Horror westerns are few and far between and frequently very weird. In the 1960s, the great John Ford failed to find backers for Comanche Stallion, a supernatural, wild west variant on Moby Dick. One wonders if it would have been anywhere near as strange as The White Buffalo, the mystical/western/monster epic produced by Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis.
In the bleak winter of 1874, Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) is plagued by nightmares about a rampaging monster, the white buffalo. This same mythical beast attacks the Sioux village of Chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson), slaughtering many including the chief’s newborn baby. An Indian shaman tells Crazy Horse the child’s soul will not rest until the buffalo is slain. Meanwhile, Hickok journeys to the town of Cheyenne, where he dallies with old flame Mrs. “Poker Jenny” Schermerhorn (Kim Novak) and out-guns old enemies, before hooking up with his eccentric friend, Charlie Zane (Jack Warden), who barely escaped a run-in with the murderous beast. Setting out to kill the white buffalo, Hickok and Zane survive an ambush by Crow Indians with help from Crazy Horse. Amidst the frozen wastes, two legendary folk heroes unite to face an unstoppable, supernatural terror.
J. Lee Thompson is more celebrated for his early, British thrillers or Hollywood classics like Cape Fear (1962) and The Guns of Navarone (1961), while his initially fertile partnership with Charles Bronson eventually lapsed in the 1980s into a series of increasingly bleak, lazy, misogynistic action-thrillers. However, Thompson also produced some very strange, borderline avant-garde oddities like Eye of the Devil (1966), MacKenna’s Gold (1969) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and none were weirder than The White Buffalo. Dino DeLaurentiis, midway through a triumvirate of monster movies (including King Kong (1976) and Orca, Killer Whale (1977)), clearly saw this as “Jaws goes West”, but Thompson attempts something more rewarding. A dark, dreamlike meditation on the nature of death and fate.
Awkwardly adapted from his own novel by writer Richard Sale (who later wrote Assassination (1987), a more conventional action-comedy vehicle for Bronson and his wife Jill Ireland), the uneven narrative imparts a surreal quality to proceedings that is actually quite compelling. Eerie and atmospheric, the film unfolds like a waking nightmare. Entirely studio-bound, the fantastical sets impart a grotesque flavour. Mountains of bleached white bones line the train tracks as Hickok rides into Cheyenne. Dry ice seeps across a vast, horror movie landscape seething with an unsettling life of its own. Thompson overloads his film with dense, mystical symbolism, allusions to Moby Dick, Native American folklore and the occult. Carlo Rambaldi’s special effects creation has been criticised, but is quite effective overall; the portentous, all-pervading sense of dread that surrounds the white buffalo greatly enhanced by John Barry’s ominous score and the bone-chilling, bellowing roar of the beast.
Special guest stars Kim Novak, Stuart Whitman and Clint Walker are grievously wasted in throwaway roles, along with western stalwarts Slim Pickens and John Carradine. Charles Bronson, eyes near-permanently encased in dark sunglasses, is a suitably mythic incarnation of Wild Bill Hickok, compelling even when lost in a delirious haze. For Hickok, the white buffalo seems to embody a monstrous synthesis between fate and impending death (the real Wild Bill died when he was shot in the back during a poker game), but Thompson extends the menace beyond the personal into the mythic. In his hands, the shaggy albino becomes a Lovecraftian horror, an Antichrist out to doom all mankind. Hickok and Crazy Horse are cast as humanity’s saviours, and their battle with the behemoth becomes an attempt to master fate.
Whether you find this intriguing or laugh such pretensions off the screen, as critics did in 1977, is a matter of personal taste. The White Buffalo was not a commercial success in its day (except in Asia, where it remains a cult favourite) and its murky incomprehensibility won it few friends in the ensuing decades. However, adventurous movie fans live for such offbeat fare and the surreal atmosphere, horror elements and existential ambition are quite intriguing.