It’s the mid 1970s. Jaws is an enormous success and you’re a film producer. What do you do? If you’re Dino De Laurentiis, you produce not one, but three attempts to cash-in on it; Orca, which was, as you might guess, about a killer Killer Whale, Dino’s 1976 re-make of King Kong (of which Dino famously said “When a Jaws die, nobody cry, when Kong die, everybody gonna cry”) and finally, this film, The White Buffalo, which is Moby Dick set on the frontier, with an enormous white buffalo substituting in for the white whale of the classic novel, and Wild Bill Hickcock and Crazy Horse taking the place of Ahab and Queequeg.
Wild Bill Hickock (Charles Bronson, The Evil that Men Do) travels to the Black Hills in search of the white buffalo he sees in his dreams. It is a confrontation he knows he must have. Hickcock travels incognito, but to little avail, and whenever he is recognized danger (and gunfire) follows. The white buffalo destroys Crazy Horse’s (Will Sampson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) village and kills his daughter. To regain his honor and his name, Crazy Horse must find and kill the buffalo, then bury his daughter in its hide. After endless interludes in settlements where Hickcock and an old codger of a prospector/hunter named Charlie Zane (Jack Warden, Used Cars) run into one enemy after another, Hickcock and Zane finally go into the Black Hills, where they and Crazy Horse save one another from their enemies, Hickcock and Crazy Horse make nice, then all three move in for a final confrontation with the buffalo.
The film is based on a novel by screenwriter, director and novelist Richard Sale (who wrote the infamous Tony Bennett vehicle The Oscar), and there are many loose ends and scenes that fail to advance the plot that presumably make more sense in the book. The film take a long time getting to where it needs to go-the confrontation in the wilderness between man and giant buffalo-and it is not an entertaining journey, but a catalog of clichés and excuses for cameos. Unnecessary scenes include Hickcock in a gun battle with Tom Custer (perpetual stick-up-his-ass authority figure Ed Lauter, True Romance) in a saloon; Hickcock against a gang of thugs led by Whistling Jack Kileen (Clint Walker, Fort Dobbs) in a gambling house and later in the Black Hills; Hickock on a stagecoach with a gambler (Stuart Whitman, Night of the Lepus) and Slim Pickens (1941); and Hickcock meeting up with an old flame/prostitute (Kim Novak, Bell, Book, and Candle). John Carradine (The Boogeyman) shows up as, what else, an undertaker.
All of these scenes are uniformly lifeless thanks to director J. Lee Thompson (Caboblanco), a director whose films are almost always paced poorly, though Richard Sale’s screenplay surely deserves much of the blame, and features puzzling elements such as not only Warden’s coot being impotent, but Bronson’s Hickcock as well. Sale’s story attempts to say something revisionist about the Old West, and at times we do get a grittier, dirtier West than was typical even in the 1970s, but whatever he wanted to say about the near-extinction of the buffalo and American Indians at the hands of the white man is lost in the need to give us a rollicking adventure punctuated by gunfights and idiotic scenes that feature Will Sampson shaking his fist and shouting in an American Indian language that is never translated. One bright spot is John Barry’s (Zulu) excellent score, which manages to give the buffalo a stronger sense of menace than anything accomplished by the director or special effects team-indeed, his score alone makes the many dream sequences threatening. The special effects used to create the buffalo are “special” indeed, accomplished using an immobile statue on a wire or track that moves up and down unconvincingly as it charges to bash random bystanders. It’s never made clear why this buffalo is so bloodthirsty. The casting is awful, starting with Charles Bronson as the ugliest and least dapper Wild Bill in history and Sampson’s beefy, tired looking Crazy Horse, and continuing to the cast of largely washed up has-beens that belonged in a disaster film. The biggest problem is the simple fact that there is no excuse for a film about Wild Bill Hickcock teaming up in his twilight years with Crazy Horse to hunt down and kill an enormous buffalo to be this leaden and downright boring.
“The White Buffalo” is an cold movie. Like something out of a dead chasm. Black against layers of mountain black. A bleak monster of a buffalo that heaves through the wild desolation like a god.
The iron music has a grim chill to it. Like ALIEN, but in a western setting. I remember having nightmares about this movie when I was a kid. The hyper-realism. The grinding menace. The threat.
But then everything feels more terrifying when you’re a kid.
Watching it now, much of the menace has worn off. The buffalo looks fake, like a glamorized prop on tracks. All too clearly unreal.
But with how little a touch of editing might this simple fault be repaired and tightened.
Someone (Ridley Scott, perhaps) should re-cut this move. Show a little less of the buffalo. Give only glimpses. A snatch of a fearful vision can produce real terror. A feast can all too easily destroy it.
