Tuesday, September 10, 2013

White Buffalo (1977)

Written by: Richard Sale
Directed by: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Charles Bronson, Will Sampson, Jack Warden

It's been almost ten years since my grandfather died. He was a gruff but loving fellow, who was always quick with a joke or a poke to the ribs, but didn't suffer fools. I believe I inherited some of his no-nonsense bluntness, but we didn't have a great deal of interests in common. Sure, he was an avid reader, but his favorite author was Louis L'Amour, not H.P. Lovecraft or Douglas Adams. Our way of bonding came mostly through doing farm work together, which is a fine thing and no mistake. But I'll never forget the time one weekend when I was staying with grandma and grandpa because mom and dad were on a motorcycle trip, and I sat and watched the only movie I ever saw with grandpa; Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS. Ah, but I kid. It was White Buffalo. He wanted to watch it because it was a Charles Bronson western – Bronson's last, in fact. I wanted to watch it because it's a sorta kinda monster movie, a bit like Jaws with cowboys and Indians. The movie delivers marvelously on both fronts, and while I'm sure the parts with the buffalo didn't register as anything special for him, and I know most of the human action didn't do much for me the first time around, this time I found the interplay between Wild Bill, Crazy Horse, Charlie, and the other characters to be even more enjoyable than the parts with the mostly very impressive full-sized animatronic buffalo built by Carlo Rambaldi (I say mostly because there's one truly unfortunately shot that should have been removed in editing where you get a long, clear look at the machinery running the beast and the track it's moving on – it makes the shot down the shark's throat in Jaws 2 look dignified).

Until this weekend, when I found it on YouTube, I hadn't seen the movie since that night. It's been over 20 years, but the dream sequences have remained vividly in my head all that time, and unlike so many movies you retain memories of seeing once when you were a kid, it was exactly the way I remembered it. The movie is soaked in atmosphere, the Colorado and New Mexico location sequences bringing home just how huge and lonely and imposing the American West can be, and the sound stage sequences taking on a surreal tone that reminds me of nothing so much as Razorback (albeit not nearly that weird).

An aging Wild Bill Hickok is suffering from nightmares of being charged in a snow-covered clearing by a monstrous white buffalo. The dreams have all but destroyed his ability to sleep, crushed his waking life with fear and stress, and are taking a physical toll in a condition that is eroding his eyesight and causes him to wear dark glasses (an affliction that plagued the real Wild Bill – he was diagnosed with glaucoma in 1876, but a disease called trachoma was also very common at the time and could have been the cause of his problem) and he decides the only way he can get shut of his troubles is to go back west one last time and kill a white buffalo. Problem is, they're thought to have all been killed off. Still, something tells Bill there's one last white spike out there with his name on it. He tracks down his old friend Charlie Zane, who has been telling anyone who will listen that a white buffalo followed him into a canyon and set off an avalanche that nearly killed him. With the promise of a $2,000 payday should they manage to bring back the hide of such a creature, the two friends head off into the hills to hunt.

Meanwhile, in a surprisingly violent sequence for a PG movie (I know they got away with a lot more under that rating in the 70s, but I assumed a line would be drawn at multiple skull crushings, decapitations, and gorings), the buffalo tears through a Sioux camp, trampling and goring dozens of tribespeople to death. Among the dead is the daughter of Chief Crazy Horse, whose wails of grief prompt their medicine man to tell him that he is in no fit mental state to lead the tribe until he can wrap his dead child in the hide of the white buffalo that killed her and get some closure. The medicine man strips him of his true name, redubbing him Worm for the duration of his quest, and Crazy Horse hits the war path with preternaturally intelligent homicidal bison on his mind.

Bill and Charlie have seen Crazy Horse at a distance, but they come across him up close and personal one day when they find him under fire from a war party of Crow Indians looking to expand their territory. They take the Crow by surprise and save Crazy Horse, figuring if there's at least one Indian around who doesn't want to kill them they'll consider it a win. Crazy Horse gets to return the favor later when a group of bounty hunters led by Whistling Jack Kileen pin down Bill and Charlie on the side of the snow-covered mountain the white buffalo calls home.

Once the trio are back in the cave Bill and Charlie have turned into their base camp, Charlie isn't convinced it's a good idea to let Worm (they still don't know who he really is) share their food and shelter, no matter how friendly he seems. He warms up when Worm hands him a rifle he took off one of Kileen's men, which is nicer than anything he's ever owned in his life. Then comes my favorite character moment in the movie, when Charlie introduces himself and we find out he was once a legendary warrior the Sioux named One Eye. Worm is baffled, as Charlie clearly has both his eyes. Charlie then terrifies the poor Sioux by popping out his glass eye and dancing around cackling! Worm backs up against the wall until Bill steps in and whacks Charlie's eye against the coffee pot to show him it's made of glass and there's no magic.

Through their campfire discussion, they discover their reasons for being on the mountain are at odds. Though each considers the other a brother now due to their mutual lifesaving, they are still enemies when it comes to the white buffalo. Neither is willing to bend to the other's will, and though Crazy Horse definitely has the more important reason to want to kill the beast, Bill isn't wild about the idea of waking up screaming and firing his sidearms at everything in the room every night for the rest of his life either. It's also implied that the terror of the buffalo dreams is not only responsible for his deteriorating health and eyesight, but is also causing erectile dysfunction! He needs to shoot that buffalo so he can shoot his...well, you know.

They go their separate ways, and both track the creature to the place Bill sees in all his dreams, and sure enough, the monster bison comes tearing through the trees. After several attempts to take it down, Bill's shots finally drop the thing, and Crazy Horse jumps in with his knife to finish it off. Bill lets Crazy Horse keep the hide, which is the last straw for Charlie. He tells Bill their friendship is over, and begins to make his way back to town. Crazy Horse tells Bill that he may have lost one friend, but he has gained another. Unfortunately, a final war is coming between the Sioux and the white men, and though they are brothers, if they ever meet again it will be as Sioux and white man, and they will be enemies.

The movie plays very fair with its two leads at the end. Of course, since they're historical characters instead of fictional creations, we couldn't very well leave Crazy Horse as Worm, but the fact that the Native American is treated not just with dignity but as having needs more important than the white character is refreshing. It's the only honest way to end the story, but honesty isn't always in Hollywood's list of priorities if it comes at the cost of making the big action star look impressive and manly. It's also a very bittersweet scene, reflecting the bigger picture of the changing times, the end of the Sioux nation, as well as all the other Native American tribes, and the taming of the Wild West.

Dino De Laurentiis movies aren't often (or ever) said to have any depth, but this one really does. It's extremely well written, directed, and acted, and that brings some real power and emotion to what would, even without the layers, be a tremendously entertaining genre hybrid of Western and horror that truly is one of a kind.

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