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When the Academy gave a special award to Dino de Laurentiis in 2001, the Oscar montage thrown together to honor him had some real problems... such as, what exactly were the Italian producer's great contributions to filmmaking? They couldn't use all clips from the Federico Fellini films he'd produced, as he had basically served as a moneyman. In looking for English language pictures the Academy might recognize, the picking got even thinner: Barbarella? Mandingo? The 1976 King Kong? %nbsp;There in the middle of the montage was a shot of Charles Bronson facing off with a monster in The White Buffalo, a notorious 'bad' movie that probably did well enough in 1977 but went on everyone's list as a major embarrassment.
I've ignored this Bronson show for almost 40 years now, but Kino's new Blu-ray gave me an opportunity to watch it under controlled conditions, where my friends wouldn't catch me. Much to my surprise, it actually has some good qualities. The monster is as dumb as I was led to believe, but the movie is straightforward enough to pass amid the actor's other movies of the seventies, which are holy ground to his fans and class-A junk to most critics.
Veteran author and screenwriter Richard Sale's story sketches the end of the plains Indians in bold images. Retired from town taming, Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) travels to South Dakota to get in on the gold rush. He goes by the name James Otis, to avoid residual resentments from earlier gunfights when he was a law officer. But a disgruntled Army officer (Ed Lauter) sends his men to ambush Bill in a bar. What's really bothering Bill is his nightmares of a giant buffalo that the Indians call Tatonka. He has learned that the monster is real, and has killed both whites and Indians, and he talks one-eyed Charlie Zane (Jack Warden) into accompanying him into the snowbound mountains to track it down. They're pursued by another vindictive bushwhacker, Whistling Jack Kileen (Clint Walker), but form an alliance with Crazy Horse (Will Sampson). The Lakota warrior is on his own vengeance mission, having lost his daughter to the white buffalo. If he can kill it and take its hide, his daughter's spirit will be laid to rest.
One of the early images in The White Buffalo are huge piles of bleached buffalo bones by the railroad tracks. They are all that remains of the huge herds that once roamed the plains, but have been wiped out by hunters brought by the railroad. The movie is dramatically thin, but this image links up with the white monster and the vengeful Crazy Horse to give it a thematic shape. Why Charles Bronson should have dreams of a monster smashing through walls of ice isn't as clear. Did he personally shoot a lot of buffalo... in the back? Was he subconsciously guilty for taking Jill Ireland away from David McCallum?
Bronson is at least consistent. His most promising vehicle of the 1970s, the 'ironic comedy' From Noon 'til Three was let down by blah acting and direction ... the song by Elmer Bernstein and Marilyn and Alan Bergman is still a marvel. Bronson's Wild Bill Hickok is a hero we can get behind, even if he wears funky eyeshades that remind us of Vincent Price in The Tomb of Ligeia. He has good relations with Will Sampson's towering Lakota warrior, staying true to their bond despite Charlie Zane's deep-set hatred for all Indians.
De Laurentiis' clout as a producer shows in the cast list, as the film is packed with name actors, mostly in bit parts. They seem carefully chosen so as not to upstage Bronson. Slim Pickens drives a stagecoach (what else?), Stuart Whitman is a drunk, Cara Williams his sluttish consort and John Carradine little more than a passerby with a distinctive booming voice. Douglas Fowley (he's in everything, look him up) wears a nice white beard for a pleasant part as a train conductor. Clint Walker is a treacherous vengeance seeker with a slightly bigger part. The main casting coup is Kim Novak as Poker Jenny, an old flame who immediately tries to get Bill into bed. It turns out that this 'PG' rated Bill isn't quite as wild as he used to be -- he's lost interest in such things after getting a serious 'dose' somewhere along the line. To our dismay, the direction avoids giving Novak a screen shot lasting more than three seconds. Her line readings never sound natural.
Although the film's dialogue is never bad, it is distractingly stylized, almost like hardboiled detective patter transferred to the Wild West. Everybody talks in goofball idioms and 'colorful' expressions. A buffalo is called a 'spike', and news gets around Indian territories on the 'moccasin telegraph'. "He's made brag he'll turn your lights out if ever he sees you again." "Prettier than a nine-teat sow, ain't she?" "Old timer, I'm looking for a glass-eyed goose hisser named Charlie Zane." Westerns usually save this stuff for sidekick codgers like Walter Brennan, but here it's as thick as Cockney rhyming slang.
