1977, 97 mins. 24 secs.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Charles Bronson, Jack Warden, Will Sampson, Clint Walker, Slim Pickens, Stuart Whitman, Kim Novak, John Carradine
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Two of Hollywood's biggest '70s movie obsessions, the revisionist western and the animal attack film, collided with deeply surreal results in The White Buffalo, the second of nine collaborations between star Charles Bronson and director J. Lee Thompson (following St. Ives, with later titles including 10 to Midnight, The Evil That Men Do, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, Cabo Blanco, and Messenger of Death). That's a pretty wild roster, and none of them are even remotely like this dreamlike horror western that left critics scratching their heads at the time and only earned a marginal theatrical release from United Artists. Since then it's been something of a cinematic curiosity that marked the end of mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis' brief obsession with riding the coattails of Jaws with big animal movies like 1976's King Kong and 1977s' Orca; however, Thompson and company seem a lot more interested here in exploring the culture clash of two legendary Wild West figures and seeing how they reflect different aspects of American masculinity at the time. Adapted from his own book by writer Richard Sale (who also penned the source novel for The Oscar and the later Bronson Cannon actioner Assassination), the film has also remained notable among film score fans for its eerie, foreboding score by the great John Barry, who had just done superlative work here on King Kong and stepped in here when the initial score by David Shire was rejected. (Both scores were eventually released together on CD in 2017.)
Traveling incognito by train across the American West in 1874, Wild Bill Hickok (Bronson) finds his nights troubled by unsettling dreams involving an enormous white buffalo prowling an icy wilderness. His journey to take advantage of the gold rush is intercepted by the very real beast, which is currently terrorizing the territories including Native American tribes. Hickok ends up hunting the buffalo with two other men: the legendary Crazy Horse (Sampson), who just lost his daughter in an attack, and aging gunfighter and longtime buddy Charlie Zane (Warden). As they track down the oversized snow-colored menace, they come to grips with their own attitudes about the land they live on and the cultural differences that divide them.
A tough sell at the time thanks to its odd structure and straddling of genres, The White Buffalo spends most of its first half trotting Bronson through an insane cavalcade of character actors like Stuart Whitman, Clint Walker, John Carradine, Martin Kove, Slim Pickens, and Ed Lauter, plus an extended cameo by Kim Novak in one of her very few '70s roles. For some reason Carlo Rambaldi and other Kong crew members were brought back by De Laurentiis to engineer the buffalo itself, despite Rambaldi's notorious inability to supply a functioning mechanical King Kong. The first two buffalo appearances (in Bronson's opening dream and the savage attack scene) are actually fairly effective thanks to some fractured editing and the disorienting studio sets, but the seams really show after that with the climactic showdown looking more like a mechanical bull competition at a country and western bar. Despite its ignominious fate in theaters, the film has been a fixture on TV and home video though (including an NBC airing as Hunt to Kill), with MGM issuing it on VHS, laserdisc, and eventually DVD in 2010. An HD master slightly zoomed in to 1.78:1 from the original hard matted 1.85:1 framing first appeared on the studio's MGM HD channel (now morphed into MGM+); that same source was used for a 2015 Blu-ray from Kino Lorber with a theatrical trailer as the sole extra.
In 2023, Kino Lorber revisited the title as a Blu-ray special edition featuring a new 2K scan of the 35mm interpositive. The restoration of the wider 1.85:1 framing is a welcome plus, and coupled with the much richer black levels, finer detail, and improved compression, it makes for a very visible upgrade. In a welcome touch common to these more recent remasters, the original United Artists Transamerica logo has been restored here as well instead of that anachronistic late '90s UA logo we've had before. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track still sounds fine for what it is with some appreciable bass during the buffalo scenes, and optional English SDH subtitles are provided. Of course, the big draw here is a new audio commentary by Paul Talbot, the world's #1 Bronson expert, who adds this one to his extensive roster of essential and well-researched commentaries connected to the actor. He goes into great detail about Thompson and Bronson's career, the background on the real Hickok and Crazy Horse, trivia about the firearms, the story behind Bronson's oddball eye-wear, and the various shooting locations including the one that inspired Bronson's stage name. He also has some interesting info about the post-production changes imposed on the film, such as revealing Hickok and Crazy Horse's identities right from the outset via some shoehorned dialogue instead of revealing them gradually later on as originally intended. Also included are a 3-minute reel of TV spots (transferred in HD from film), the theatrical trailer, and bonus trailers for Chato's Land, Breakheart Pass, High Plains Drifter, and Valdez Is Coming.
Reviewed on July 7, 2023