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Impaled on a Sharpened Stake -
The White Buffalo (1977)

April 30, 2024

The White Buffalo is a 1977 film directed by J. Lee Thompson and written by Richard Sale based on Sale's pulp novel of the same name.  It stars Charles Bronson as Wild Bill Hickok and Will Sampson as Crazy Horse.

James had suggested pairing it with our watch of Moby Dick (1956) as a sort of double feature since it was marketed as a Moby Dick inspired tale, with director Thompson apparently literally saying "It's a Moby Dick of the West."  (Wikipedia attributes that quote to the 1976 LA Times article "An Intrepid Gunfighter Meets Fear" by William Gallo, but I didn't find the original source,  nor did/will I look very hard.)  I had never heard of this before and judging from the fact that the wikipedia article doesn't even have a plot summary, I suspect I'm not the only one.

 

This movie is a wreck.  It's *bad.*

 

But.

 

It's bad in a way that's kind of interesting.  James and I both very much enjoyed watching and talking about this film.  It's not a get-your-friends-together-and-laugh-at-how-dumb-this-is thing, where it's poorly acted, has stupid dialogue, and the camera keeps going out of focus.   It doesn't look cheap, and scene by scene it's... mostly fine.  The acting is pretty invisible and the dialogue isn't noteworthy one way or the other.  It's compelling not because it's completely inept, and therefore funny, but because it's such a colossal failure of storytelling.

 

If you like thinking about filmmaking or story construction in general, there's a lot to chew on.  Frankly, I've been thinking about this movie a lot and how there absolutely could have been something good in there.  I can't really recommend watching it for anything other than a forensic examination of how stories can go wrong, but if you're interested in seeing a piece of media try for "elevated" and fail and then thinking about why it fails it might be worth a watch with a similarly inclined friend.  It's a good discussion prompt.

 

A Summary (From Memory Because I Didn't Instantly Find One Online and I Am Not Watching This Again)

 

So, what is this movie?  And spoilers ahead, but honestly, who gives a shit?

 

This movie starts in 1874 with real historical figure Wild Bill Hickok having a nightmare about an ominous white buffalo in the snowy mountains, a nightmare which, according to the trailer "drove him to the brink of madness."  Which....um... [citation needed].  Hickok is on his way to Lakota country to hunt the white buffalo down.  While he's traveling, we see the buffalo destroy the Lakota village of real historical figure Crazy Horse.  Crazy Horse's daughter dies in the attack and he is so distraught that he is stripped of his position and his name because he's not...handling it...like enough of a man? He's told that his daughter can't rest in the next world until she's wrapped in the pelt of the white buffalo and that his name is "Worm" now.

Hickok travels through a few frontier towns, ostensibly disguised as James Otis, though pretty everyone always instantly knows who he is. He meets up with old friend, and possible former flame, Poker Jenny who calls him Cat Eyes.  While staying at her inn, he has the same nightmare about the white buffalo.

Hickok is constantly getting shot at by old enemies, including one of the Custer brothers who is briefly here for some reason.  (I thought it was the more famous George Custer, but IMDB says it was Tom Custer.  Whatever.  It does not matter.)  He encounters his friend Charlie Zane and they go on the hunt together.

Out in the mountains, they encounter Crazy Horse being hounded by members of the Crow tribe and Hickok decides to save him.   They talk for a bit and then part.  Charlie asks if Hickok wants him to shoot Crazy Horse.  Hickok says no.

 

Hickok and Charlie, through a telescope, see the buffalo hanging around a mountain cave and go there to set up an ambush.  It eludes them and then kills their horses.  Soon after they are attacked by some of Hickok's enemies that he encountered earlier in town, but are saved by Crazy Horse.  Hickok and Crazy Horse have a conversation that James and I both took to mean that Crazy Horse knows who Hickok is.  Charlie asks if Hickok wants him to shoot Crazy Horse.  Hickok says no.

 

A storm is coming in, so Crazy Horse holes up with them in the cave.  They exchange gifts, share food, and talk.  Crazy Horse hears Charlie call Hickok by his real name, and reacts as if this is troubling new information, as he knows Hickok as a man who has killed a lot of Lakota.  The buffalo attacks them by caving in a wall of rocks, maybe? I don't know, it was a little unclear.  Hickok says he knows this won't be the final confrontation because it isn't the place he sees in his dreams.  

 

After the storm, Hickok and Crazy Horse get into a disagreement about who should get the buffalo pelt, with Hickok saying the prize will go to the hunter who kills it.  Crazy Horse leaves.  Charlie asks if Hickok wants him to shoot Crazy Horse.  Hickok says no.

