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Non-Review Review: The White Buffalo

I’m sure there must have been a good movie in there somewhere. The story of Wild Bill Hickok hunting down the wild white buffalo from his nightmares through the Old West could have been a compelling one, even if it’s hard to imagine it ever being a classic. Instead, the movie is hackneyed cheese-fest that seems uncertain what to do with itself. It doesn’t help that Charles Bronson, sleepwalking his way through the production, gives the best performance of the film. If that’s not a bad omen, I don’t know what is.

What a load of bull...

White Buffalo is an adaptation of Moby Dick (though the production material seems to suggest Jaws) set in the Old West, and featuring “Wild Bill” himself. I know what you’re thinking – that’s just crazy enough to work! I know that you’re thinking that because that’s what I thought as I stuck it on. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t nearly as outrageous and insane as the concept seems to suggest, instead ending up boring and cheesy, a dangerous combination.

Charles Bronson plays Wild Bill, heading out West and haunted by “a deadly dream that was eatin’ out his soul”, as a truly terrible opening monologue informs us. I’m generally fairly kind to performances, because I don’t like to be especially mean, but the actor playing the conductor – the first character in the film to converse with Wild Bill – is terrible. And so are most of the Native American cast, who sound like they are reading their dialogue off prompt cards. All of this adds up to make Bronson seem like the strongest member of the cast, without even a hint of self-aware irony.

You'll wish you were dead...

Bill is haunted by dreams of the Beast, which torment him as he sleeps. We know that they torment him because he wakes up starts shooting holes in anything around him. It clearly isn’t the first time that it has happened (and it happens more than once in the movie), which actually makes this sort of hilarious. I couldn’t help but imagine Bill visiting a sleep therapist and being given the sage advice to simply not sleep with his guns in his hands. Or, you know, at least warn the people who are kind enough to give him room and board. The fact that he knows that he’s risking massive property damage (and even manslaughter) every time he nods off doesn’t seem to faze Bill, and it makes it unintentionally hilarious.

The film can be split into two halves. The first sees Bill head West through a variety of poorly conceived and executed Western clichés, and is borderline unwatchable. The scenes are executed with no real energy or enthusiasm as Bill stumbles his way through the landscape encountering iconic figures like General Custer. Brawls break out for little or no reason, with no real depth or complexity. To give you an idea of how convoluted the set-up is, at one point Wild Bill finds himself involved in a showdown between former officer Jack Killeen and bartender Brady who may have sold some Native Americans some booze before a firefight. That’s a tenuous personal connection  to hold a grudge over at best, and seems strange that they should just happen to overlap as Wild Bill travels through town. the first half is a genuinely terrible mess of a film.

Snow escape...

The second half fares only slightly better, because it has a much stronger narrative hook: Wild Bill and his sidekick ally themselves with a Native American in order to kill the buffalo in the dead of winter. It’s a lot clearer, a lot more concise, and doesn’t seem as pointless and haphazard as everything that came before it. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat hampered by two major factors. The first is that the buffalo looks incredibly silly. It’s a rejected Doctor Who special effect at the very best, and that’s if I’m being generous. It’s hard to take something serious as a threat when it looks like it’s dancing towards us.

The other, and perhaps more serious, problem is the way the movie handles Native Americans. It seems to be attempting to build a rapport around the two, and to send the message that the Native American and the settlers need not be enemies if they can find common ground. Even in the seventies, this was a nice idea to have articulated in a Western, a genre that traditionally cast the Native Americans as murderers and savages.

Looking pretty buffalo...

However, the film insists on condescending to Wild Bill’s Native American companion. The character speaks in the types of clichés we expect from outdated portrayals (“we must make our water on these stones”), but it also has Bill patronisingly explain to his new friend that the future belongs to the settlers. It’s a hell of an awkward conversation, as Bill states that the future of America used to belong to the Native Americans, but is now solely in the hands of the settlers. It feels like the movie is attempting to justify the treatment of the Native Americans through an outdated expression of the “Manifest Destiny” doctrine. The movie immediately loses any credibility it might have built up.

White Buffalo feels like a waste, a poorly thought-out exercise that could have been a nice bit of pulp historical adventure, but winds up being boring and offensive – a seemingly impossible combination, if you ask me. At even an hour-and-a-half, it’s far too long.

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2 Responses

  1. Sounds like something I have to see! You make even a cheese-fest sound interesting! A bowl of popcorn, a bottle of wine! What could be better than dinner and a movie? But seriously, how could you think Charles Bronson as Wild Bil Hickock could make for an interesting film? He looks like a character from the Addams Family.

    • With a lot of wine, it might be doable. The buffalo prop looks like it’s dancing! Seriously though, the first half is terrible. The second half is much better, but still riddled with cheese and some unfortunate implications.

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