1960s, Action-Adventure, War

The Guns of Navarone (1961)


Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenwriter: Carl Foreman

By Roderick Heath

The Guns of Navarone began life as a story penned by Scottish writer Alistair MacLean, a former Royal Navy officer and World War II veteran. MacLean debuted as a writer with H.M.S. Ulysses, a gritty and nightmarish portrait of a doomed warship attached to one of the infamous Allied convoys supplying the Soviet Union during the war, based on some personal experiences. The success of his debut inspired MacLean to write another war story, but this time in a more adventurous and commercial mode. His story this time was loosely inspired by the Battle of Leros in the Dodecanese campaign, but also perhaps drew on memories of movies made during the war like Secret Mission (1942), Desperate Journey (1942), and The Adventures of Tartu (1943), slightly matured Boy’s Own tales about stranded warriors, secret agents and commandos eluding evil Nazis and destroying secret bases. The Guns of Navarone proved another bestseller when it was published in 1957, cementing MacLean as a preeminent popular writer of gamy thrillers until his death in 1987, with many movies good and bad adapted from his works. Enter Carl Foreman, screenwriter and film entrepreneur who had found fame writing High Noon (1952) just before being blacklisted and co-wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) with Michael Wilson uncredited, only to see the Oscar they sould have received for it given to the author of the source novel, Pierre Boulle, despite him not speaking English.  

Foreman began leveraging his epic Hollywood comeback by signing a production deal with Columbia Pictures as the blacklist was breaking down, and was given the book by an enthusiastic studio executive. Foreman was uneasy at first knowing it would be a hard movie to make, but he eventually pulled it off in grand fashion and made damn sure the movie was emblazoned as “Carl Foreman’s Production of The Guns of Navarone” in the credits and on posters. In adapting the novel, Foreman reshaped the material into something more ambitious and not so dissimilar to The Bridge on the River Kwai, introducing notes of ambivalence about war and greater depth to the characters as well as an emphasis on moral quandary that finally ends with a spectacular act of sabotage. Foreman also wanted to direct the movie, but Columbia refused, so he hired the great Alexander Mackendrick, of Ealing comedies and Sweet Smell of Success (1957) fame, who was on board with Foreman’s desire to make something more substantial out of MacLean’s material. But Mackendrick was fated to suffer repeated agonies in Hollywood, and a week before filming Mackendrick was fired with the evergreen “creative differences” excuse. On star Gregory Peck’s suggestion, Foreman then hurriedly hired J. Lee Thompson. Thompson was a rising star of British film with an array of recent, admired, superbly made films including the proto-feminist drama Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), the nuanced thriller Tiger Bay (1959) and blending war stories with adventure in North West Frontier (1958) and Ice Cold In Alex (1960).  

The Guns of Navarone proved Thompson’s Hollywood debut and gained a Best Picture Oscar nomination, a highpoint of a long and violently uneven career. Foreman for his part bankrolled the success into his own, more overtly antiwar survey The Victors (1963), which fell afoul of studio interference. Viewed from today, The Guns of Navarone seems chiefly notable as a movie that mediated the evolution of the relatively straitlaced and realistic war movie popular through the 1950s towards the birth of the modern blockbuster action movie. The Guns of Navarone anticipated and perhaps helped leverage the following year’s debut of James Bond in Dr. No, and later presented an obvious template for Star Wars (1977), with its select band of specialist heroes setting out to assault a seemingly impregnable enemy base and destroy a deadly war machine, as well offering a specific blend of cliffhanger action sequences kneaded into a larger story building to a pyrotechnic climax. But what distinguishes The Guns of Navarone from the myriad films its influence is stamped on is that more elevated element Foreman wanted to explore. In that regard Thompson was an ideal collaborator for Foreman, as he was extremely good at balancing action with tight, tense interpersonal stories. The sort of thing more recent Hollywood event movies dismiss as a tedious chore Foreman and Thompson took very seriously and essential to such storytelling, and the result defies the idea that a potent adventure film can’t also be thoughtful.

The opening moments of The Guns of Navarone promise a hell of a ride, whilst also presenting itself as a work of contemporary mythologising, “the legend of Navarone” that perhaps excuses some embellishing and larger-than-life details. Dimitri Tiomkin’s grand score, perhaps the best of his career, surges over a pre-credits prologue whilst the Scottish actor James Robertson Justice, who within the film proper plays the M-like spymaster Jensen, provides narration. Jensen explicitly describes the events as akin to the ancient myths of heroes and monsters born of the Greek islands, a modern echo of Achilles and Odysseus and Hercules, whilst the camera explores the ruins of classical temples overlooking Aegean-washed islands. The legend as he describes it begins when Hitler, trying to bully neutral Turkey into repeating history and joining the war on his side, orders a small garrison of 2000 British soldiers who have been holding out on the Aegean island of Kheros to be obliterated in a show of purposefully absurd force. The British decide to send in a flotilla to rescue them, but face one deadly roadblock: the Germans have installed two, colossal 15-inch naval guns in an old citadel on the neighbouring island of Navarone, controlling the only open strait to Kheros.  

