WHITE BUFFALO, THE
(director: J. Lee Thompson; screenwriter: from the novel by Richard Sale/Richard Sale; cinematographer: Paul Lohmann; editor: Michael F. Anderson; music: John Barry; cast: Charles Bronson (Wild Bill Hickok/James Otis), Jack Warden (Charlie Zane), Will Sampson (Crazy Horse / Worm), Clint Walker (Whistling Jack Kileen), Slim Pickens (Abel Pickney), Stuart Whitman (Winifred Coxy), Kim Novak (Mrs. Poker Jenny Schermerhorn), John Carradine (Amos Briggs), Ed Lauter (Tom Custer), Richard Gilliland (Cpl. Kileen), Shay Duffin (Tim Brady, bartender), Douglas V. Fowley (train conductor/narrator), Cliff Pellow (Pete Holt, sheriff, Cheyenne, Wyoming); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Pancho Kohner; Roadshow Home Video; 1977)
“More a white elephant than a white buffalo picture.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Oddball artsy horror Western that’s a variation on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s too ridiculous to work as anything serious, but it sets a chilling surrealistic atmosphere and there are a number of action set pieces that keep things hopping along in the usual simple-minded entertaining way of the Western. Veteran British director J. Lee Thompson (“The Guns of Navarone”/”Eye of the Devil/”The Passage”) is at a loss on how to pitch the ambitious symbolic mythical tale he’s been handed via the novel and uneven script by Richard Sale, and settles instead to make this a smaller themed than envisioned by the author picture about a crazed Indian fighter becoming rehabilitated and reconstituted over his fear of death by the time the film’s signature showdown with the albino buffalo is concluded. The film’s titled giant beast is too obviously mechanical, which doesn’t help make the unconvincing story any more convincing. One can say, this is more a white elephant than a white buffalo picture.
In 1874, the retired former lawman Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) dons cool shades and the name James Otis to head back West by train to the Cheyenne Black Hills to hunt the white spike that is haunting him in his dreams. Hickok is aging, acting peculiar and probably syphilitic, as he ventures back to the Sioux territory where he made enemies of both the Indians and white men. The troubled man comes here because he’s obsessed with killing the white buck and believes if he doesn’t his dream will kill him. In reality, Hickok was shot in the back during a poker game in 1876.
Before going on the hunt Hickok has to gun down army man Tom Custer’s (Ed Lauter) soldiers in a saloon before they gun him down, as an evil Custer seeks revenge on Hickok for previously taking out two of his men in a barroom gun duel. Hickok then hooks up with the grizzled one-eyed old-timer Charlie Zane (Jack Warden), and they partner to go into Sioux territory to hunt the beast. There they hook up with their third partner hunting the white buffalo for his own special personal reason, a lone Indian who calls himself Worm (Will Sampson) but later will be identified as the Sioux chief named Crazy Horse.
A bunch of fading stars such as Kim Novak, Slim Pickens, Clint Walker, Stuart Whitman and John Carradine have cameo roles and are basically wasted in parts that have little to do with adding anything to the film. The executive producer is the showy Italian movie mogul Dino DeLaurentiis. It’s a film that had the potential to be something special but couldn’t get past how awkward it was in its misplaced artiness. The White Buffalo did a poor box office everywhere but Asia, which embraced it as a cult favorite because of its surreal touches and accepted its murky philosophizing about man’s relationship with nature as still intriguing enough to buy into it as an offbeat Western.
REVIEWED ON 4/10/2008 GRADE: C+