 

Hickok and Charlie find the place from Hickok's dreams and the buffalo attacks.  Crazy Horse shows up and they all fight it, though Crazy Horse does most of the work, actually jumping on it's back and stabbing it, while the other two spend the first few minutes shooting at it and missing.  

 

Then Hickok shoots it.  It's dead.

 

He lets Crazy Horse take the pelt.  Crazy Horse says they are brothers, but he hopes they never meet again because if they do they will only see each other as an Indian and a white man and be enemies.  

 

Credits roll over sepia portraits of Hickok and Crazy Horse, noting both the years of their birth and that they both were murdered in 1876 and 1877, respectively.

 

Some Context and Some Preliminary Observations

 

As I mentioned up top, this movie, particularly the location work, isn't bad looking.  Even the titular buffalo, which appears to be done with puppetry, looks decently good though not hyper realistic.  The budget was $6 million dollars, which per Google is around $30 million today.  For reference, the top grossing movies of 1977 were Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit, with budgets of about $11 million and $4.3 million, respectively.  Other top ten grossing films with smaller budgets than The White Buffalo were Saturday Night Fever ($3.5m), Looking for Mr. Goodbar ($5m), and Annie Hall ($4m).

 

This is not at all important but as a historical note, Bronson at 56 is way too old to be Hickok, who was 37 in 1874.  And craggy, weathered Bronson isn't exactly a youthful 56.

 

The opening of this movie, the nightmare about the white buffalo, is actually really good.  It takes its time and establishes a really intense and moody scene, and the puppet design of the buffalo gives it a creepy unreality, an almost metaphorical feel.  (Though let's put a pin in that).  I thought the score was pretty great, too.  There's a couple of landscape images, a snowy mountain wall and a black rock formation, that are given particular weighty emphasis. 

 

This rather sinister opening had me hooked, but then the film cuts to Wild Bill snapping awake on the train and rather expressionlessly shooting wildly into the bunk above him.  He shoots for a long time too, like empties both his guns.  James and I both laughed out loud, but I don't think it was supposed to be funny.  Completely took us out of the movie.

(He wakes up shooting again at Poker Jenny's. Just riddles the place with bullets.  At least that time upon awaking he was spooked by the taxidermied white buffalo head decorating the room, but still.  And it's played almost as a jump scare, but it kind of doesn't hold up to scrutiny because it's framed both to him and the audience like he didn't know the head was there, but he absolutely would have seen it before he went to sleep. Also since we already laughed at the first over the top wake-up-shooting scene, having it happen a second time almost felt like a joke, like we were watching a spoof of the haunted tough guy archetype.  "Dewey Cox always wakes up shooting when he has a dream."  We honestly weren't sure it wasn't going to happen again.  And every time Wild Bill got a new traveling companion, we were saying things like "Before they all go to sleep, he's going to give them a heads up that this might happen, right?  That sounds like basic courtesy.")

 

"James, what... what are they doing with their hands?"

 

I said this wasn't a laugh-at-with-your-friends movie, but there's one thing that happens that is very unintentionally funny.  The first two times Crazy Horse and Hickok talk, they also punctuate the entire conversation with these really exaggerated hand gestures, as if they're also signing to each other.  It was baffling.  Like... you guys are both already diagetically speaking English and you clearly understand each other.  What are you doing?  And the gestures are just nothing, they absolutely wouldn't convey anything if the characters weren't also talking.   It looks completely ridiculous both times.  

 

Also, the repeated thing about Wild Bill's friend Charlie constantly asking if he should kill Crazy Horse became funny by the end.   Like, dude, you've been hanging out with him for like 3 days, you've exchanged gifts, he's saved your lives.  No, Bill does not want you to shoot him in the back.  I actually think I undersold it in the plot summary, I think he does it like 5 or 6 times.  We honestly didn't know if it was intended to be funny; there's so little levity in the movie that it was a little incongruous, but it's plausible it was supposed to be a joke. 

 

Some Filmmaking....Quirks

 

As I said earlier, the filmmaking is mostly ok but there are some really noticeable tics.  In general there's some really aimless camera movements, particularly zoom-ins on people for lines that are just not important or impactful.  There's one early on where Captain Custer is talking to his aide about Hickok being in town and there's this really dramatic zoom in on the aide for a line that's just some conversational connective tissue.  It's like "You think he's in town?" or something banal like that.  It was really weird.   It happens a lot which completely drains any possible significance from the maneuver.  Its really strange, basically every time.  