With the clock ticking down fast and all other efforts failing, including a disastrous bombing raid that costs many airmen their lives, Jensen pulls together an infiltration team to land on Navarone and find a way to sabotage the guns. Jensen selects Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle) to lead the team, assigning him demolitions expert Corporal Miller (David Niven) whose job it will be to destroy the guns, with partisan Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren), and Chief Petty Officer Brown (Stanley Baker) along for added deadly force. To get them to Navarone and help scale the seemingly impassable cliff face on the island’s southern coast, the only unpatrolled landing point, Jensen flies in Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), a former, renowned mountaineer who’s been leading partisan operations in Crete. Mallory arrives at Jensen’s HQ in North Africa just as one of the Lancaster bombers sent on the raid crash-lands. Mallory, surveying photos of the cliff, feels it’s a virtually impossible task, but still agrees to do his bit and asks for Andreas Stavro (Anthony Quinn), his uneasy ally on Crete and a ranking Colonel in the Greek army, to be brought out to help him, only for Jensen to assure him they’ve already done so. Jensen, Mallory, and Franklin listen to the crews of the failed air raid, including their truculent Australian squadron leader Barnsby (Richard Harris, in a memorable, even star-making cameo) who punctuates his tirade against the planners of the raid with saying “ruddy” every other word. Jensen admits to Mallory that he’s the one who put them up to the raid, knowing it was pointless but still had to be tried.  

What war costs on both the most personal level and on the macrocosmic chart of human endeavour is a constant motif of The Guns of Navarone even as it sets up an officially heroic, thrill-a-minute story. Jensen muses with his adjutant Cohn (Bryan Forbes) on the grim necessity of someone in his job sending men off to die, fully expecting Franklin’s team to also be lost, the ships sent to rescue the men on Kheros to be sunk, and the garrison wiped out, whilst still being committed to try everything to prevent such ends. Jensen muses on the quality of the unexpected in such situations, the surprising, rarefied quality of the human that ironically requires such straits to emerge: “Slap in the middle of absolute insanity, people pull out the most extraordinary resources. Ingenuity. Courage. Self-sacrifice.” “With every one of us a genius, how can we fail?” Mallory frames it more ironically as he considers the team with all their particular talents, knowing well what a shit-show they’re heading into, in a war that generally seems inimical to individual identity and ability. Mallory finds Andreas waiting in his hotel room, a peculiar tension persisting between them despite being comrades who’ve been fighting alongside each-other for months. Later it emerges that Mallory gave a safe conduct to a German patrol to get their wounded taken care of after a skirmish on Crete, only for the Germans, desperate to kill Stavro as one of their most ferocious enemies, to shoot their wounded, go to Andreas’ house, and blow it up along with his wife and children. Andreas blames Mallory’s “stupid Anglo-Saxon decency” for his family’s death and has told Mallory he will kill him when the war is won.  

Mallory also encounters Miller, who has a line in forced joviality and has long refused officer rank despite his many famous missions, through his deep scepticism for authority and the kind of moral calculus men like Jensen indulge. Spyros was born on Navarone and knows the island, but emigrated to America where he learned deadly arts as a petty hoodlum. Brown meanwhile specialises in killing at close quarters with a knife and has antifascist credentials going back to the Spanish Civil War, where he gained his colourful nickname “The Butcher of Barcelona”. “I’ve been killing Germans since 1937,” Brown tells Mallory, “There’s no end to them.” Trouble is Brown is suffering burnout from such Sisyphean labours, and can’t bring himself to kill anymore: “You shoot a man at two hundred yards he’s just a moving target. You kill him with a knife, you’re close enough to smell him.” Mallory also describes Franklin to Andreas as a man “who still needs to prove to himself he’s a hero.” Whatever attitude problems and neuroses are lurking under the surface of the omnicompetent team are nonetheless of little consequence at first as they’re gathered on the island of Castelrosso, halfway between Cyprus and Rhodes. On Castelrosso, the team are briefly billeted with the garrison commanded by Major Baker (Allan Cuthbertson), a snootily officious British officer.

When the team are installed in a grimy room in Baker’s army post, Andreas’ survival wits are illustrated as he insists on searching for microphones. Nor is he unjustly paranoid: whilst they discuss their plans, Andreas catches them being spied on by a young man (Tutte Lemkow). Baker is fetched and he tells them the eavesdropper is the HQ laundry boy Nicolai, who supposedly doesn’t speak English and only talks to Andrea in an obscure dialect, to which Miller casually but acutely queries, “Then why was he listening?” Franklin tells Baker he wants Nicolai held incommunicado until the mission is complete, but Baker insists Nicolai be released. In response Franklin tells Spyros to shoot Nicolai and Baker too “if he gets in your way.” When the aghast Baker realises they means it, he backs down and has Nicolai locked up. This tense scene sets in motion a theme that winnows through what follows, noting the different kinds of command displayed by Baker’s empty, privileged bluster, versus Franklin’s generally easy-going manner that masks that he knows exactly when to take ruthless action and apply pressure when it comes to fulfilling his mission, even if it’s likely just to make Baker pay heed. Mallory’s different brand of cool poise and sense of impact is also sketched out. When Baker makes appeal to Mallory, he replies that he agrees with Franklin, but also doesn’t need to have Baker shot, just speedily shipped home as a private with one call to Jensen, a threat that makes a more subtle but possibly deeper impact on Baker.

