Friday, December 2, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The White Buffalo (1977)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Wild Bill Hickock (Charles Bronson) returns from his showbiz career to the West to fight against destiny. Hickock is plagued by a recurring nightmare about battling a gigantic white buffalo (that looks very much like the mechanical construct it is) on a snowy, disquietingly artificial looking plateau. He usually wakes up from the dream with guns blazing. Hickock believes that his dream enemy really exists and that he has to find and kill it or be doomed in some inexplicable way.

The gunman has too much of a history in the West, and so uses the pseudonym of James Otis, but he can't help meeting old enemies like Captain Tom Custer (Ed Lauter) or his former love Poker Jenny (Kim Novak), saying goodbye to various parts of his old life in one way or the other.

Hickock's also quite good at making new enemies, like Whistling Jack Kileen (Clint Walker, in the Western surroundings a much more convincing actor than in any of the non-Westerns I have seen him act in), who follows Hickock into the mountains when the gunman and an old acquaintance, the trapper Charlie Zane (Jack Warden), move out into the mountains where Zane was nearly killed by a rock fall caused by the white buffalo.

Also hunting the strange animal is Crazy Horse (Will Sampson), now going under the moniker of Worm. The animal had attacked one of the Oglala villages and killed the war chief's daughter, leaving him without his name and position until he can wrap her body into the buffalo's pelt.

Despite Hickock's racism and Worm's distrust of white people, the two men recognize the kindred spirit in the other when they meet and help each other in their desperate hunt as best as men like them are able to.

The White Buffalo surely is one of the weirder Westerns to come out of the US, and not at all the typical late 70s Bronson vehicle I would have expected from a director like the usually very down-to-Earth J. Lee Thompson. It's as if Thompson and his star (also not exactly known to feature in flights of fancy) had had a very peculiar dream of making a sort of movie they didn't usually make themselves.

The film is a strange mixture of the scepticism and semi-naturalism of the revisionist Western and the feeling of utter irreality one usually only finds in dreams, the naturalistic elements so peculiar in and of themselves that they are only bound to strengthen the dream-like aspects of the movie.

I suspect this wavering between the hyper-real and the completely unreal will be what truly makes or breaks the film for a given viewer - either you will be sucked in by the mood of mythical doom by the way of both Moby Dick and Jaws embedded in a semi-cynical (and very dirty) interpretation of the Old West, or you will just be annoyed by the way everything in the film feels just a little bit off. Often, the two antithetical impulses of The White Buffalo seem to wrestle each other until either the naturalism or the irreality decide to give up for a scene or two and let its enemy do its own thing.

This feeling of two forces fighting each other runs through the whole film. It is there on a plot level with the obvious duel between the men and the animal (which sometimes seems to stand in for a self-destructive part of their nature, sometimes to want to say something about the nature of the Old West it just can't bring into precise words), and in how the older, less dumb Hickock fights against the consequences the actions of his brash younger self still leave him to deal with decades later.

It can also be found in the film's handling of dialogue full of realistic (or rather realistic sounding, I certainly don't know how people of the time and place actually spoke) jargon and phrases my modern ear needed to work hard on parsing, that is spoken in a consciously artificial sounding way that permanently points out its own artificiality.

And this feeling is also there in the contrast between some fantastic (well, if you're like me and like to look at snowy mountains and Bronson Canyon) looking location shots and the beautiful yet obviously fake sets that make up most of the movie's night sequences and interior scenes.
Somehow, all this strangeness and contradictoriness comes together to form one of the most dream-like Westerns I have ever seen, the sort of film that dreams itself being Moby Dick as written by an opium-addicted Western pulp writer.

Apart from being as damn peculiar as films come, The White Buffalo is also a very slow film without the clear and strong plotting that is typical for most US Westerns, though not necessarily those of the revisionist type. Here, again, the slow drifting feel of a dream comes to mind. I find it difficult to imagine a rhythm that would fit this movie better. Its mixture of myth, historical figures which carry their own myths around their necks, and a still romantic view of an historical era that pretends to be a sceptical and unromantic view would fit badly into something straight and fast.

That also seems to have been what Thompson thought, and so his camera work tends to the unhurried and slow throughout, giving even shoot-outs something ponderous, as if time in The White Buffalo would not function in quite the same way as the audience understands it. I suspect the influence of especially Leone's Spaghetti Western here.

Thompson, or probably Richard Sale's script, also point out the moral complexity of the life at the frontier from time to time, in short political discussions between Hickock and Worm, or the rather sobering way Zane isn't able to treat Crazy Horse as a fellow human being at a point where most other films would have the frontiersman and the warrior become grand friends, but as thoughtful as these moments are, they only make the film's actual thematic core more muddled, like that of Moby Dick after 150 years of interpretation. Say a dozen things and each and every one of them can be found somewhere in the movie, but don't expect any of them to be "what the film is about".

To me, that's not a bad thing in a dream-like semi-naturalistic Western about Wild Bill Hickok and Crazy Horse hunting a supernatural white buffalo; it's rather what I want from it.

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