Western Film WTF: Buffalo Rider (1978)

The 1978 film "Buffalo Rider" has recently turned into one of the best-known WTF Westerns online, thanks, almost exclusively, to an Austin Texas band called The Possum Posse redacting the film into five short videos (here's the first) and then simply describing the film in a twangy, musical voiceover. And that's probably the best way to enjoy the movie.

The movie is very loosely based on the life of a real man, Charles "Buffalo" Jones, an early conservationist who helped prevent the extinction of America's bison population, which was overhunted to such an extent that at one time there were only about 300 of them left. But when I say "loosely based," I mean "not at all based" — the only thing the film has in common with the story of Buffalo Jones is the name.

Instead, the movie is a series of Western set pieces based around the undeniably spectacular image of a man rising a bison. This was the result of the actor, Rick Guinn, having worked on a wildlife preserve in Utah and having actually taught himself to ride a buffalo.

There are scant additional details about the making of the film available online, and I have ever rifled through old newspapers and found nothing. If I had to theorize, I would guess that this was a project that sprang directly out of the nature preserve, and may have been an attempt to publicize its animals — I found an interview with Guinn who described the animals as semi-trained and intended for use in television in film.

The film very closely resembles "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams," which was made a few years earlier, similarly fictionalizes an actual Western story, likewise relies very heavily on voiceover narration, and likewise seems to sometimes wander away from the main action to become a nature documentary. I suspect the films are connected in some way, especially as both have their roots in Park City, Utah, but I haven't been able to connect them yet.

Although "Grizzly Adams" would go on to be a fitfully enjoyable television show, the Grizzly Adams film is a bit of a chore, feeling meandering and barely scripted. "Buffalo Rider" spends a little more time with its characters in jeopardy, and its central image of Guinn on a bison feels like it should be iconic, so the film is a bit more watchable. It really comes into its own in the last half hour, when Buffalo Jones goes after three buffalo hunters who have murdered a frontier family. He rides his bison directly into a saloon, twirling the beast around and firing his pistols, seemingly killing every man in the bar. A little later he chases down the lone survivor and tramples him with his bison. These scenes are tremendous.

But the film has its own problem, and it is this: It is impossible to watch and believe animals are not getting hurt. Perhaps the best comment on the film is on YouTube, where one watcher declared "All animals were hurt in the making of this film!" As an example, the film opens with a protracted buffalo hunt in which we see buffalo get shot and fall, writhing in what seems to be agony.

A Reddit source claimed to have been on the film and claimed these were trained buffalo: they had been taught to fall when hit by a rubber bullet. I'd like to think this is true, as I don't like the idea that bison were slaughtered on camera for the film. But there are other scenes that could not be faked, included several in which the bison ferociously kicks and gores wolves, and a disturbing battle between a raccoon and a cougar in which the cat tries to drown the raccoon.

These feel dangerously uncontrolled, and knowing as I do that there are animal preserves that accept money from hunters to kill animals on their property, and knowing as I do the sometimes troubled history these organizations have with abusing the animals in their charge, it makes the film an exercise in willing suspension of disbelief. One must choose to believe that no animals were injured or killed in the making of the film, because there is no outside confirmation to guarantee it, such as oversight from the SPCA.

Still, the image of Guinn on the bison is extraordinary, and I think should have a life outside the movie. There is a notoriously goofy monster design from a film called "Robot Monster," consisting of a gorilla costume with a diving helmet for a head, and that has taken on a life of its own — and it should, as the film "Robot Monster" is all but unwatchable. But the character of the Robot Monster shows up in all sorts of unrelated things, including fine art. The artist Robert McCann, as an example, has repeatedly turned to the Robot Monster in his apocalyptic paintings.

I'd love to see the Buffalo Rider becomes the same sort of thing, a free-floating image of the surreal West. The film is in the public domain, so, artists, have at it.


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