Weird Westerns: White Buffalo (1977)


Charles Bronson stars as Wild Bill Hickok, accidentally teaming with Indian leader Crazy Horse in a hunt for a mythical bison in a film that (perhaps accidentally) has a lot to say about colonialism. 

By Max Sparber

"White Buffalo" is an enormously odd film, and it is an oddness that you might find fascinating or grating. The film tells of Wild Bill Hickock in his latter years, hunting a massive albino bison that haunts his dreams, and the bison is a remarkable creation.

The film was produced by the ever-weird Dino De Laurentiis, who had recently produced a version of "King Kong" that made a series of exaggerated promises about the monster being a life-sized robot; in fact, the 40-foot hydraulic beast was barely used, and instead the film mostly featured makeup man Rick Baker in a gorilla suit.

But with "White Buffalo," the central monster is a robot, or, more properly, an enormous puppet. It's really a remarkable thing, designed to charge with a great rising and falling motion like waves crashing. It's entirely unconvincing, but there is an similar marvelous unreality to the whole film, a stage-like quality, heightened further by the fact that much of it was shot on soundstages and looks it.

I wish the filmmakers, realizing how artificial the film looked, had taken their failings and made it their aesthetic. Among the first genuinely American theatrical forms were Western melodramas that featured enormous sets and manufactured stage action. In fact, Wild Bill Hickok had a period in his life in which he starred in these shows. The filmmakers might have said, well, let's make it look like one of those shows.

They almost did, by accident. Hickok is played by Charles Bronson, who was then old enough to play a gunman who might be a little too long in the tooth for this sort of adventure. The costumers dressed Bronson both outrageously and accurately, with twin pistols tucked into a sash around his middle, which Hickok actually wore, and sunglasses with leather flaps, which the real Hickok had started wearing onstage, perhaps because stage lighting irritated some chronic eye problem. It's a snowy Western, set in South Dakota, and so Bronson alternates between fringed buckskin when it's not too cold and a buffalo coat when it is, and in both he looks like some deranged fashion designer's idea of the West.

Bronson teams with two men. The first is a one-eyed mountain man, played by character actor Jack Warden, who makes a superb mountain man, or, at least, has one of the best mountain man beards in film history: It's long and but blunt cut, while his mustache, which is enormous, flows over it like a waterfall cascading down a mountain. In a film that is already theatrical, it's the most theatrical element. The facial hair is so impressive that I would watch a film just about Jack Warden's mountain man beard.

They accidentally team up with Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse, played by bronco buster turned actor Will Sampson, a full-blooded Creek Indian (to the film's credit, all the Native roles seem limed by Native actors). Crazy Horse has his own mission to hunt to the buffalo, which was responsible for an appalling attack on a Lakota camp that mostly killed women and children, including Crazy Horse's daughter. It feels as though there is some metaphoric significance here, with the bison representing Manifest Destiny, but it isn't explored. Instead, Crazy Horse takes on a new name, Worm, and goes to exact his revenge.

Both Bronson and Warden are nakedly racist, but Bronson develops a fast appreciation for Crazy Horse when they mutually help each other out in an ambush; it helps that neither know who the other is. Weirdly, despite their racism, both Bronson and Warden demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the culture of Plains Indians, with Warden being able to speak and translate some Lakota while Bronson knows their sign language. The three form an uneasy alliance (really uneasy; Warden keeps fingering his rifle like he will shoot Crazy Horse the moment he gets a chance), although they are in competition to kill the bison.

Much of the film is oversized and unreal, like the albino bison, who is represented as the last of his kind; early one, as Bronson enters a South Dakota town, he passes a literal mountain of bison bones, which he looks at with mute disbelief. (This suggests the white buffalo might also represent the Native Americans, but a symbol can't both stand for Indians and White people; that's too much.) The film is populated with oddball Western actors, often only present for a scene or two, including Slim Pickens and John Carradine, and the Western towns are genuinely rough-and-tumble, teeming with so many frontier psychopaths that guards must be propped up in high places in saloons with shotguns, like prison guards, to keep the peace.

Even Hickck seems to barely be keeping it together. He's played by Bronson with his usual curt cool, but he frequently wakes from dreams of being gored by the white buffalo, and he wakes with guns in each hand, shooting wildly.

The film's language is similarly exaggerated and stylized, with everyone speaking a Western argot that is probably supposed to sound authentic, but instead sounds as manufactured as anything in a Coen brothers film. Watching a table full of desperadoes that are likely to make a move on him, Hickok narrates the events. "Brady will send the kid over with a couple of free bottles of Oh Be Joyful," he says, and a young man heads to the table with whisky. "When he gets there, he'll drop the world like a buffalo chip," Hickok says, and we see the young man whisper in the desperado's ear.

It's like the all the way through the movie, and starts to develop an unexpected subtext. The screenwriter, pulp author Richard Sale, has the Indians speak typical film Indian talk, but by the end of the movie everyone is doing this, as though the encroaching white man wasn't just eliminating the indigenous population and the game meat they relied on, but was actively absorbing the Indians, dressing like them, acting like them, and speaking like them.

The titular White Buffalo is treated as being somehow supernatural throughout the film, but the most supernatural thing is how vampiric the Whites seem, how thoroughly they steal from the Indians and then blind themselves to their theft. It's something I have never seen in a film before or since, and I don't know that it was put in this film deliberately.

But when you have Wild Bill Hickok dressed in buffalo skins, on Indian land, communicating in Plains Indian sign language, and having extensive discussions about Indian philosophy with Crazy Horse while both engage in a mystical hunt for an animal seen as sacred by Indians — well, there's not much else Hickok can take from the Indians.

I follow a lot of Native Americans on social media, and they often like to share a graphic that points out techniques of genocide, and points to colonialism as being a driving force in genocide: Indigenous people are dehumanized, and their cultural products become seen as just being another resource to be extracted and marketed, with the products having no intrinsic meaning and their creators having no unique claim on the product.

Indian names, Indian foods, Indian language, Indian land, Indian culture — all of it is taken from the Indians and presented as something anybody might claim, and this continues to this day, in the names of sports teams, in the use of Native clothes as fashion accessories, in Native religions being marketed to whites.

I've never seen this represented on film before, and I'm not sure it was done deliberately here. But the film nonetheless addresses a phenomenon that still seems very contemporary: How can someone simultaneously be obsessed with another culture and still despise it? How could, as an example, Milo Yiannopoulos boast about his sexual encounters with Black people and yet still trade in racism; how could Trump have a Jewish son-in-law and yet still be antisemitic; how can the pick-up artist community, which is obsessed with women, still be so deeply misogynistic?

The answer is the same as it is in the movie, in which White frontiersmen dressed, talked, hunted, and, in a lot of ways, lived like Indians, but also despised Indians. It's because this mimicry is not rooted in respect, but in the sense that these people have, or are, a resource to be exploited, a resource that is owed.

The more a colonist is obsessed with you, the more trouble you are in.


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