The next morning the team boards an appropriately banged-up fishing boat procured for them to voyage to Navarone, per Mallory’s request, a vessel that so alarms Miller that he keeps reminding Mallory he can’t swim. On the way they’re intercepted by a German patrol boat in an unexpected area, making Franklin suspect Baker let Nicolai go anyway. The team maintain their parts as poor fishermen until the right moment when they unleash with hidden weapons, slaying all the Germans and blowing up their boat. After the fight Mallory notices when Baker flinches from stabbing a German he didn’t quite finish up and gets up with his gun, only for Spyros to blow him away. Later Baker explains how tired he is of killing and tries to avoid it when he can, only to earn Mallory’s rebuke that none of them has the right to be making a private peace, not least because it makes him untrustworthy to the rest of the team. “I do my job sir,” Brown protests, to Mallory’s retort: “Your job is to kill enemy soldiers.” Mallory’s learned that the hard way, as he explains Andreas’ threat to him and the reason for it to Franklin, as they sail at night to Navarone. As they near the island coast, a vicious storm whips up, driving the boat onto rocks. The team laboriously rescue as much of their equipment as they can before a rogue wave rolls in, dislodges the boat, and sinks it.

This tremendous piece of staging, accomplished with all the physical craft and energy required of moviemaking in those long-gone pre-CGI days, comes in a dizzy flurry of pounding white water and even in the relatively safe confines of a studio tank looks dangerous for the actors. And it’s only the start of the team’s true ordeal. The boat’s destruction forces Mallory, who had been promised a spell of leave after delivering the men, and Andreas to integrate with the team for the duration. Mallory succeeds in the agonising climb up the rock face, meticulously hammering in pitons and finding rock forms to make the ascent easier. Andreas ascends to help him, cueing a tense moment when Mallory slips and Andreas catches him holding dangling over a vast drop, awareness of a perfect opportunity for Andreas to carry out his threat, but instead helping Mallory get his grip again. Reaching the top, Mallory and Andreas are surprised by a German on patrol: they kill him, but when Mallory tries to bluff his way through a conversation on a field telephone with the German HQ, he doesn’t succeed, with soldiers dispatched. Whilst climbing the cliff, Franklin slips and breaks his leg. Whilst the others bring him aloft, Mallory, now ranking officer and so forced into command, considers the options of leaving Franklin for the Germans, carrying with them, or, as Andreas suggests, shooting him: “Better for him, better for us.” Mallory elects to bring Franklin along on an improvised stretcher, knowing they can rendezvous with local contacts at a nearby ruin and get them to look after him. As they trek into rugged, snow-clad mountains, they’re pursued by German patrols. Franklin tries to shoot himself, only to be stopped by Mallory, who tells him that Jensen has said on the radio that commandos are going to invade Navarone in two days’ time. Whilst the two men talk, Miller anxiously fingers his own pistol, ready to draw it if it appears Mallory is going to kill Franklin.

From the outset of The Guns of Navarone we’re assured every member of the team has something to contribute, some skillset that makes them invaluable, even if this assurance is picked apart as the story unfolds. As every plan is tested and found wanting by both enemy connivance, covert treachery, and bad luck, every character is bent in a direction they don’t want, improvisation is constantly required, and the real worth of all those skills is tested. In this regard the underpinnings of the story recall heist movies like The Asphalt Jungle (1949) and Rififi (1955), and indeed that’s exactly what the story is at heart. This aspect also distinguishes it from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and its Hollywood remake The Magnificent Seven (1960), films that by and large invented the basic modern blueprint for action movies about a team of warriors. The Guns of Navarone feels to me like the more immediate influence on most subsequent men-on-a-mission tales, a mode that would be taken to variously strange and hyperbolic places by the likes of Richard Brooks’ The Professionals (1966), Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun (1968), Andrew V. McLaglen’s The Wild Geese (1978), and both Enzo Castelleri’s Inglorious Bastards (1977) and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), as well as the likes of the TV series Mission: Impossible and subsequent movie adaptations. The film’s success also encouraged MacLean himself to recycle many elements for the script of Brian G. Hutton’s more serial-like Where Eagles Dare (1968). The Guns of Navarone’s influence even echoes in the early scenes of John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) and in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films and pervasively in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Its impact on Star Wars was reiterated by Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One (2016). And, of course, Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker’s Top Secret! (1984) couldn’t exist without it.

