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.