I was provoked by the music and the ideas of this movie. I deliberately tracked down the original book by Richard Sale. I wanted a glimpse into the mind of the author who produced such an strange and fearful vision, without any outdated special effects getting in the way.
And I discovered a masterpiece.
The novel of “The White Buffalo” is brilliant beyond all description. An astounding achievement. Thrilling, creepy and captivating. Few novels ever produce such powerful effects.
I stayed up for most of the night reading this book. I literally couldn’t put it down. “The White Buffalo” is an overlooked horror masterpiece, obscured by an aging movie and by time. Like something H. P. Lovecraft would have written, had he been of a mind to create a western.
And the thundering buffalo monster scared me to death.
This movie should be remade. Totally new special effects. Better directing. The fantastic book could easily produce a landmark film, something that could redefine this particular type of horror. At the moment it remains a hidden treasure that virtually no-one knows about. A lost writing of genius. And this is tragic, because such impressive imaginings deserve to be seen for what they are.
Why is the vast primordial buffalo not an iconic movie monster? It fits the bill like few other things. The images in this novel are iconic: the huge unstoppable beast ripping apart a Native American village. The dreams of death that haunt Wild Bill Hickok. The wild, monstrous force that topples mountains far out in the desolate wilderness.
Brilliant. Terrifying. Utterly unique. And completely hair-raising.
Horror writing at its absolute finest. An astounding achievement in fear.
I’d need to read the book to really comment, but I think the dated effects are the least of this film’s worries. What it really needed was tightening up of the story and and some direction. There’s clearly elements from the book that peak at you but never really make it. Anyhow, these days, I’m not sure a remake would really do it justice at all. I imagine a cleaner, better looking West, with young actors thrown in for their looks and TV fame (possibly reality show stars would be in one of the smaller parts) rather than a cast of Western regulars. Of course, a talented, motivated crew of filmmakers might make a great remake of this.
In general I am tired of remakes, but this would definitely qualify as one of the films I would not necessarily be morally opposed to a remake of as it is, one, based on a novel, and two, the original was interesting, but not a great film, or even an iconic one.
Thanks for the comment…good to know that the book is worth the time.
[…] The League of Dead Films über „Der weiße Büffel“ […]
I have read a decent handful of online reviews of this movie. They all make fun of it, focusing on calling it a haphazard attempt to cash in on the Jaws craze, saying that it’s just an awkward, unfortunate blend of part western part horror. They all make fun of the execution of the buffalo itself, decrying the film’s special effects. Most grumble about the screenplay, complain about the dialogue, make fun of the characters, call them ‘cliché’ etc.
It’s interesting to me that the reviews themselves are almost cliché. In fact, NONE of them seem to have ‘gotten’ the movie, or to have even tried. They all treat it as a literal adventure vis-à-vis Jaws—this is so amazingly off mark it’s no wonder they didn’t like it.
The movie is allegorical, plain and simple. The white buffalo, to me, is not really a ‘white buffalo.’ I would argue that even Hickok and Crazy Horse are meant to be symbols. (Did no reviewer think it interesting that the film shows them ‘kill’ the white buffalo only to show that both characters were then murdered shortly thereafter? Really? Interesting.)
It’s also interesting to me that many of the things reviewers tend to complain about regarding this film, such as the dialogue and Crazy Horse calling himself ‘Worm,’ are actually things the movie ‘got right’ and that reviewers aren’t appreciating due to a general lack of knowledge concerning the Old West. I had to laugh that one reviewer complained that the character of Crazy Horse was reduced to a caricature of the real-life ‘steely-eyed savage.’ (Really? An author is complaining about a film’s characterization of one of history’s most enigmatic figures while at the same time reducing him to a ‘steely-eyed savage?’)
In attempt to correct some of this, let me first say that the dialogue in this movie is amazing. All I can say is ‘bravo’ to Richard Sale. He manages to incorporate many things upping the verisimilitude of the film above and beyond most 1970s westerns, from mentioning the real-life Bozeman Trail to having a small crap town named after Fetterman to having Crazy Horse and Wild Bill Hickok debate the Oglala Lakota’s ownership of Paha Sapa (the Black Hills) to having Tašunke Witko (Crazy Horse) take the name of ‘Worm’ to humble himself. (To the Lakota, the paramount virtue is sincere humility, as opposed to feigned humility. I believe that in real life it was actually Crazy Horse’s father who changed his name to ‘Worm.’)
The intentional mass extermination of the bison population as a strategy to wipe out Native Americans is well-captured by the mountains of ‘buff’ bones shown—very accurate. Hickok looks over the ‘range’ of bones and shakes his head disapprovingly, thus setting up the allegorical nightmare struggle to follow.