The vignette of Mallory trying to fake his way through the phone conversation with a German was the obvious inspiration for the famous scene of Han Solo doing the same in Star Wars, although the model plays it in a cagier manner, the German on the other end of the line slightly puzzled by not hearing the right code words, but not giving anything away until after the call is ended and then hitting the alarm. Whilst the climactic scenes surge with swashbuckling vigour, Thompson also does his best to keep the film grounded in realistic physicality and problem-solving wit from its heroes: nobody ever gets too clever, and when the characters take damage it’s hurt they feel. The characters are also treated with rare seriousness, in a careful set-up of dramatic stakes that don’t combust until the last third. The triangulation of Andreas’ sternly pragmatic, even ruthless sensibility, Miller’s humane and antiauthoritarian streak, and Mallory’s attempts to walk a centre path however crooked, provides a backbone of drama, amplified by less consequential but still substantial elements as Brown’s moral exhaustion and Spyros’ wild, almost berserker aspect when let loose in war, contrasting his rather boyish façade. His sister Maria (Irene Papas) proves to be their partisan contact on Navarone, catching the men unaware when they’re distracted by another female partisan, Anna (Gia Scala), who Spyros knocks out when they catch her flitting around their camp in a ruined monastery. Upon recognising her brother, Maria walks up to him with a smile of surprised delight, and then, remembering she’s angry at him for being away so long, slaps him in the face – a moment Spielberg conspicuously lifted for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Papas enters the film with her usual, leonine presence, a promissory note for a future generation of action heroines, holding the team at bay for a few moments with a machine gun before admitting they’re obviously not Germans. She cares for her friend Anna, who, as she explains to the team, was recently captured and brutalised by the Nazis – “They whipped her until the white of her bones showed” – but survived the ordeal without breaking and is now one of the partisans’ assets, although she hasn’t spoken a word since her captivity and has never shown anyone her scars. The two women join the team as they hike towards the town of Mandrakos, in the hope they can get medical aid for Franklin there. During a rest pause in an olive grove, Miller tells Mallory that Franklin’s leg has become gangrenous and needs amputation. Brown also asks Mallory to give him another chance as a fighter, as Mallory’s been relegating him to menial tasks. German soldiers roll up and start firing mortars at them, and Stukas bomb them as they flee up a canyon and find refuge in a cave. At last they manage to enter Mandrakos, Andreas, Maria, and Brown taking Franklin to a doctor, whilst the others sit quietly in a café where a wedding party is being held. But both groups are quickly captured by Germans, who zero in on them with suspicious exactitude.

Thompson’s career arc wasn’t a pretty one on the face of things, moving from being considered one of 1950s British cinema’s most exciting and truly cinematic talents to one often dismissed as downright bad by the time in the 1980s when he finished up making potboilers for the beloved/infamous Cannon Films in the 1980s. Thompson’s aura of professionalism was both a problem and a virtue when it comes to summing up his career, but his rock-solid visual force never degraded even when making Charles Bronson shoot-‘em-ups. Thompson was known for his peculiar, loose, almost improvisatory approach to filming, all leveraged on set through such force of personality that Peck called him “Mighty Mouse.” Thompson certainly made a lot of unremarkable movies during his career, as well as many that were terrific and more than a few that became worthy cult films. Thompson was particularly confident and innovative in using the widescreen frame, apparent throughout The Guns of Navarone in his constant attempts to keep the relations between the members of the team enclosed within his frames on the churn, and use of looming actions against deep focus shots. One great example of this comes when Spyros starts enthusiastically fixing a silencer to his pistol when Franklin orders him to kill Nikolai, Spyros in the foreground, Baker standing in between him and his prey with puckered anxiety, with Mallory gazing on impassively to one side: there’s painterly precision to Thompson’s images and yet they contain energy and barely stifled movement as well.

Thompson also displayed a consistent fascination with interactions with sharply diverging worldviews, whose collisions ultimately drive his best films. Tiger Bay revolved around the disparity between its child heroine’s perspective on a fugitive she falls in with and the reality of his situation. North West Frontier, nominally a straightforward imperial-era chase yarn, spared a deal of time and depth exploring its microcosmic characters and evoking the motives of its villain, a biracial Muslim desperate to prove his identity, clashing with the more officially humane but also smug personalities around him. Cape Fear (1962) was a film that anticipated both later slasher films and concerns with violence and vigilante reprisal in 1970s and ‘80s thrillers, as it portrayed a sleazy psychopath intimidating a prosperous lawyer and family man, trying to provoke him into abandoning his civilised ideals. Thompson would go on with his unexpectedly strong foray into Horror cinema proper, Eye of the Devil (1966), to a similar theme of a man sacrificing himself in a dark religious rite for the sake of fulfilling his role as lord of the manor. His perverse thriller Return From The Ashes (1965) hinged on the incomprehension of a holocaust survivor trying to resume ordinary life with the more petty brand of murderous zeal she encounters. Even oddities like his two entries in the Planet of the Apes series and the unique horror-western The White Buffalo (1977) would spend time allowing iconic representatives of warring factions in the American West to argue through their different perspectives on history and society. In The Guns of Navarone this proclivity found exactly the right material, as Thompson weaves the more serious concerns of Foreman’s script throughout, finally combusting when Mallory reveals to the team, after they’ve been forced to finally leave Franklin with the Germans, that the story he told him about the upcoming invasion was false, and he hopes the Germans will give him a dose of scopolamine to extract it from him, on the theory that it will spare Franklin  torture but also to make the Germans commit their forces in distraction. Miller is appalled nonetheless when Mallory tells him this, questioning what would happen if they skipped the scopolamine and just went with torture: “Oh, I misjudged you – you’re really rather a ruthless character aren’t you, Captain Mallory?”

The obvious riposte is that all those things would happen to Franklin anyway and indeed the only way to save his life, but Mallory doesn’t take that out, instead stating it was the only way to get the job done, his way of living up Jensen and Franklin’s credo as a leader. “I just hope that before this job is over I get the chance to use you the way you used him,” Miller declares, and you just know he’ll get his wish. Thompson and Foreman also allow some hue of moral complexity to enter from the German side of things too. After the team is captured in Mandrakos, they’re interrogated by a cool, clinical officer, Muesel (Walter Gotell), who nonetheless disdains brutality. He is quickly supplanted by SS man Sessler (George Mikell), a more familiar kind of evil Nazi, who slaps Andreas when he claims to be a poor Cypriot fisherman forced into the team’s company, and provokes not just the heroes when he threatens to hit Franklin’s injured leg with his sidearm but also sparks Muesel’s angry outburst. “We’re not all like Hauptman Sessler,” Muesel comments to Mallory later, and also deftly stands up to Mallory’s threat to have him shot if he doesn’t give up information, “You would not hesitate to shoot me for any number of reasons – in any event I will not tell you.” Andreas proves the key to the team escape this seemingly impossible situation, with his fisherman act. He pretends to be violently ill and rolling around the floor when Sessler starts tormenting Franklin, angering Sessler and distracting the Germans sufficiently for the team to attack suddenly and overpower their captors. A terrific little part for Quinn that deftly conflates different kinds of improvisation: “What a performance,” Miller comments, to Andreas only waving his hand in a so-so gesture.

