of track (in fact, you occasionally can see the mechanism powering the beast's movement). It almost becomes hilarious, especially when Thompson applies ragged jump cutting to the scenes, making the sequences frustrating and incredibly garbled. A scene in which the buffalo ravages and Indian village is particularly ludicrous, as we see various people injured and killed by the creature without ever seeming to actually come in contact with it. In short, although the film attempts to set the buffalo up as some sort of mythical creature, it never overcomes its non-threatening, thoroughly phony appearance.
Director Thompson (the director of such films as the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone, clearly past his prime by this point, left to direct a seemingly unending stream of Bronson action vehicles) and cinematographer Paul Lohmann (he who lensed such films as 1975's Nashville) give the film a nice look, and the outdoor, location filming is occasionally pretty stunning. The film does have sort of a weird mystical vibe that becomes quite evident at times, and the dreamy finale, while somewhat of a disappointment in the bigger scheme of the film, perhaps conveys the surreal vibe best of all. I also have to say that the general feel of this film is undeniably gloomy, as if we're witnessing the glory days of the west expire in a painful, agonizing way right before our eyes. The film never explicitly embraces this idea, but the melancholic nature of the story combined with dark visuals and a downright depressing music score by John Barry make this one of the more downbeat westerns out there (though it comes nowhere near the undisputed classic of depressing westerns, Sergio Corbucci's masterful The Great Silence from 1968).
In some ways, The White Buffalo is intriguing as one of the more genuinely odd efforts in the history of cinematic westerns, and indeed this picture is a weird combination of seemingly unrelated elements. On the other hand, though, the film is fairly dull for long stretches of time, almost ridiculous in its offensive portrayal of Native Americans (scenes in which Bronson and Sampson communicate using a ridiculous spoken sign language are unintentionally hilarious), and the film is not entirely successful as neither a more horror-oriented effort nor a straight western. The cast and director apply some level of effort to elevate the film's overall quality, and I find the piece most interesting as a depressing, oddball western. Still, I'd have a hard time honestly recommending this unusual but strictly mediocre curio.
DVD Details = F-minus level Lame; fullscreen, no extras
Blood and Guts = Rampaging buffalo attacks; a few gunfights in the Colorado Rockies
Language = Some rough frontier jargon and derogatory remarks towards “dem Injuns”
Fap Factor = Charlie turns down a roll in the hay with Kim Novak: weak game, bro
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older