 

The funniest one is a zoom in on two sinister characters sitting in a tavern, but the camera's zoom in point is the space between the two characters, not on either of their faces.  So it zooms in to empty space and both characters kind of slip out of frame.  It's easily the worst one.  The others are just kind of camera motion for no reason, that particular shot is just really inept. 

 

[[Edit from future me: it occurred to me that it's possible that maybe the character falling out of frame here is a problem caused by the transfer to DVD, similar to how when widescreen movies are transferred to standard for TV sometimes they lose part of the frame.  I don't know if this is the case, as I think the version we watched was widescreen, and there's enough weird zoom stuff that the movie doesn't really get the benefit of the doubt, but I guess it's possible.]]

Also, the geography editing is rather poor, especially in the action scenes.  The film just doesn't do a good job of establishing where anyone is, where they are in relation to each other, or even sometimes how many people are there.  We said the phrase "Wait... where are these people?" more than once during the action scenes.  

 

There's less of this, but there's a couple of weird perspective changes too.  The one that stands out to me is when Charlie shoots one of the Crow who are after Crazy Horse.  He shoots one of them and then it cuts to a shot from below to show the man falling, a place where no one is standing and a location that hasn't really been established. The shot is, I guess, a pretty dramatic framing for the falling man in isolation, but it was a really jarring perspective shift, and didn't mesh well with the surrounding shots.

 

The Real Problem - The Screenplay

 

The big problems in the movie are structural, and I think it comes down to the screenplay.   The film is based on a novel by Richard Sale, who also wrote the screenplay.  And I think that fact explains some stuff.  As an adaptation, this actually suffers from one of the things I pointed out in my Dracula (1931) piece, where it seemed like they included stuff because it was in the novel and people would expect it, without giving too much thought to whether it served the story they were telling with their film.  It's something I would expect would happen to a film adaptation of a really famous story, not some obscure Western pulp novel that, spoiler for later, apparently isn't particularly good.  But the author wrote the screenplay and it seems like he didn't want to kill any of his darlings.

 

James watched a little bit of the commentary track and told me that the novel is more of a chronicle of the life of Wild Bill Hickok which could explain some of the weird cul-de-sacs.  The tavern shootout with Custer's men has absolutely no bearing on...anything in the movie.  The stage coach scene where the two other passengers get shot by a Lakota during a storm also doesn't lead anywhere, nor does the scene with Poker Jenny.

If we said "Wait...Where are these people?" a lot during action scenes, we said "Wait... what are we doing?" a lot in the other scenes.  I thought this was about this white buffalo that is threatening to drive Wild Bill mad?  

 

This film is plagued with two opposing problems: too many extraneous elements and unclear stakes for the ostensible main conflict.

 

Too Much Movie - The Three Body Problem

 

There's just way too much going on in this film, particularly in the first half.   There's a scene early on that I think is emblematic of the problems with this movie's construction.  Hickok is in a stage coach in Lakota territory with two other travelers, a shady guy and a well dressed woman.  They talk and Hickok chastises the man multiple times for using foul language in front of a lady.  When Hickok goes to sleep the shady man pulls a knife on him and, surprise, Wild Bill isn't asleep and pulls his guns on the guy.  He throws him out of the carriage while the man begs not to be left alone in a storm at night in Lakota country.  The woman looks on approvingly and is probably meant to be attracted to this strong, silent type.

 

After the carriage drives away the shady man is shot by a Native American.  Then later there's a shootout at the stage coach and the well dressed woman dies.   Who did the shooting?   I have no idea.  It was so poorly communicated that we couldn't even tell who it was and the film seemed to be actively trying to obscure them.  At first we thought it was Crazy Horse but why would Crazy Horse do that?  And if it wasn't, why have a random Native character randomly shoot two characters whose deaths Hickok doesn't really react to at all?

Afterward the shootout, Wild Bill sits up front with the stagecoach driver and later they come across a body.  When they got into town, I said to James "Five bucks says they don't ever mention the woman's body in the stagecoach."  I was wrong, but wrong in an unexpected way.

 

They run into a coroner type hauling bodies and they say that back in the coach they have.... three bodies.  Wait, what?  Did they go back for the shady guy? When? How did they even know he died?  And I guess they picked up the body they found and took it with them?  I thought maybe my attention just really wandered but James was confused too. 

 

I wondered if a scene had gotten cut or something, but later it became clear that the real problem here was something deeper, and this was just the first instance of many.  This rather long sequence has no effect on any of the rest of the story.  The well dressed lady never comes up again and Hickok doesn't seem to care that she's dead, despite pleasantly talking to her for a while.  And as of this writing I'm not even sure who the third body was.  After they meet the coroner, it's like this never happened.  Why is any of this important enough to include here?   