The team’s visit to Mandrakos also allows a slightly corny but tone-varying vignette of the men, all ill-shaven, hunched-over mystery, suddenly enjoying an idyllic moment with the townsfolk during the wedding celebrations, the island’s native culture and love of life still sustained amidst occupation. Spyros reveals a decent voice as he sings a verse of a folk song for village musicians (actually written by Tiomkin), and a small girl comes over to the team to hand them some flowers, unfortunately at the same moment Muesel leads in a detachment of Germans and levels guns at them, a moment of vaguely surreal contrast that crystallises the imminence of indiscriminate bloodshed. The team surrender, but Mandrakos suffers an ugly fate anyway, as the Germans destroy the town in reprisal for the team’s escape, an act of vandalism and contempt that eventually drives Spyros to wildly self-destructive acts. The narrative encompasses such constant knock-on effects of choices and aims even as the urgency of the mission and the moral imperative behind it aren’t forgotten, but different people have different ways of feeling their way through the murk, as Miller summarises when he angrily upbraids Mallory, “I don’t know the men in Kheros, I do know the man on Navarone.”

Spyros’ eventual death in combat in the climactic scenes provides self-satire aimed at the kind of shootout scene Foreman so memorably formulated on High Noon. Amidst the chaos unleashed by the team and their local allies as the climax unfolds, Spyros and a German officer confront each-other with glazed, fanatical facades after Spyros has killed the German’s men with a grenade and Spyros is looking for revenge for Mandrakos. The two enemies march at one another, letting spray with their machine guns until they kill each-other. “He forgot why we came here,” Andreas tells Maria when she asks him how her brother died. The scene reads as a moment of self-critique from Foreman, as if dismayed by some of the more straightforwardly reactionary readings of High Noon. Meanwhile the sort of love interest often jammed into such a story is presented only to eventually be given a ruthless twist. Andreas faces the slightly blindsiding confession by Maria that “I like you,” a marvellously oblique moment of courtship befitting two hard and worldly survivors nonetheless finding a connection. Mallory on the other hand has a passionate tryst with Anna when she sneaks out of the monastery chamber they spend the night in whilst he’s on guard duty, and she approaches him, growing teary-eyed as he communicates his angst to her after Miller’s tirade over Franklin, before they kiss. But when the presence of a traitor in the team’s midst becomes undeniable after Miller finds all his explosive detonators sabotaged just before they’re going to take their all-or-nothing assault on the citadel, Miller quickly winnows the likely culprit down to just one person – Anna.

The scene that follows is quite epic in its depiction of moral responsibility and brutally clashing viewpoints that close off all options but the worst. Miller is proven right when Andreas strips Anna to show she has no scars and she weepily confesses to having turned to collaborating because “I cannot stand pain,” and seduced Mallory because she needed to cover up her foiled attempt to sneak away. Miller argues forcibly that Anna can’t be left alive because she knows all their plans, and with relentless relish argues to Mallory that he should be the one to execute her, as the officer and gentleman who gets to make the hard decisions but leaves it to the little men to actually perform: “Why don’t you let us off for once? Come down off that cross of your, close your eyes, and pull the trigger.” Mallory, facing up to the challenge despite its ugliness, stands over Anna and pulls out his pistol: Miller moves to make a last-second intervention, but both men are forestalled when Anna is shot dead by her comrade Maria, whose execution is at once more truly fitting and even more painful. Quinn and Papas make a brilliant little moment of Andreas reaching out to comfort Maria as she’s hit by a squall of feeling after her stone-faced execution, only for him to not quite be able to meet her eyes.  Of course Quinn and Papas would be reunited a couple of years later in Zorba The Greek (1964).  

Niven and Peck are also at their best here, with Niven’s Miller given the crucial scene of theatrical bravura, first pacing through a pastiche of a detective’s drawing room exposure of a criminal, before being called upon to articulate Foreman’s scepticism with his signature spindly, hangdog charm turned to angry purpose. Mallory finally works up to a fine pitch of anger as the smoke clears, informing Miller that his free ride in terms of responsibility are at an end, waving his pistol at him and telling him to find some way of setting off his explosives: “You’re in it now up to your neck…You get me in the mood to use this thing, or by god if you don’t think of something I’ll use it on you!” A notable moment if not least for seeing Peck, who would win an Oscar a year later for playing the most equable of personalities, playing one here driven to a pitch of ferocity that is also focused enough to literally level a mountain rather than expend itself fruitlessly. At other points in the film Peck is more awkward: Mallory, who was a New Zealander in the novel, is also supposed to be fluent in Greek and German, but Peck obviously couldn’t quite manage that, but nonetheless he has just the right gravitas to play a thoughtful but grimly committed hero.

