Directed By: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Charles Bronson, Jack Warden, Will Sampson
Tag line: "Two legendary enemies unite to fight the charging white beast!!"
Trivia: Kim Novak earned $50,000 for just 3 days work
Equal parts action and mythos, 1977's The White Buffalo is an exciting, thought-provoking western, but it’s the superb cast that makes it so unforgettable.
The year is 1874, and Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson), using the alias “James Otis”, sets out on a quest to find the animal that has been haunting his dreams: the elusive, and very deadly, white buffalo. His journey will carry him deep inside territory controlled by the Cheyenne, who don’t take kindly to trespassers (especially white men). Joined by his old friend Charlie Zane (Jack Warden), Hickok trudges deep into the snowy wilderness to find and destroy the white buffalo. But he’s not the only one after this rare creature; Chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) of the Sioux nation, whose infant daughter was killed when the Buffalo attacked his village, also plans to bring the great beast down. Realizing they have a common enemy, Hickok and Crazy Horse form a temporary alliance, but which of them will be the first to finish the job?
Equipped with a pair of shades and his usual bad-ass attitude, Bronson gives a terrific performance as the legendary Hickok, who is bound and determined to see this adventure through to the end. Like a good many western heroes, Hickok has his dark side (his hatred of Native Americans caused him to gun down an innocent man, making him the enemy of all local tribes), and the dreams he’s having of the white buffalo may be the result of a lingering illness (he contracted syphilis from a prostitute years earlier). Still, despite his flaws, Bronson’s Hickok is a stand-up guy, and never backs down from a fight; at one point, he’s jumped in a saloon by troops loyal to his longtime adversary, military officer Tom Custer (Ed Lauter), but manages to finish them off with a few quick shots.
In addition to Bronson, The White Buffalo also features Native American Will Sampson, who has an undeniable screen presence (which served him well in his two most memorable roles: the deceptively mute Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the helpful Medicine Man Taylor in Poltergeist II: The Other Side). Joining them both is the always reliable Jack Warden as Hickok’s loyal friend Charlie Zane, an old codger who dislikes Native Americans even more than Hickok. The movie also has its share of awesome celebrity cameos, including Slim Pickens (as a riled-up stage coach driver), Kim Novak (as Poker Jenny, a former flame of Wild Bill’s), Clint Walker (as Whistling Jack Kileen, who has a score to settle with Hickok), and John Carradine (appearing in a single scene as a undertaker with an Irish Brogue).
As with most westerns, The White Buffalo has some exciting shoot-outs (aside from the showdown with Custer’s men in the bar, there’s a tense sequence where Hickok, Zane, and Crazy Horse face off against 15 heavily armed Native Americans). Yet the film’s most thrilling moments involve the titular creature, the white buffalo, which remains something of a mystery throughout. Director J. Lee Thompson did a great job building suspense in the scenes featuring the buffalo, and was careful not to show the creature itself to often (it was obviously animatronic). Throw in the excellent cast, and you have what amounts to an intensely entertaining ‘70s western.