THE WHITE BUFFALO received a snorting reception in 1977, critics being overly harsh and normal people not responding in numbers that yielded a worthy return on the $6,000,000 spent making the fantasy western. Scripted by Richard Sale off his novel, directed by J. Lee Thompson, collaborating with star Charles Bronson for the second of nine times. Despite its drawbacks, it’s the best of the lot they worked on, with a dandy supporting cast and certainly a different take on some historical figures. *
1874, the Dakota Territory. Legendary gunfighter ‘Wild Bill Hickok’ (Bronson) is haunted by a nightmare of a huge buffalo charging at him. Lakota warrior Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) knows the beast is not a dream; it killed his daughter. After dealing with passels of varmints, the two, and Hickok’s rough-hewn associate ‘Charlie Zane’ (Jack Warden), put aside White v. Red animosity and join forces to hunt down the massive human-hatin’ critter.
The main complaint lodged against this wild & wooly rumble (Moby Dick with hoofs) is that the creature created isn’t convincing and suspense is spoiled since the belligerent bison’s let out of the bag too soon—at the very start—and also that the episodic plot feels pasted together. True, the animatronic animal designed by Carlo Rambaldi—who’d done the mock (and mocked) ape for executive producer Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong—doesn’t look at all real, and the pastiche of face-offs and fights that lead up to the Big Finish have more pizzazz than the payoff; the quick 97-minute running time possibly denuded of helpful backstory.
But since the extra-buff buff is meant to be a mystical monster you can allow for the somewhat goofy look of the thing, the reveals partially disguised by snap edits and bracketed by thunderous sound effects. The shootouts that decorate the lead-up are well handled, and the dialog is peppered with flavorful period pallaver. Bronson’s okay (he started to phone it in after this movie), Sampson has requisite noble presence and Warden adds a dose of sass.
The supporting cast is a treat: Clint Walker, going dog mean for a change, as ‘Whistling Jack Kileen’; Slim Pickens being, well, Slim Pickens, as a stage driver; and a batch of familiar faces adding further frontier piss’n’vinegar: Stuart Whitman, Cara Williams, John Carradine, Douglas Fowley, Ed Lauter (as Tom Custer), Martin Kove. The only out-of-place player is Kim Novak (as ‘Poker Jenny Schermerhorn’. She’d been missing from the big screen for eight years (after 1969’s The Great Bank Robbery failure had made for five duds in a row) and seems adrift here: her brief scenes with Bronson don’t benefit either.
The brief look at Kim’s scenic aspects has further natural company in the New Mexico and Colorado locations, though all the white buffalo rampaging is confined to obviously adorned sets. There is a brief eerie/tragic shot of Hickok posed against a mountain of buffalo bones, mute testament to the horrendous slaughter of the great herds. John Barry gives it a lonesome score. The tepid box office, $4,100,000, sunk the risky project at 92nd place. A more enjoyable movie than its lame rep would have you believe.
* Thompson/Bronson—St. Ives, The White Buffalo, Caboblanco, 10 To Midnight, The Evil That Men Do, Murphy’s Law, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, Messenger Of Death and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. A couple are okay, most are plain lousy.