Despite all the quarrels Mallory’s gamble pays off: the commandant of the citadel garrison orders Franklin injected with scopolamine after Sessler’s had some fun torturing him, and with Franklin giving up the details in his subsequent daze, the Germans scramble the bulk of their forces out of the citadel and down to the shore, whilst Mallory and Miller drive in in a captured ambulance, almost getting crushed by tanks in the frantic activity. Meanwhile Maria and Brown head off to steal a boat to ferry them off the island whilst Andreas and Spyro set out to create havoc amongst the remaining garrison troops, gaining some help from locals who shuffle out of a tavern and start pulling tricks like using fishing nets to dismount motorcyclists. Mallory coolly kills a couple of guards overlooking the doors to the cavern where the guns are mounted, and he and Miller manage to get inside, locking the doors at the cost of setting off an alarm. Whilst the Germans outside try everything from sledgehammers to jackhammers and finally a welding torch to penetrate the doors, Miller plants several explosive devices, including one hidden under an elevator designed to be set off by the descending lift’s runner, as well as one disguised as a rat and hidden under one of the guns: when a soldier plucks it out, the device proves only to be a fizzing firecracker, burning out harmless to the soldier’s heavy breath of relief.

Of course, all discursion and complication in the film are only part of a long arc building relentlessly to a climax, which unfolds on multiple stages and finds punctuating tragic ironies in Spyros and Brown’s deaths. Brown meets his end as he again holds back from killing a German guard on the motorboat he and Maria set about stealing. When the guard begins shouting for help, Brown finally stabs him and muffles his cries, but the German retains enough life to pull the knife out of his gut and stick it in Brown, who expires on a note of desperate pathos. Miller and Mallory flee the gun cavern by sliding down ropes into the ocean and are picked up by Anna, whilst Mallory helps pluck the wounded and exhausted Andreas out of the ocean with a boathook, Andreas hesitating as he sees the deadly implement wielded at him by the man he threatened to kill, but finally grabs it and is rescued. Meanwhile a flotilla of British destroyers come sailing up the strait. Thompson saves special relish for building tension as the guns are finally glimpsed up close by the heroes, with Tiomkin’s music underlining the awe and fear of these weapons of mass destruction, Mallory and Miller dwarfed by them. After they escape, the Germans reclaim the guns and dig out all of Miller’s devices save the one in the elevator shaft, and tension mounts mischievously as Thompson keeps noting the lifts descending but stopping short of the trigger wires, whilst the guns let loose with all their hellfire and start straddling the British warships, forcing them to start manoeuvring.

George Lucas would directly pinch the moment of special relish here for Star Wars as the German commander speak the command to fire, this time certainly to hit and sink one of the destroyers, just before the lift makes contact and sets off the blast. The resulting explosion of the magazine rips the top off the mountain and the two mighty guns plunge into the ocean, whereupon the warships release whooping siren sounds and the sailors cheer the heroes riding to join them. Franklin in his hospital bed, roused by the sound of the explosion shattering the ward window glass, is gripped by tears of joy. Success breeds peace for the surviving heroes: Andreas and Miller both make their peace with Mallory, and Andreas offering his hand to Mallory to shake as he announces he’s heading back to Navarone with Maria to fight with the partisans. Even here the film doesn’t forget its diastolic quality, shifting to a mood of weary and stunned reflection, finding strange, post-apocalyptic beauty in the sight of the burning citadel of Navarone, a Pharos for the sailors seeking out their comrades. Miller and Mallory exhaustedly confess they didn’t think it could be done, viewing their titanic handiwork with the glaze of tired men, earth-shakers worthy of myth and just two more shit-kickers in the grand and impersonal business of war. Thompson interpolates ghostly images of the dead and absent members of the team over the ships passing by the burning mountain, with Tiomkin offering a gentle choral requiem on the soundtrack, and the film fades out with evocation of loss as well as triumph. A last flourish to remind that The Guns of Navarone is the quintessential wartime adventure film, and also more than that.

1970s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Western

The White Buffalo (1977)



Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenwriter: Richard Sale

By Roderick Heath

Horror films and Westerns long seemed utterly irreconcilable genres. The Western engages official mythologies of nation, history, and society, where the Horror film tends to set them in happy disarray. Horror films court anarchic impulses and dwell in zones of psychological figuration, where Westerns roam large in the world and usually operate by rigid moral parameters. And yet the two genres wield some definite affinities. Both depend upon generating atmosphere as a tangible force, a sense of being at extremes beyond the reign of normality, at the mercy of a random and hostile universe, and often involve clashes of firmly demarcated good and evil enacted by supernormal characters. Horror elements creep through some apparently upright Westerns, including John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Richard Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1969), particularly when dealing with the anxious threat of the Native American as the menacing Other surging out of the vast prairie night. The rise of the Spaghetti Western injected Gothic imagery and a spirit sometimes verging on death worship, and entries like Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968) have strong doses of savage violence and semi-surreal weirdness very close to Horror in nature. In the late 1950s a proper fusion of the two genres was born, dictated by commercial inspirations in combining two ever-popular styles for patrons of drive-ins and grindhouses.