It's not relevant in any way to the buffalo and it doesn't reveal anything. As world building it's pointless because we are going to see more indications that this is dangerous territory, not that it matters very much because Hickok's old and new enemy shenanigans don't factor in to the hunt.  And this scene doesn't reveal anything useful about Wild Bill other than he doesn't like swearing in front of a lady.  We're going get like five more scenes to show Wild Bill being a badass and in addition to him just being an archetype in this, he's also a historical character who is famous for being a badass.  You get that character trait for free just by having him be Wild Bill.   Although speaking of that....

 

Why is he even Wild Bill?  It does not matter and the whole pretending to be James Otis is an extraneous element, not in the least because everyone immediately knows who he is anyway.  There's just this layer of complexity over everything to no real purpose.  There's also no real reason Crazy Horse has to be Crazy Horse.  The story works just as well if it's two guys named James Otis and Worm as it does with it being Wild Bill and Crazy Horse.

 

Also there's a couple of dialogue scenes between Crazy Horse and Hickok that talk about relations between the white man and the Lakota.  They're fine in isolation but, again, they don't have anything to do with any of this. They feel like intrusions from a different movie.

 

Presumably this is all just because it's that way in the novel.  Maybe this stuff is more fleshed out in the book.  A 250 page book can fit a lot more in then a 90 minute movie, so a skillful movie adaptation necessarily pares away the stuff that doesn't fit the chosen focus.  

 

And that's probably the most concise way to sum up the issue here: the movie lacks focus.  Just having a bunch of book accurate scenes in isolation doesn't make a good movie or a good adaptation.  

 

Not Enough Movie

 

The stakes for Hickok are incredibly vague.  You get basically nothing about why his dream is so troubling or why he thinks he thinks he needs to kill this buffalo.  Or why he even thinks he's dreaming of a literal and particular buffalo in specific.  These dreams are the inciting incident for the ostensible main story they're trying to tell.  There should be more to this.  

 

If this is supposed to be Moby Dick in the West, with Hickok as Ahab and the white buffalo as the white whale, maybe we should be, you know, doing that kind of story.  Imagine Moby Dick if Melville made Ahab into Admiral David Farragut, didn't bother characterizing him, gave no reason for his obsession, and had him spend more time screwing around fighting random pirates than thinking about the whale. 

Crazy Horses' motivations for the hunt are way clearer but they're also based on an event that's.... stupid?  The buffalo rampages through his village and kills everyone (somehow setting things on fire) in a scene that is ridiculous and according to the film commentary, not in the book.   It happens early, and sort of primed us to expect a sillier rampaging animal movie like Piranha (1978) or Lake Placid (1999).  It ends up being really incongruous with the rest of the film and makes it so the two main characters are hunting the same buffalo by complete coincidence.   And they don't really even meet because they're both hunting it.  Wild Bill just kind of stumbles on Crazy Horse being harried by the Crow.  

 

I do think it's kind of funny that generally the film is (presumably) way too faithful to the novel to it's own detriment but when it finally adds it's own thing it's not helpful.

 

The White Buffalo

 

I think a big problem here is that the white buffalo doesn't mean anything.  Per the National Park Service, white buffalo are considered sacred to Native Americans, so it seems to me that Wild Bill's obsession with killing it feels like it should have some sort of symbolic weight, especially in a film where Hickok is explicitly infamous for killing a lot of Lakota.  That feels like a layup for a writer looking for a thematic through-line.

And any representative meaning for Wild Bill is really compromised by the scene showing that the buffalo is also a rampaging animal destroying villages.  That doesn't relate to him at all, and he doesn't have a way to know about that until long after he's already been "obsessed" with it.  There's references to other white buffalo in the film and how much their pelts are worth, but I didn't get the sense that he's been on a mad quest to kill every one he encounters.

 

And then they just kill it.  No insights revealed, no lessons learned, and and no real catharsis because we don't know what Wild Bill's damage is.  I guess he reverses course on the pelt belonging to the hunter who kills it, but it's pretty clear that having the trophy isn't his main concern and once he learned about why Crazy Horse wanted it, of course he would let the man have it.  Crazy Horse gets catharsis from it, but we understood his stake in this, and he is not the protagonist of this film.

 

This is a smaller thing, but it also kind of bothers me that Hickok's dreams being prophetic doesn't seem to faze anyone.  He's sure his dreams are of a literal place, and when he finds that literal place, no part of him goes "Holy shit. It's all true!"  The closest the film comes to commenting on this is Charlie saying something offhand like "Never seen hokum be real before" with the same energy as someone noticing the color of a house for the first time.  

