The White Buffalo/Hunt to Kill (1977) -***
When you consider how Jaws obsessed Dino De Laurentiis throughout the mid-1970ís, itís awfully fitting that the monster in that movie was a white shark. First in King Kong, then in Orca, and finally in The White Buffalo, Dino chased that fish round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round Perditionís flames before he gave him up. And in a truly remarkable bit of metacommentary on his quest, whether conscious or not, each of De Laurentiisís attempts to outdo Jaws owed more to Moby Dick than the one before it. Of course, thereís another way, too, that you could look at The White Buffalo. In addition to climaxing Dinoís Jaws mania, this movie was also the crazed culmination of his concurrent effort to make his own big-budget Soldier Blue by deconstructing some myth-enshrouded piece of American history. From that perspective, the preceding steps are Mandingo (together with its sequel, Drum) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bullís History Lesson. The White Buffalo, you see, is a Western as well as a Melville-flavored monster movie, and its Captain Ahab is none other than Wild Bill Hickok.
Mind you, Hickok (Charles Bronson, from 10 to Midnight and Master of the World) is hoping that no one will recognize him. Returning to his old stomping grounds after untold years of touring the civilized parts of the country with a Wild West show, the old gunslinger is hiding behind the pseudonym ďJames Otis.Ē Heíll have to try a little harder, though if he really wants to avoid attention. Asleep on an overnight train to Cheyenne, Hickok has a nightmare that provokes him to empty both of his pistols into the bunk above him. Fortunately, the bed in question is unoccupied at the time, and the conductor of the train (Douglas Fowley, of Poor White Trash and Cat-Women of the Moon) not only recognizes Hickok, but considers him something of a personal hero. As for the dream, itís one that the former frontiersman has had a lot recently. In a pocket of snow-covered wilderness, he is attacked by a giant, white buffalo, which bursts forth from a wall of ice. The movie never will get around to explaining why, but itís the recurrence of that nightmare that brings Hickok back westward. He regards it as somehow prophetic of something.
Meanwhile, in a box canyon somewhere, the Man Called Horseís Ass (Jack Warden) is nearly killed when some huge thing that bellows exactly like the buffalo in Hickokís dreams causes a rockslide that brings down most of the overhanging cliffs. Who this guy really is and what this has to do with anything will be explained eventually (unlike Hickokís motivations), but donít hold your breath waiting for it.
And meanwhile again, in a soundstagey neverland that youíd think would signal another nightmare sequence, the White Buffalo tears through an Oglala village, sowing panic and trampling a child to death. This isnít one of Wild Billís dreams, though. The buffalo is real, the kid is dead, and his soul is apparently condemned to some kind of fucked-up Sioux Hell until his father slays the beast that slew him. And the father? That would be Crazy Horse, War Chief of the Oglala (Will Sampson, of Orca and Poltergeist II: The Other Side). Crazy Horseís hunt for the buffalo will be a double-redemption gig, too, because war chiefs are supposed to prevent things like albino bison attacks; so long as the monster lives, Crazy Horse will forfeit both his name and his title, being known merely as Worm instead.
Next, we find out why Hickok is traveling incognito. Heís greeted at the train station in Cheyenne by his old friend, Pete Holt (Clifford A. Pellow, from White Dog and The Night Stalker), who is now the sheriff in these parts. Holt warns him that Captain Tom Custer of the US Cavalry (Ed Lauter, of Magic and Cujo) still hasnít forgiven him for some past unpleasantness, and will most likely shoot him on sight. Also, the local Sioux are still pissed off about that time Hickok killed one of their great peacemakers, so he should probably stay away from them, too. On the upside, another friend of Billís, somebody named Charlie Zane, is still in the area. Also still in the neighborhood is Billís favorite whore, Poker Jenny (Kim Novak, from Tales that Witness Madness and Satanís Triangle), although she usually goes by the Widow Schermerhorn these days. Bill figures heíll look her up first.
Staying out of trouble turns out not to be Wild Billís strong suit. It seems like he hasnít been in Cheyenne an hour before somebody reports his arrival to Captain Custer, precipitating the first of The White Buffaloís barroom shootouts. The cavalryís performance on this occasion is not impressive. Even so, Hickok decides not to stay where he isnít wanted, and hops the next stage coach out of Cheyenne. One of his fellow passengers is a robberó albeit not a very effective oneó and as if that werenít hassle enough for one night, the stage also falls into a cleverly laid Indian ambush. That would be Wormís doing, by the way. Obviously just one man canít mount more than a hit-and-run attack, but only Hickok and the coach driver (Slim Pickens, of The Howling and Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) are left alive by the time Worm rides off into the shadows. Fortunately, the first person they meet in the next town the following morning is an undertaker (John Carradine, from The House of Seven Corpses and Frankenstein Island), although the old man is a trifle busy at the time with some corpses of his own. Funny story behind one of them, too; evidently the man was killed by a white buffalo.
