This underrated western is part of a monster movie
Charles Bronson is a true legend of cinema. His star power is virtually unprecedented, and his towering presence has made him one of the only real badass in Hollywood history. Along with Lee Marvin and Jim Brown, Bronson belongs to a badass movie star brand that just doesn’t exist today.
During his nearly 50-year acting career, Bronson has starred in all kinds of movies: self-defense thrillers like Death wish and Mr. Majestyk, epics of war like The dirty dozen and The great Escape, and westerns like The Magnificent Seven and Once upon a Time in the West.
One of the actor’s strangest big screen outings in the Old West was as much a monster movie as it was a simple western. Released in May 1977 for stiff box office competition from Star wars and Smokey and the bandit, The white buffalo sees Bronson heading into the snow-capped wilderness to kill a giant beast that haunts his dreams.
Based on a novel by Richard Sale, The white buffalo follows old gunslinger “Wild Bill” Hickok, played by Bronson, who is plagued by nightmares featuring a giant white bison. Thinking that his destiny is to kill this buffalo, he heads west to find it. Along the way, he meets a legendary Lakota warrior named “Crazy Horse” who is also determined to destroy the buffalo after he has ravaged his community and killed his baby girl. Faced with a common enemy that they could not hope to defeat on their own, they team up.
In a 1976 Los Angeles Times play titled “An Intrepid Gunfighter Meets Fear,” described director J. Lee Thompson The white buffalo like “Moby-dick of the West. Like the classic Herman Melville (but not as deep), The white buffalo is about a man who comes out to the elements to face the physical manifestation of his fears. Instead of going out to sea to kill a “white whale” like Captain Ahab, Wild Bill goes deep into the frozen border to kill a white buffalo.
The story is pure fiction, but Wild Bill and Crazy Horse are based on real people. Bronson goes well with his co-star Will Sampson, better known as the “Chef” of Flight over a cuckoo’s nest, which brings a real nuance to the procedure. There is some substance to the story in the dynamics of this duo. Wild Bill and Crazy Horse both have prejudices against each other’s race, but as they reluctantly embark on a quest with the same goal, they gradually let their guard down and fall in love with each other. . At the end of the day, it’s not really a big bison murder movie – it’s a friendship movie.
In a scathing review of the novel, Larry McMurtry wrote that Sale “picked a topic with great potential, turned it into a sharp stake, and proceeded to impale himself on it.” Reviews for the film adaptation weren’t much nicer, with contemporary critics lamenting the barely drawn characters and the effects-focused climax. But the film moves forward at a steady pace, and the spectacular finale makes up for any missteps in theme and characterization. The joy of watching Charles Bronson do hand-to-hand combat with a gigantic bison matches the joy of watching Jason Statham grapple with a 75-foot prehistoric shark in the mega.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this film, besides its delightfully ridiculous premise, is the original costume design. It’s like Wes Anderson is dressing these characters. With a black cowboy hat and a pair of round-rimmed sunglasses, Bronson looks like Will Smith in Wild Wild West. The score is also noteworthy, as it is composed by John Barry, who is best known for rearranging the James Bond theme originally recorded by Monty Norman.
This was one of the many collaborations between Bronson and Thompson. Starting with the Warner Bros. detective film. St Ives, this actor-director duo made nine films together. At the end of their partnership, they were known to have directed evil revenge thrillers for Cannon Films. 10 to midnight saw Bronson take on an incel serial killer who strips before attacking his victims, while Kinjite: Forbidden Topics (Thompson’s latest film) saw Bronson fight a pimp who ran a child prostitution ring.
In retrospect, The white buffalo – the second film they’ve made together – is one of Bronson and Thompson’s more modest and exploitative endeavors. But that’s fair by their standards; it’s still pretty dark and edgy. The murder of a baby in an early scene (Crazy Horse’s dark motivation for revenge on the buffalo) is exactly the kind of shocking, boundary-pushing plot point that Thompson is known for.
As Wild Bill and Crazy Horse make their way through the snowy plains of the West, Thompson quickly reaches an exciting climax: their confrontation with the infamous titular buffalo. Carlo Rambaldi, who won the Special Achievement Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for his work on the 1976 remake of King Kong, designed a life-size animatronic bison that glided on caterpillars. These effects are a bit awkward today, but they were impressive back then (at least until Star wars arrived three weeks later with the revolutionary miniatures from ILM).
With an abysmal score of 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, The white buffalo is far from a perfect movie. In fact, this is hardly a good movie. But, as a western fantasy adventure with elements of a monster movie, this is a totally unique movie. Wild Bill’s premonitions have a touch of Don’t look now, but with the absurdity of Elevate Arizona. There is nothing else like The white buffalo. If David Lynch and Guillermo del Toro teamed up to co-direct a western, it would look something like this.
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