Blu-ray Review: The White Buffalo [Kino Lorber] | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, May 27th, 2024  

The White Buffalo

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Jun 21, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Western legend “Wild Bill” Hickok has been suffering from a recurring nightmare. In it, a monstrous buffalo – its fur as white as the ice and snow from which it erupts – charges him; it feels so real that he regularly wakes up madly firing his pistols blindly into his surroundings. It’s a dream that he comes to regard as a vision pulling him west again, into the Black Hills and into hostile territory, and toward a life he’d been forced to leave behind. He’s compelled to hunt down the beast and bring an end to these torturous dreams, even if it may be the last thing he ever does.

Elsewhere, a Lakota village is attacked by an albino buffalo just like the one in Hickok’s vision. It tramples a young girl, the daughter of famed warrior Crazy Horse. Knowing her soul will not be at rest until the creature is slain, the grieving father sets off into dangerous territory controlled by a rival tribe on a hunt for the otherworldly monster.

Something like a Western spin on Jaws or Moby Dick, The White Buffalo (1977) was adapted by Richard Sale from his novel of the same name. Acquired by Dino De Laurentiis and with Charles Bronson – enjoying his post-Death Wish boost as a domestic star – cast in the lead, the film was sent into production with the highly capable J. Lee Thompson at the helm. With Bronson joined by an admirable cavalcade of recognizable names in largely one- or two-scene cameos (John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Kim Novak, Clint Walker), The White Buffalo feels tailored for the global market. The results are ultimately as bumpy and uneven as the wagon trail Hickok rides north into Sioux territory, but even amid its failings the movie remains, if not conventionally compelling, then hypnotically odd.

The overwrought script is the film’s biggest hurdle. The characters speak almost exclusively in old-timey aphorisms or Western turns-of-phrase that feel more like the 1970s than the 1870s; everything is referred to in slang, so much so that it can be difficult to translate some of the lingo even with the aid of subtitles and the quick-rewind button. Characters need to exchange three or four obtuse metaphors just to convey the idea that someone would like to shoot them. If a cave is collapsing down on one of our heroes, you can bet they’re going to shout some long, colorful phrase about it being too dark to find their own pizzle (penis) rather than, you know, something that could save their lives in those crucial moments. Rarely does a character open their mouth and something remotely natural-sounding comes out.

Adding to the unnecessary confusion is that many characters go by multiple nicknames or aliases throughout the movie: Hickok alone is addressed by his proper name, Jack Otis (an alias), Cat-Eyes (a pet name), White Eyes, Captain, and Long Hair depending on who he’s talking to. There are other tertiary characters who are only referenced, and backstory that’s hardly fleshed out. Maybe all of this stuff sounded good in the pages of Sale’s pulp novel, but this is a case where the adaptation may have been better off in the hands of a screenwriter more distant from the source material.

J. Lee Thompson, though, is a director more than capable of elevating whatever material he’s working with – something he’d prove time and again during his Cannon years. While even the actors look confused by some of the lines they were required to say, the action itself is never convoluted or hard to follow. This is a feat, considering that the filmmakers were clearly disappointed by the animatronic buffalo they had to work with. Unconvincing at its best angles, and silly at its worst, the monster bounces on a track like somebody had stuck wheels and a white shag carpet on one of those mechanical rodeo broncos you’ll find in Western-themed sports bars. Working around its insufficiencies with close-ups and quick edits, it’s remarkable that Thompson was able to build so many scenes around it where there’s still a sense of urgency and danger.

The movie was shot on a combination of mountain locations – beautiful, snow-covered vistas – and sound stages. The outdoor panoramas are as breathtaking as the indoor sets, often covered by fog machines and large soap flakes, are fake-looking. They mix in a way, though, that gives the film an unintentionally surreal and dream-like vibe. The fabricated outdoor sets, the way the actors battle through their bizarre dialogue, and the goofy buffalo-monster can make the film seem like actors putting on a Western stage play, but then you’ll suddenly get scenes set against gorgeous panoramas followed by moments of exciting action – The White Buffalo is all over the place, but it’s more than watchable.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray disc offers sharp detail and bright colors, and comes with a few nice promotional spots for the movie and trailers for other Bronson films. The most attractive feature is the new commentary from Bronson expert Paul Talbot, the foremost scholar on the actor’s lengthy career. The White Buffalo is one that wasn’t already covered in his Bronson’s Loose! Books, which means his commentary is full of information that will be new even to dedicated Bronson fans.



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