And this brings us to what the movie is really about, which is the death of the Old West, a way of life and the extermination of the Native Americans. Hickok and Crazy Horse, two of American history’s most famous figures, are used as symbols of the Old West. The ‘white buffalo,’ to me, is progress (which is actually discussed in the movie if you pay attention). It’s ‘progress’ that can only blindly charge forward, annihilating everything and everyone in its path. It’s the white man wiping out the Native population in a mass act of genocide justified by absurd notions of ‘manifest destiny.’ It’s the telegraph and the railroad and the industrialization of the West that brought an end to an era.
Hickok, as a symbol of this era, sees it coming for him in his nightmares. He knows he must either stop this progress or be wiped out. His time has come. He’s old, tired and impotent. He can’t continue himself. He finds himself sympathetic to Crazy Horse and they unite to try and put an end to the rampaging monster. But it’s all for naught. They are both shortly thereafter murdered, which also really happened, and these events symbolically represent the assassination of the Old West, far less literally than other tragedies such as the massacre at Wounded Knee.
The user reviews on IMBD seem to get the movie more than most professional critics. The movie is an allegorical dream. From Crazy Horse riding the giant, ridiculous monster, trying frantically to bring it down, to Hickok finally facing the fear in his nightmares and not being able to take action as he finds his rifle frozen, the movie itself is a surreal nightmare. Those taking it literally will undoubtedly not like it.
First off, thanks for the measured and thoughtful response to my review. I’m not a professional critic-I’m just a guy who loves movies and writes about them on line. I haven’t even taken film courses (okay, one, on Film and Culture of the 1920s)! I’m also not a student of Western history-I’m a guy who likes Charles Bronson movies, and Westerns, and monster movies. So I probably came to this movie from a very different place than you did. I do know about the history of bison extermination, and a tiny bit about the White Buffalo myth, so I appreciate what the film did with heaps of bones and the sort of apocalyptic/surreal tone of the dream sequences. I won’t lie: I know next to nothing about Crazy Horse or Wild Bill, so I appreciate that the movie might get them right-if you notice I didn’t actually criticize the depiction so much as the actors playing them. Maybe they are right, but they felt like Bronson giving a weird performance and Sampson not really having his heart in it. I probably didn’t think about it much, because, again, I’m responding to this as a Western/monster movie guy. I probably didn’t come to this with that thoughtful an attitude. Maybe that was wrong. I can certainly see this film as the allegory you describe, and I have met quite a few passionate defenders of the movie since I wrote this review. I still think that the De Laurentiis connection makes the film try too hard to cash in on Jaws, in a way that’s not helpful to the film. I guess I, too, complained a bit about the Buffalo, but I can say that in the dream sequences, it’s weird enough to work. I didn’t take the later appearances as allegorical; if you do that, I can see how it could work even then. Perhaps if I find the time, I’ll give this one a second shot and see if I don’t like it better with a different frame of mind.
Wow, unlike the original review, this commentary is spot on. This movie is horribly underrated and very thoughtful. It’s not a coincidence that both Hickok and Zane are impotent or that Crazy Horse is punished for publicly mourning his daughter’s death. There’s a definite emasculation vibe going on with the end of the era.
It’s one thing to not like the film or feel that it failed in its goal, but to call out “the cast of largely washed up has-beens that belonged in a disaster film”? This is probably directed at Slim Pickens, who would subsequently appear in “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure”, but this was between Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” and “1941” by a little fellow named Spielberg, so Slim was hardly down and out.
Let’s see… Jack Warden was fresh off being nominated for a Best Actor Oscar the year before and would be nominated again 2 years later…
Even hoary old John Carradine, who never found a role he didn’t like, was just in “The Shootist” the year before with John Wayne in his final role.
Ed Lauter and Martin Kove would be much more successful in the 1980s, so this was hardly their swan song.
Admittedly, Kim Novak was fairly “washed up”, but she was pretty much retired at this point in her career, while Clint Walker and Stuart Whitman were primarily B-movie actors across the board.
If you wrote about cars, I’d expect you to know a bit about them, how they work and their history. Film works the same way. If you just want to offer an unfounded opinion on movies, free of research or reflection, IMDB is your new jam.
So you read the comments-then you’ve already read that I listened to the previous commenters and would like to revisit this (preferably on DVD or Blu-Ray rather than how I probably saw this, pan and scan VHS). That being said, different viewers will have different reactions to everything, and they are entitled to their opinion. Did Slim Pickens do some great work after this, or John Carradine? Absolutely, they are character actors, and always gave solid performances. That line was definitely a cheap shot; but the stuffing in of actors did feel to me like Disaster Movie casting to me at the time. Reading these comments, it’s clear that the book told a larger story of the West, so perhaps the large cast makes more sense than it did to me at the time. I do know a bit about movies, but as I don’t get paid to write these but do it out of my love of watching and talking about films, you’ll forgive me if I don’t take your advice and go to the IMDb.