Friday, September 18, 2015


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*

For someone who's usually associated with naturalistic Charles Bronson "toughguy movies," it's surprising to note that director J. Lee Thompson has a substantial number of metaphenomenal films on his resume. In fact, his second project with Bronson was this 1977 film, which was also his second "uncanny western," preceded by 1969's MACKENNA'S GOLD.

This Bronson vehicle film is a lot less laborious to watch than the earlier film, but-- to immediately dispose of the "buffalo in the room"-- WHITE BUFFALO is often bogged down by the titular creature. Wikipedia notes that this film was also the second collaboration between producer Dino de Laurentiis and FX-maker Carlo Rambaldi, who had enjoyed some degree of box-office success with 1976's KING KONG. Though I know nothing about the backstage production politics of BUFFALO, I can't help but suspect that the film came about because de Laurentiis saw dollar-signs in a return to animatronic entertainment. I'd further speculate that since the novel by long-time pulp writer Richard Sale had just seen publication in 1975, someone must have thought that its subject matter would provide a match made in heaven.  Unfortunately, there's not a single scene when the monstrous mammal is on camera that it doesn't look an artificial construct confined to motorized tracks.

A bad special effect is certainly not enough to sink the whole film, of course, and WHITE BUFFALO has garnered some fans since its inglorious failure at the 1977 box office. At that time Bronson's star was riding high thanks to the success of the 1974 DEATH WISH film, and the cast was sprinkled with other familiar thespian faces like Kim Novak, Clint Walker, John Carradine, and Jack Warden. However, only Warden and Native American actor Will Sampson have substantial roles complementing that of Bronson.

The plot is simple: during the last years of his life gunfighter Wild Bill Hickock (Bronson) begins having strange dreams about a menacing white buffalo; dreams that urge him to journey to the snowbound Black Hills of South Dakota, so that he can kill the haunting spectre-- a daunting goal, since everyone he talks to believes that the last albino "buff" was slain years ago. At the same time that Hickock makes this voyage, the story shifts to show viewers the monster's reality as it attacks the village of Sioux warrior Crazy Horse (Sampson). The buffalo slays Crazy Horse's child and other tribespeople before running off, after which the whole tribe gets pissed at Crazy Horse for the incident. Given the humiliating name "worm," the proud chief is exiled until such time as he can track down the vicious beast and slay it.

On his way to the Black Hills Hickock allies himself with Jack Warden's character, the grizzled trapper Zane (perhaps named for Zane Grey, who had become famed for his westerns by the time Richard Sale was growing up). Both Zane and Hickock have had bloody encounters with the Sioux and other aboriginals, so Zane is mightily puzzled when they come across a solitary Indian named "Worm" defending himself from a trio of antagonists, and Hickock helps Worm fight off his enemies. Thanks to this encounter, Hickock gains an ally who will eventually help him slay the monstrous snow-hued menace.

In contemporary culture it's almost impossible to think of human hunters tracking a big white creature without managing to invoke Melville's classic MOBY DICK. However, though Richard Sale- who wrote the film's screenplay from his own novel-- was surely aware of his cetacean forerunner, the resemblance seems no more than cosmetic. One online review asserts that Sale's film-script follows the novel closely, and if this is so then the only thing Sale borrowed from Melville was the notion that an albino animal would seem more unearthly. Otherwise none of the complex mythological concerns of MOBY DICK find their way into WHITE BUFFALO.

The filmmakers are principally concerned with rendering a simpler American myth: the union of white man and red man in a common cause-- which perhaps puts them closer to Fenimore Cooper than to Melville.  However, though Hickcock's almost-but-not-quite premonitory dreams help to give his actions a sense of destiny, they also deprive him of any mundane motive for hunting the beast. True, Thompson and Bronson seek to give the character a melancholy air, as if he were seeking to kill the phantom creature in order to stave off his approaching death. Still, the script isn't quite skillful enough to articulate anything like this. As an aboriginal, Crazy Horse has less need to justify going on a hunt for a creature that seems strangely godlike--but here too, the nature of Crazy Horse's personal quest lacks any deeper symbolic resonance. Interestingly, Crazy Horse gets to deliver the death-blow, which does allow the Native American character the honor of the climactic kill, whereas most western films would have given that privilege to the white leading-man.

The encounters between Bronson and Sampson are the film's best scenes, even when they're sharing screen-time with the unthreatening ungulate. Their mutual victory is bittersweet when it becomes obvious that their opposed cultures prevent them from sharing any prolonged brotherhood-- and perhaps these scenes are the reason the film has earned a minor cult status, because I can't believe anyone likes that damn "track 29" terror.

Ironically, de Laurentiis famously told TIME magazine of his KING KONG, ""No one cry when Jaws die. But when the monkey die, people gonna cry." 
 I'm sure the producer didn't expect anyone to cry for his big white critter as he thought they'd cry for Kong. Still, WHITE BUFFALO might have benefited from taking a leaf from the JAWS playbook, as the monster could only have been more imposing the less viewers saw of him.

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