Wild Bill Hickok and Lakota warrior Crazy Horse are two of the most famous (even infamous), recognizable names in the history of the taming of the American west. At any point in their shortened lives -- they died a year apart in 1876 and 1877 -- did they meet? It's an interesting what-if and so goes 1977's The White Buffalo.
Having visited the East, Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) -- going under the alias 'James Otis' -- returns to the wild west. He has been tortured of late by a nightmare that plagues him night in and night out. It's the same nightmare each night; a vision of an immense white buffalo bearing down on him and ready to kill him in a second. Hickok doesn't know what to make of the dream, but when he hears rumors that a white buffalo has been spotted in the Black Hills, he goes on the hunt, bringing a trapper, Charlie Zane (Jack Warden), along for help. The famed gunfighter won't be alone though as they cross the path of Lakota chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) who similarly wants to hunt down and kill the alleged white buffalo. Which hunter will get him first?
This was an odd western to watch. It's from director J. Lee Thompson of Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone fame. The IMDB summary lists it as a quasi-Jaws ripoff, and it's not completely off base while also not being completely on-point either. Even three days since I've watched it, I'm still not sure exactly what I watched. It comes across as an odd, sometimes enjoyable episodic story that never quite finds a rhythm. Is it about Wild Bill making his return? Is it saying something more profound about the changing times of the west, and even the closing years of the "wild" west? Is it just a cool what-if about pairing two of the most interesting figures in American history? It's probably a little of all of them, but it is definitely hurt by not picking a route and sticking with it.
At its strongest, the focus is on the changing times of the west. Two men -- Hickok and Crazy Horse -- are very similar in personality, character and history. Their only difference? Hickok hates Indians, Crazy Horse hates the never-ending flow of white men into Indian land. As they both search for the white buffalo, they cross each others' paths, each saving the other man's life in a do-or-die situation. They put aside their hatred and differences aside in a quest to accomplish their mutual goals. I liked Bronson's performance a lot, even if it is pretty typical western anti-hero stuff. Sampson rises above a pretty stereotypically written part too as Crazy Horse. He avoids the stilted "Me Indian...you white man....How" conversation and plays well off of Bronson. The high point is Hickok and Crazy Horse talking across a campfire, both men wondering what the future holds.
Of the rest of the cast, Warden is the only one actually given anything more than a cameo. He has some good scenes with Bronson's Hickok, but it's a pretty standard meat and potatoes kind of role. Beyond those three parts, 'Buffalo' consists of a handful of really random cameos. We're not talking 10-15 minutes on-screen. We're talking individual scenes, some no more than a minute or two. Kim Novak gets the meatiest cameo as Poker Jenny, a woman from Hickok's past. Clint Walker also has some fun as Whistling Jack Kileen, a bear of a man gunning for Hickok. Also keep an eye out for Slim Pickens, Stuart Whitman, John Carradine, and Ed Lauter.
One of the oddest things though for 'Buffalo' is just that.....the buffalo. It doesn't look cheap, but it certainly tries for the Jaws-effect. We never really get a pristine, clear at the buffalo. Instead, we get extreme close-ups of the raging buffalo's eyes or his horns, we get far-off shots of the buffalo charging. It doesn't look ridiculous, but it sure approaches it. The final showdown among the buffalo, Hickok and Crazy Horse is pretty cool though. Sure, there are flaws. Any night scene was clearly shot on an indoor set with fake snow, trees and rocks. It looks pretty cheesy. There's also the cool scenes, an almost iconic shot of Hickok wearing his low-brimmed hat, his darkened glasses, his buckskin coat and brace of pistols. So in the end, it's a mixed bag, both good and bad.
The White Buffalo (1977): ** 1/2 /****