The results of this fusion were usually pretty lame if not outright ridiculous: Edward Dehn’s interesting but hesitant Curse of the Undead (1959) kicked off a run of gunfighter-versus-monster films, like William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1965) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966). It wasn’t until the 1970s that some sort of fruitful union of the two began to appear, usually with Western imagery providing a kind of septic spiritual backdrop to Horror, on the likes of The Velvet Vampire (1971), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Race with the Devil (1975). The ‘80s and ‘90s saw some vigorous attempts to fuse the forms, with the likes of Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996), and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) all calling back to the classic stand-offs of the old school Western with their own wilful tweaks. Most of these films were set in contemporary times, placing them in deliberate tension with the aura of historical remoteness that once again links the Western and the Gothic Horror mould. Wayne Coe’s Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) tried more concertedly to find middle ground for the classic genre moulds. In recent years Horror Westerns have become relatively plentiful as trashy home viewing fodder, but S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) gained real admiration as a rich and gruelling entry that truly understood where the overlap between the genres lies.


But The White Buffalo is perhaps the strangest entry in this rarefied mode, and my favourite. Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis was trying to carve out a place for himself in Hollywood in the mid-1970s, and after his interesting if garishly misjudged remake of King Kong (1976) looked to gain commercial traction with tactics well-thumbed in the Italian film industry in particular, by making some oddball cash-ins on recent successes, in this case Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1975). De Laurentiis produced two ambitious, eccentric derivations, The White Buffalo and Orca, the Killer Whale (1977). Orca was the rather more stridently trashy and weird of the two, marrying King Kong’s sympathy-for-the-beast trip to a sub-Herman Melville plotline and going far over the top in its man-versus-beast action. The White Buffalo, on the other hand, was based on a 1974 book by experienced screenwriter and novelist Richard Sale. Both films feature not just battles with marauding animals, but notably strong themes derived from fashionable concerns for ecology and pro-Native American sympathies. Both feature the Muscogee actor Will Sampson, who had gained a measure of stardom thanks to his part as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).


De Laurentiis hired Sale to adapt his own novel which was published before Benchley’s, and drew more meditatively on their common inspiration, Melville’s Moby-Dick. Sale was an arch professional, but he had evinced an interest in bizarrely spiritual adventure tales with his early novel Not Too Narrow…Not Too Deep, which was filmed under the title Strange Cargo (1940), depicting escaped convicts battling their evil impulses under the watchful eye of a Christlike stranger. The White Buffalo transferred Melville’s scenario to the Old West, and converted it into a metaphor for the clash of civilisations enacted on the western plains as well as the looming death worship underscoring much Old West mythology. Rather than going for any of the young tyros lighting up Hollywood at the time like Spielberg, De Laurentiis preferred proven professionals to helm his Hollywood forays, often nabbing seasoned British directors, having employed John Guillermin to make King Kong and Michael Anderson on Orca. For The White Buffalo he hired J. Lee Thompson. That Thompson had just worked with the film’s star Charles Bronson on the nifty LA noir flick St. Ives (1976) probably helped. Thompson, like Sale and Bronson, was a weathered old salt of the sound stage. Orson Welles famously dissed him for that once, but Thompson probably took it in his stride, as he was one of those rigorous, skilful, no-bullshit talents who used to make film industries go ‘round.


Thompson, who came from a theatrical family and made his start as a playwright, had served as a tail gunner during World War II. He decamped from Britain to Hollywood after gaining international attention with exactingly crafted, vividly composed movies like Ice Cold In Alex (1958), Tiger Bay, and North West Frontier (both 1959), and soon gained a Best Picture Oscar nomination with The Guns of Navarone (1961). Thompson had a real knack for action-adventure films, often with stories involving small groups overloaded with bristling personalities travelling through dangerous and remote zones, expertly diagramming both group dynamics and faultlines of social perspective as well as his action sequences. But he took on just about every genre in his time, and revealed surprising ability at horror on Eye of the Devil (1967), a film that transmuted Thompson’s feel for colliding worldviews for a rather different genre realm, as did the cruel but memorable post-Holocaust melodrama Return From The Ashes (1965). Commercial stumbles in the late ‘60s with Mackenna’s Gold (1968) and The Chairman (1969) saw Thompson sink down the Hollywood totem pole. Thompson nonetheless continued to prove himself invaluable in bringing energetic camerawork and expert storytelling to an odd raft of films, including the last two Planet of the Apes films. Thompson fell into regular collaboration with Bronson until the late ‘80s when Thompson wrapped up his career ingloriously with films like Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989).


The White Buffalo itself was a little too weird for critics and audiences in 1977 and not quite weird enough to gain a cult following. Nonetheless it represents an apotheosis for the ‘70s style of “mud and blood” Western, taking the genre’s new grittiness and outsider empathies up to the threshold of a hallucinatory terminus. It might be one of the offbeat Westerns ever made, but it’s also one of the last not afflicted with any hint of self-conscious nostalgia for the genre’s rapidly fading heyday, whilst also tackling some of the issues causing that wane head-on. Sale’s concept had some felicity, as the notion of a white, monstrous beast representing death is a common one in folklore: Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer (1953) had tackled a version found in Sami legend. Here Sale offers it unabashedly as cosmic invocation of the annihilating force unleashed by colonialism and race war, as well as the eternal, personal frontier of reckoning with fate. In a manner reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936), the narrative yokes together famous figures of Western lore, in this case the gunfighter James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok (Bronson) and the great Sioux war chief Crazy Horse (Sampson), who both are predestined in their own way to chase down the eponymous animal.


