If you’ve watched as many films as I have, you’ve certainly stumbled upon some that were stranger than others. Perhaps some of them weren’t just strange, but off-the-wall bizarre. Usually, those type of films register on my radar for all the wrong reasons. Bizarre usually equals “not very good”.
There is at least one big exception to that rule, and it is the Charles Bronson starring film The White Buffalo. Released in 1977, the film features Mr. Bronson as Wild Bill Hickok, presented as a man who is suffering mightily from bizarre, nightmarish dreams of confronting a, you guessed it, white buffalo. Only this white buffalo seems larger than life. Mythic, in fact.
So disturbed by the dreams is Hickok that he returns to his old stomping grounds in the far west. This, we find, is a place where Hickok is no longer welcome. Hoping to avoid confrontation, he adopts a fake name, James Otis, and works his way through a couple of small towns while heading to the high country where the white buffalo, he knows, awaits him.
Meanwhile, an Indian village is attacked by the white buffalo and many of its people are slaughtered. The village’s leader, Crazy Horse (Will Sampson), cries at the loss of his daughter and, in an interest parallel with Hickock/Otis, is forced by tribe elders to renounce his name and be called “worm” until he hunts down and kills the white buffalo.
Meanwhile (part deux!), Hickok/Otis’ journey to the high country proves a somewhat difficult one. He alternately finds deadly enemies and friends in the towns on his way out, including an old army officer, Tom Custard (I couldn’t help but think they were hinting at this actually being General George Custard, but for whatever reason they didn’t call him that), who very much wants him dead and Poker Jenny Schermerhorn (a still stunning Kim Novak), who hopes to rekindle their old fire.
Later still, Hickok meets up with Charlie Zane (played by Jack Warden), an old time tracker with a glass eye and together they confront Whistling Jack Kileen (a very menacing Clint Walker) before heading out to the high country.
It is there that Crazy Horse/Worm and Hickok/Otis eventually join forces to take on the white buffalo. Their union isn’t an easy one. Hickok is forced to keep his alias as he is hated by the Indians for murdering one of their most respected peacemakers years before. It is implied in the early going that Hickok still has no love for Indians, but in working with Crazy Horse, he comes to realize the mistake of his ways.
As I said before, The White Buffalo is a damn strange film. Coming a mere two years after the release of Jaws, it is clear the film is, at least thematically, going for a similar vibe. The fact that the buffalo the hunters are after is white makes you think this movie also pays tribute to Moby Dick.
However, the first 2/3rds of the film are clearly meant to be a “mythic” view of the wild west, complete with dingy border towns, larger than life characters (some based on real people, some not so much), trains, Indians, gunplay, etc. etc.
When the final confrontation between our heroes and the buffalo arrives, it is, frankly, a bit of a dud. The effects for the white buffalo aren’t terrible, but they aren’t exactly wonderful either (check the trailer below). On the plus side that final confrontation has a wonderful, almost dreamlike element to it, which is very much in keeping with it being a manifestation of Hickok’s own dreams.
As for how this now thirty seven year old film works “today”…well, I suspect modern audiences might find it hard to sit through the movie. While there is action and suspense, compared to the hyperkinetic action found in more modern films, this one might play too slow.
Regardless, for those who want to take a walk on the weird side, The White Buffalo has its pluses. Where else can you find a western with such a large, recognizable cast that features a story as strange as this one? If you’re in an adventurous mood, give it a try. You may be surprised by what you find.