BILL’s BIZARRE BIJOU
William D. Carl
This week’s feature presentation:
THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if there’s a multitude of drag queens and camp sensibility, if go-go dancers in cages are featured, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EYES!
Producer Dino De Laurentiis was a conundrum. He produced nearly two hundred films in his long and wildly uneven career, ushering in such gems as BLUE VELVET (1986), BOUND (1996), CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), BARBARELLA (1968), and Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957). Yet, for every gem, there are two or three bizarre flops, such as BODY OF EVIDENCE (1993), MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986), MANDINGO (1975), and THE FLYING SAUCER (1964). In 1976, he unleashed a dreadfully campy remake of KING KONG upon the world, earning millions of dollars…and the ire of every lover of even halfway decent cinema. The following year, 1977, he followed this with two more “giant creatures running amuck” films—ORCA (1977), and tonight’s feature THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977)—hoping to strike box office gold again. Neither sparked the imagination of the film-going public, and THE WHITE BUFFALO was an out-and-out flop, but sometimes a film becomes so weird, so unmarketable, not even Dino De Laurentiis can save it. Such a film was THE WHITE BUFFALO.
Charles Bronson (DEATH WISH, 1974, THE DIRTY DOZEN, 1967, and THE GREAT ESCAPE, 1963) stars as a weather-beaten, dying-of-syphilis Wild Bill Hickock. Plagued by nightmares of snowy mountains and a giant stampeding white buffalo, he changes his name to Mr. Otis and makes his way back to the Black Hills to kill the beast that haunts his dreams. A train conductor, played by Douglas Fowley of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) and CAT WOMEN ON THE MOON (1953), relates how dangerous the gold rush towns are now.
Meanwhile, Will Sampson (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, 1975 and THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES, 1976) plays Chief Crazy Horse, whose village was overrun by the twenty foot monster buffalo. His baby daughter is killed, and the elders tell him that her spirit is trapped between worlds until he avenges her by tracking and slaughtering the beast. Until then, because he cries, his name becomes Worm.
Wild Bill gets off the train to find mountains and mountains of buffalo bones, a sight that’s impressive and chilling. The local Calvary officer, Custer, wants to take down Wild Bill, but he’s still quick on the draw, and a better shot than a whole passel of Calvary men. He’s searching for a lost love, Poker Jennie (Kim Novak of VERTIGO, 1958 and PICNIC, 1955), and he takes a stagecoach driven by Slim Pickens (BLAZING SADDLES, 1964 and THE GETAWAY, 1964). He is nearly held up by a thief, played by Stuart Whitman (of THE COMANCHEROS, 1961 and SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, 1965). He runs into a coffin-maker and undertaker played by John Carradine (STAGECOACH, 1939, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, 1940 and hundreds more), who has discovered several dead buffalo hunters.
In town, Wild Bill tries to recapture what he once had with Poker Jennie, but his syphilitic state prevents him from getting close to her in any intimate way. Instead, he fights with a murderer played by studly giant Clint Walker (THE DIRTY DOZEN, 1967, the TV series CHEYENNE) in a bar brawl at the Frozen Dog Saloon.
On the road, Wild Bill meets Crazy Horse, saving him from a Sioux attack. The two travel separately, but alongside each other, companions, yet enemies (Wild Bill was quite a racist!). Once they reach the snow-covered Black Hills, they are forced into a fairly thrilling showdown with the title beastie after it traps them and kills their horses.
Will any of them survive? Will Wild Bill and Crazy Horse reconcile their differences? Is it all a syphilitic dream of Wild Bill’s fevered brain? Why aren’t there giant buffalo pies all over the place?
About that monster . . . created by FX maestro Carlo Rambaldi (E.T., 1982, POSSESSION, 1981, and, yes, KING KONG, 1976), the buffalo is sometimes very realistic-looking, but at other times it looks kind of rubbery over the animatronics. It actually runs very well, but if you squint a bit and look closely, especially on the high-def Blu-ray from Kino-Lorner, you can see the track it is on. Still, it’s much better than I remembered, and the editing around it is swift, never giving away too much of the monster at a time. Honestly, I’ll take a slightly jerky, slightly rubbery animatronic critter to a CGI monster any day!
Director J. Lee Thompson (CAPE FEAR, 1962, THE GUNS OF NAVERONE, 1961) plays the film like a spaghetti western, more of a meditation on man and his evils than as a shoot ‘em up. The period detail is exquisite, and he peppered the film with seasoned Western character actors, which helps immensely.
The gorgeous and evocative film score was composed by the fantastic James Barry, who would later create the scores for STARCRASH (1978), BODY HEAT (1981), OUT OF AFRICA (1985), DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990), and one of my favorite film scores of all time, THE BLACK HOLE (1979). The music lends an eerie quality to the proceedings, keeping everything dream-like and unreal.
Speaking of dream-like, the snowy sets in the Black Hills are gorgeous pieces of stagecraft, full of nightmarish trees, jutting rocks, caves, and more dry ice fog than most horror films. The art direction was by James L. Berkey, who usually performed duties as a set decorator for films such as GREASE (1978), HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (1982). The production design was by Tambi Larsen, who designed the looks of films as varied as WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM (1974), THE MOLLY MAGUIRES (1970), and HEAVEN’S GATE (1980). It’s no wonder the film looks so beautiful.
The very interesting screenplay by Richard Sale (SUDDENLY, 1954, and FATHER WAS A FULLBACK, 1949) based on his novel, is full of salty, interesting dialogue.
“If you ain’t a sight for a widow in weeds!”
“He’s been known to puddle his britches at the sight of a coyote.”
“They probably heard about the white buff on the moccasin telegraph.”
The story itself is an allegory, a sort of Moby Dick set in the West, about a dying man struggling to reconcile his past, haunted by his sins as embodied by the giant killer buffalo. From the Native American’s point of view ,however, the white buffalo can be seen as the white man, killing them to make way for manifest destiny, and the attempts to destroy it seem futile.
See, an allegory about dying and the evils of the white man is a pretty tough sell to the movie-going public. So, in his infinite wisdom, Dino De Laurentiis sold THE WHITE BUFFALO as a horror movie—JAWS in the Wild West. Actually, the title monster is barely in the film except for dreams and a couple of stampedes. Often, you just see a close-up of its eye. It’s a symbol; but symbols don’t sell tickets. When the first people to watch the film found a thoughtful, serious Western about Wild Bill (a hero to many) dying of syphilis (as he actually did), they were more than angry. They were pissed, and the movie failed to do well at the theaters.
THE WHITE BUFFALO was a victim of terrible marketing. It’s actually quite good—a fascinating allegory, a revisionist Moby Dick, and a great showcase for aging actors. Despite a few pacing issues, a few missed opportunities, and a slightly rubbery villain, THE WHITE BUFFALO deserves a second look.
I give THE WHITE BUFFALO three Slim Pickens out of four. Let’s remake this sucker with Kurt Russell!
© Copyright 2016 by William D. Carl