That isnít the only odd coincidence the coach ride yields, either. That sack of cats the driver is carrying? Itís for Billís pal, Charlie Zane. (I confess that I have no fucking idea what thatís aboutÖ) Hickok volunteers to make the delivery for him, and thus do we learn at last that the mysterious Charlie Zane is the same person as the equally mysterious Man Called Horseís Ass. Charlie tells Bill about his own experiences with the White Buffalo, and reports that it gave Tom Custerís cavalry company a very hard time some days ago. So apparently old coots in saloons arenít the only thing Custerís men canít handle. I guess Little Bighorn was just the culmination of a long-established pattern, then, huh? Anyway, the two men hatch a plan to hunt the monster together, which eventually leads them into an unexpected and uneasy alliance with Worm. The hunters will also face a human antagonist more formidable than Captain Custer, however, because one of the men Hickok shot while extricating himself from Custerís ambush was the son of a notorious gunslinger. News travels inexplicably fast in this version of the Old West, and Whistling Jack Kileen (Clint Walker, of Snowbeast and Killdozer) is no less dogged a tracker than Hickok, Zane, or Worm when someone gets his dander up.
Director J. Lee Thompson made some extremely effective movies in his time, but he was basically a studio jobber. Heís the last guy I would ever have hired to mount a peyote-munching mystic Western about the concurrent death throes of frontiersman and Indian culture, let alone one that tried to squeeze that theme through the filter of a plot that was equal parts Moby Dick and Grizzly. No, The White Buffalo was plainly a job for John Boorman. Curiously, though, Thompson seems to have recognized that himself, because the movie this one most closely resembles in terms of mood, pacing, and narrative technique is Zardoz. Itís full of junky yet atmospheric dream sequences, strange leaps across time and distance, and symbolism untethered to any apparent cultural basis. The scenery seems unreal in a way that goes beyond mere artifice, even when that scenery is just a scrubby hillside somewhere in the Sierras. The stunt casting of B-Western regulars Slim Pickens and John Carradine in minor roles gets a surreal edge from the disproportionate, scene-stealing eccentricity of their characters. The pileup of double and triple identities among the major figures seems tantalizingly to mean something, but Iíll be damned if I can sort out what. The White Buffalo even has an analogue to Zardozís opening narration by the disembodied head of Arthur Freyn in the train conductorís monologue right after Hickok shoots up the bunk above his. This is all weird, weird shit to encounter in a film that otherwise belongs to the movement to demystify the Old West, and itís only slightly less weird in the context of a 70ís animal attack picture.
The most baffling and Boormanesque aspect of The White Buffalo, though, is surely the buffalo itself. The titular creature is where the filmís mythic-symbolic ambitions meet the surface-level requirements of the critter-flick formula, and the twain pummel each other to a bruised and bloody pulp. From an archetypal perspective, thereís good reason to use a buffalo as the monster in a movie about the end of the Wild West, since the virtual extinction of the vast prairie bison herds was appreciated even at the time as a crude measure of how far the continental interior had been tamed. In the 70ís, meanwhile, the buffalo had become a potent totem of environmentalism, making one a resonant choice to embody the animal attack genreís well-attested Mother Natureís Revenge aspect. Thompson takes care to play up the dwindling of the bison herds every chance he gets, most strikingly when Hickok gets off the train in Cheyenne, and finds himself standing beside a heap of buffalo bones that must represent tens of thousands of animals. Then of course it only stands to reason that the monster in a Wild West riff on Moby Dick would have to be white, no matter what its species. That all just fine, too, so long as the White Buffalo is merely a symbolic bogey haunting Wild Bill Hickokís dreams (although it would have been nice if Thompson or screenwriter Richard Sale had bothered to establish why it was haunting his dreams).
Rather inconveniently, however, the White Buffalo is also supposed to be a living animal, and once you look at it from that angle, it wonít take you long to notice that the thing doesnít behave like any bison youíve ever heard of. Its charge is strong enough to shatter glaciers. Its hoofbeats trigger landslides. If the Man Called Horseís Ass is to be believed, it can take on a whole company of professional cavalrymen and mop the floor with them. And in just about the most non-bovine behavioral pattern that I can imagine, it attacks human settlements. Also, I have to ask: whereís the rest of the herd? Even considering the epic slaughter of the 19th century, how often do you see just one bison? Iím on record favoring a light touch with monster origin stories, but this is a case when ďItís a monsteró what more do you want?Ē simply wonít cut it. What I want is to know why Hickok has nightmares about the thing when he apparently has never so much as heard of it before. What I want to know is why his response to those dreams is to go back west to hunt it down, accepting on faith that it actually, physically exists. What I want to know is why cowboys and Indians alike treat it as a demon straight out of their respective Hellsó except when Hickok and Zane are scheming to sell its hide, at which point itís just another commercially exploitable wild critter. Most of all, I want to know why the buffalo seems to have supernatural powers whenever itís convenient, but is apparently just a big, ornery bull whenever thatís more convenient instead.
All in all, The White Buffalo is an impressive bit of only-in-the-70ís strangeness. Half-assed genre-blending, incompatible story aims, Deeper Meanings that flop and thrash for a moment and then die unmourned like teratological specimensóitís a feast for the drug-addled mind. The film is simultaneously slick and cheesy-looking, redolent throughout of lots of money unwisely spent. Charles Bronsonís performance shoots for ďworld-weary,Ē but hits only ďgetting too old for this shit.Ē And to be perfectly honest with you, I donít think I know at all where the bad ideas, faithfully realized, end, and where the straight fuck-ups begin. What I do know is that it was smart of De Laurentiis to end both the Great Jaws Hunt and the Revisionist Ramblings in Americana here. Both projects had wandered far off the map at this point, and neither one would ever have found its way home anyway.
With this review, I join my fellow B-Masters in celebrating producer Dino De Laurentiis, the schlock-movie titan who married the slapdash, try-anything audacity of the Italian cinema industry to the megalomania of Hollywood. Click the link below to read my colleaguesí thoughts on the subject.