THE WHITE BUFFALO – The DVD Review
In 1976 Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis unleashed his heavily promoted KING KONG to eager audiences. Though a modest success, the remake was trashed by critics and, especially in light of Peter Jackson’s 2005 version, has aged horribly. The next year De Laurentiis released another monster movie, THE WHITE BUFFALO which critics pounced on as well and this time, even though it starred box-office champ Charles Bronson, audiences stayed away. But the years have been much kinder to THE WHITE BUFFALO, a weird, offbeat western/monster hybrid that uses real historical figures for a unique riff on MOBY DICK. It’s an unusual movie, ripe for rediscovery. I had written about it a couple of years ago in my NOT available on DVD column and it’s now available as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection
In the 1870’s, aging gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) is haunted by dreams of his own death by a mammoth albino buffalo and heads by train to the Cheyenne Black Hills to track this white beast. Before the hunt begins, Hickok battles George Custer’s evil brother Tom (Ed Lauter) and romances old flame ‘Poker Jenny’ (Kim Novak) before teaming up with gruff one-eyed geezer Charlie Zane (Jack Warden), to find the beast. This same buffalo attacks the Sioux village of Chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson), killing the chief’s newborn baby. A mystical shaman tells Crazy Horse his child’s soul will not be able to rest until the buffalo is destroyed. Hickok and Zane survive an attack by Indians with help from Crazy Horse and, amidst frozen outdoor locales, these two fabled folk heroes unite to battle the ferocious, supernatural terror known as the White Buffalo!
The plot of THE WHITE BUFFALO sounds strange because it is. Written by Richard Sale (from his own novel), the unconventional story is filmed with an irresistibly eerie and nightmarish atmosphere. The dreamlike, studio-bound sets are often bizarre with spooky details like giant stacks of bleached white bones that line the railroad tracks and dry ice that constantly drips across the snowy landscapes. Director J. Lee Thompson’s early works included such classics as TIGER BAY, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and the original CAPE FEAR and he ended his career directing nine (!) Charles Bronson movies. The Bronson/Thompson collaborations, from ST. IVES in 1976 to KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS in 1989, were mostly entertaining, if by-the-numbers, action jalopies but THE WHITE BUFFALO was different. It’s easily the most artful of these movies and Thompson fills it with dark symbolism, occult references, and a real sense of dread.
THE WHITE BUFFALO is populated with a colorful cast. Most likely hired for his box office appeal, Bronson turned out to be an inspired choice as the haunted Wild Bill Hickock. It’s one of his most complex and eccentric roles and he looks cool in his tinted prescription glasses (historically accurate as Hickock developed syphilis-related eye disease). This was Kim Novak’s return to the big screen after an eight year absence, but her role is small (and seems tailor-made for Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland who was costarring in most of her husband’s films during this period). Will Sampson is perfect as Crazy Horse and the veteran supporting cast includes John Carradine, Stuart Whitman, Slim Pickens, and Bronson’s fellow THE DIRTY DOZEN member Clint Walker. But it’s the buffalo itself that makes THE WHITE BUFFALO so memorable. While promoting KING KONG, De Laurentiis bragged about artist/sculptor Carlo Rambaldi’s 50-foot robot ape, a prop infamously underused (I actually own some hair from that thing). For THE WHITE BUFFALO, Rambaldi created a full-size mechanical puppet that’s mostly shown in quick cuts, often obscured by shadows and fog and critics in 1977 were quick to make fun of it (Variety described it as looking “like a hung-over carnival prize”). It’s not very realistic, but the wild-eyed creation is surreal and scary, snorting and bellowing like some hellish fairy-tale demon and I think it totally works.
MGM released THE WHITE BUFFALO in a full-frame VHS in the ’80s and in a widescreen laserdisc boxed set with two other 70’s Bronson westerns, CHATO’S LAND and BREAKHEART PASS. THE WHITE BUFFALO is finally available on DVD in MGM’s Limited Edition Collection, their manufactured-on-demand program. Warner Brothers, MGM/Fox, and Sony cater to a very specific demographic of movie collectors with their manufactured-on-demand series. They are generally held in higher standards in terms of things like picture quality and theatrical aspect ratios. I’ve heard some of the MGM films are sub-par but the 1.85:1 transfer of THE WHITE BUFFALO is fine, a slight improvement over my old laser disc. Like all titles in MGM’s series, it’s a bare-bones presentation without a single extra.