Bill proves himself worthy in a couple of shootouts in bars and up on some snowy slopes with long barreled rifles. But the main battle is saved for the titanic Tatonka terror. The White Buffalo was probably given a go-ahead as one of the many spawn of Spielberg's Jaws, and de Laurentiis commissioned a mechanical buffalo monster for the film from Carlo Rambaldi, who created the Oscar-winning mechanical monkey effects in the previous year's King Kong remake. 1 Rambaldi's Big Buff is basically a motorized mockup with limited movement. It runs on a rail hidden by snow and low-lying fog. When it charges all we see is the thing bucking like a mechanical horse in a country bar. Its front legs and hooves move fairly well, and the thing blows steam out of its mouth and nostrils. In the first few cuts it is pretty effective, until one realizes how limited are its movements. It bucks and puffs, and that's it. The editor must cut the film into chop suey for a scene of the White Buffalo wiping out an Indian camp. When the head woggles in close-up, the thing doesn't seem alive at all. Extreme close-ups of its red eyes are more impressive, mainly because they relate to Wild Bill's fever dreams. 2
The big fight with the monster is somehow okay even though it never begins to convince. If we haven't already realized that the Big Buff is a placeholder for Melville's white whale with the personal vendetta against a certain peg-legged sea captain, we do now. As the Big Buff moves in straight lines it seems like Wild Bill and Crazy Horse are fighting a fluffy white railroad engine. When the wild and crazy Crazy Horse leaps onto its back and stabs it with spears like Ahab of Olde, the absurdity is complete.
Unlike J. Lee Thomson's later efforts for The Cannon Group, when he must have been contractually required by Charles Bronson, The White Buffalo is competently directed. It's better than Michael Winner's Bronson movies, if not as good as Don Siegel's Telefon from a couple of years later. At least the movie has the courage to play things straight, which means not undermining itself with reflexive jokes or opting for an 'everybody dies and you're next' cynicism. John Barry's score can't do much to elevate things but his long low notes do sound ominous. Cinematographer Paul Lohmann filmed several Robert Altman films and does what he can with the sound-stage representations of snowbound nighttime forests. For the concluding battle The White Buffalo dressed the entire Bronson Canyon with trees and snowdrifts, and lit the whole thing for night.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The White Buffalo is a clean and colorful encoding of this odd '70s vehicle for Charles Bronson. I saw only one shot that had distracting grain; perhaps it had to be duped from a secondary source. The location footage and the scenes filmed on artificial sets don't really match but everything is well photographed. The Barry music score comes across cleanly.
A trailer is included. It would intrigues six year-olds but for anybody but a Bronson fan makes the film look a turkey to avoid.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The '76 Kong is of course a total crock, despite the excellent gorilla suit artistry and mime of makeup effects man Rick Baker. A full-sized Kong robot was filmed but looked so feeble and moved so poorly that it was utilized only for flash cuts, where it ruins the illusion anyway. I should ask Randy Cook to write up his experience witnessing the filming of de Laurentis' giant "at- 'sa my Kong!" mannequin: a sneaky delegation of young effects people squirreled themselves into the group of extras assembled for the Culver City shoot of this scene, and the stories I heard were pretty funny.
2. While working on Close Encounters in 1977 we did some front-projection tests on one of the large MGM stages. There was zero filming activity on the lot, so effects supervisor Richard Yuricich talked us into sneaking onto a couple of de Laurentiis's sound stages. In one was the interior/exterior forest set for The White Buffalo with its dry 'snow' that looked worse than a Christmas store display. On film it doesn't look at all bad. They must have made a huge quantity of the stuff to cover all of Bronson Canyon. The White Buffalo was up on its track, not looking very impressive. To be fair, in the movie there are three or four isolated shots that work really well.
Behind some construction in the large stage was something VERY impressive, Carlo Rambaldi's giant Kong arm and hand. It looked really good up close, with nicely scaled hair. The black rubber for the fingers and pads of the palm looked real, too. If I remember correctly, Yurcich or someone else joked that the sculptor or Rambaldi must have been a pervert: each fingertip was shaped a bit like a penis. Just saying. No insult to gorillas or Italians intended.
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T'was Ever Thus.