Monday, August 17, 2009

Film Review: THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977, J. Lee Thompson)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 97 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Charles Bronson, Will Sampson, John Carradine, Jack Warden, Slim Pickens, Kim Novak, Ed Lauter. Music by John Barry.
Tag-lines: "Two legendary enemies unite to fight the charging white beast!!" and "YOU WON'T BELIEVE YOUR EYES!"

Part Dino De Laurentiis creature feature, part trippy Western, and part Charles Bronson shoot 'em up, THE WHITE BUFFALO failed to please the fans of any of those subgenres, and thus fell into obscurity. In actuality, it's a rather solid movie. Charles Bronson, decked out in 19th-Century shades and packin dual pistols in his sash, plays Wild Bill Hickok.

Most people in movies wake up from nightmares screaming. Bronson wakes up with guns blasting away, and thank God no one was in the top bunk.

Does he sleep while holding them?

Bronson: not at his best when tormented by visions of a white buffalo.

The nightmares involve a murderous white buffalo which has been manifesting itself in reality by destroying Native American villages.

The buffalo sequences involve gigantic puppets and expressionistic indoor sets full of snow, fir trees, and ominous shadows (think the maze in THE SHINING).

Some say hokey, I say atmospheric. There's well-written, mostly authentic Western banter ("You're up shit crick without a bull boat," "It's coldern'n a hooker's heart"); a mysteriously entrancing John Barry score; an appropriately douchey Ed Lauter (Shrike in DEATH WISH 3) as Tom Custer;

Jack Warden as Bronson's racist, irascible sidekick; Slim Pickens as a whacky wagon driver; Kim Novak as an old flame; John Carradine as a stately undertaker (see the same role, albeit sleazier, in THE SHOOTIST);

and Will Sampson as a humble warrior (who may just be a famous historical figure in disguise).

Costume possibly purchased at a souvenir shop.

Bronson threatens to thrown a man out of a moving carriage for using the word "friggin" in front of a lady. Yes, that seriously happens in this movie. (And the man is indeed thrown from the carriage and promptly killed by Native Americans.)

There's a few solid shootouts and some Bronson-esque detours, but the main thrust is the epic hunt for the buffalo, as if Jack London had written MOBY DICK. As far as trippy Westerns go, this was clearly a huge influence (aesthetically and thematically) on Jarmusch's DEAD MAN, and, frankly, I even prefer it to something like Jodorowsky's EL TOPO, as it never employs the ole "weirdness just for weirdness' sake." Three and a half stars.

-Sean Gill

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