 

The final fight also suffers from the same poor geography editing as the rest of the film, so there's a couple things that are a little confusing, and not in the "fog of war" kind of way.  That's a relatively unimportant critique in the face of the massive holes in the central premise of this movie.

"What a forty years’ fool...has old Ahab been!" - Remedies

 

There's so much in this movie that is almost saying something.  Like there is nearly something in having both Wild Bill and Crazy Horse having to lose their famous names, but if the parallelism is even intentional it's not clear to what end.  And their final exchange about them being brothers that will be enemies if they meet again is setting them up explicitly as two sides of a coin, but it really wasn't earned in this narrative.  You don't see Wild Bill interact with any Lakota except Crazy Horse, and Crazy Horse doesn't interact with any white people other than Wild Bill and Charlie so this brothers divided thing just has to be assumed via extra textual knowledge of the ugly real life history.  

 

So if I were going to try to "fix" this as a thought experiment I think the first thing I would do would be to strengthen the connections between Wild Bill, the buffalo, and the Lakota.  Like what if the white buffalo was a manifestation of Bill's guilt over the shit he's done to the Lakota and, being a man of violence, his first instinct is of course to kill it.  And maybe the village destruction thing is not literal, it's part of his dream, and it's sort of him projecting himself onto this sacred symbol.

 

It could even be a thing, like I mentioned above, where he's just tracking down and killing all the white buffalo he can find, which is only making the dreams worse, as it's just more violence and symbolic violence against a Native sacred symbol at that.  You could jettison his coach ride and just about all of his random shootouts with Custer's troops or that frontier gang.  And maybe instead of saving Crazy Horse from the Crow, Bill saves him from other white people, something that he surprises even himself by doing.  This could be a first step towards repentance or redemption or whatever.  Maybe the dreams ease up a little after that.  

 

Then you could have Crazy Horse reluctantly leading him to the nearby white buffalo in return for Wild Bill saving his life.  They could bond and their conversations about their two peoples would be more relevant, and this setup would eliminate the two hunters coincidentally wanting the same thing for different reasons and stumbling into each other multiple times because the plot needs them to.

 

I think in this re-imagined version, though, Hickok has to not kill the white buffalo, realizing that he needs to try and break the cycle of violence.  (This would also make the end card reveal that he was murdered two years later hit harder.)  It would give Wild Bill an actual character arc, and one that involves the other main character.  You would have to be careful to avoid the Magical Negro trope, where a person of color only exists to help the white people with their folksy wisdom. 

It would be a version of Moby Dick where Ahab's moment of calm during The Symphony chapter sticks; he listens to Starbuck and they all survive, the poison worked out of his soul.

 

This would be a quieter movie, a sort of reverse Unforgiven (1992).  (A movie that I think is amazing, btw)

I think this would all still work, and maybe work better, if you just ditched the conceit that it's Wild Bill Hickok and Crazy Horse.  He could just be a gunfighter; it wouldn't take much to establish he's done some messed up stuff, and that information could be part of the reveal about what the buffalo represents.

Then if you wanted a stronger Moby Dick parallel, he could pull a Macbeth (i.e "I am in blood stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er") and go hard after the buffalo which then kills him.  

 

The Sharpened Stake

 

I saw this quote on Wikipedia regarding The White Buffalo novel, and it's amazing:

 

Reviewing the novel, [Washington Post reviewer] Larry McMurtry said Sale "chose a topic with great possibilities, turned it into a sharpened stake and proceeded to impale himself on it."  

 

This is pretty much exactly how I feel about the movie, so I guess maybe Sale did a good job adapting the essence of his novel?

 

Conclusion

 

I have now rambled about this film that no one has seen for [redacted] and if you told me I am now in the lead for "Words Written in Critique of The White Buffalo (1977)" in all of human history, I would not call you a liar.

 

This is a bad movie, but it has been the vessel for me to make some interesting explorations of one of the best things about being human: telling stories.  We've always told stories, and we're unique among the creatures of the Earth in our ability to even do it.

 

A movie of this scale and sincerity doesn't happen by accident; people worked hard on this.  Richard Sale wrote a novel and a screenplay and dozens, if not hundreds, of other people spent their time and millions of dollars to make this.  That this is so forgotten makes me a little sad.  

 

I know I said I can't really recommend anyone watch this, but that doesn't mean I think it should be lost.  It's the Lazarus Music Project impulse all over again.

 

Yes, this movie is bad.  But failed art is still art.  Good can still come of it.

 

And that to me will always have value.

 

m

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