Hickok’s spur is a recurring dream in which he sees a snowy clearing in the woods, the monstrous animal stalking him in the moonlight with terrible purpose. So terrifying is the dream that Hickok often awakens firing off the pistols he sleeps with: he’s lucky not to kill anyone on the train taking him west when he does this, as the bunk above his is unoccupied. Hickok travels under the pseudonym of James Otis, as he’s not keen to advertise his identity on the frontier after a sojourn to New York, considering that so many people want to claim his scalp for the sake of specific grievance or the desire to make a name. The train conductor, Amos Bixby (Douglas Fowley), recognises him easily and reassures him that the last known albino buffalo was recently shot dead by hunters: such creatures, exceptionally rare, were a prized and valuable prey for hunters. But a white buffalo is certainly at large in the Black Hills of the Dakotas. Hunter and prospector Charlie Zane (Jack Warden) barely escapes a small avalanche the powerful beast sets off, and then it charges pell-mell into an Oglala Sioux camp, leaving gored warriors scattered and killing the small child of Crazy Horse and his wife Black Shawl (Linda Moon Redfearn). Stricken with grief, Crazy Horse is renamed Worm by his father, and told to placate his daughter’s spirit and regain his true name he must kill the buffalo and bring back its hide to wrap the child’s body in.


When he arrives in Cheyenne by train, Hickok is soon forced to fight for his life when a local Cavalry commander, Captain Tom Custer (Ed Lauter), brother to the better known Colonel, arranges with some of his loutish underlings to ambush Hickok and kill him as payback for an old altercation that saw Hickok kill two of his men. A barman, Paddy Welsh (Bert Williams), who upbraids Custer for his self-serving memory and unsporting purpose, tosses guns to Hickok, allowing him to blow away the soldiers and forcing Custer to flee. Hickok quickly moves on towards the frontier, catching a stagecoach on to Fetterman along the Bozeman Trail, driven by Abel Pickney (the inevitable Slim Pickens) and also carrying Winifred Coxy (Stuart Whitman) and Cassie Ollinger (Cara Williams). Hickok threatens Coxy over using bad language before the lady, but when she releases a string of cuss words Hickok gives up and tries to sleep. The white buffalo itself is hardly the only threatening thing on the loose in the stormy night. When Hickok catches Coxy about to kill and rob him, he forces the cad out of the coach despite the man’s desperate appeals for mercy, and he’s quickly shot dead by Crazy Horse, who tracks the stage’s passage. Crazy Horse later tries to snipe at Hickok when Pickney pulls up beside a pair of dead gold miners left on the roadside. The war chief’s bullet misses Hickok and the gunman drives him off with a fusillade from his pistols.


Thompson stages this sequence, the familiar Western situation of a stagecoach journey with some disreputable characters, with a nightmarish lilt, as the conveyance trundles laboriously along muddy roads in pouring rain with lightning flashing, half-seen menaces dashing through the shadows. Mortality is so discounted out in these leagues neither Hickok nor Pickney are terribly bothered when they have to load frozen corpses onto the stagecoach roof. Thompson picks out vivid images of cruel death, in the astounding sequence of the buffalo’s charge through the Sioux camp as the beast’s horns gouge out eyes and rip open bodies in gory flash cuts, and when Coxy lolls in the mud and rain, hands smeared in his own blood. Snowfall turns nightmare to fairy tale but death is just as arbitrary, as Hickok learns when he realises the unfortunate Cassie has been killed by Crazy Horse’s bullet meant for him. Arrival at Fetterman in the bleary, mud-strewn morning finds old coot Amos Briggs (John Carradine) burying two men who killed each-other in a fight, inspired seemingly by one swearing he’d seen the white buffalo. Hickok visits local madam and former flame “Poker” Jenny Schermerhorn (Kim Novak), who’s following the frontier with her special services. But Hickok takes his leave of her after another nightmare of the buffalo sees him blast away the fake white buffalo head she hangs on her bedroom wall.


The White Buffalo carefully builds up mirroring aspects to Hickok and Crazy Horse, noting that both men are using pseudonyms in trying to avoid their worldly status whilst pursuing their private missions. Each deals out annihilation with casual ease although neither sees himself as an aggressor – Hickok blows away Custer’s soldiers trying to kill him just as Crazy Horse shoots men intruding on his land and fights off a rival tribe’s braves. Both are dogged by enemies from their own nominal nations as well as the foes they’ve unstintingly earned in the frontier wars between Europeans and natives, and the two finally move into wary mutual respect and friendliness when Hickok decides to help Crazy Horse fend out some of his Indian enemies. But they’re also propelled by very different urges. Hickok is pushed towards his confrontation with the beast by the call of his own dream-world communion with death, whilst Crazy Horse has a far more personal motivation, driven to avenge his daughter in the same way he’s obliged to protect his ancestral homelands from the invading whites. Hickok has a dose of syphilis slowly corroding away his body and mind and can’t stand bright light. The pair of vintage dark glasses he perpetually wears to remedy this are reminiscent of those worn by Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Hickock is unsure at first whether the prophecy he seeks to fulfil is real or just a product of his decaying wits. He fends off Jenny’s amorous advances although, as she comments, “I probably dosed you myself.”


Thompson and Bronson’s collaboration seemed to be fuelled by a strong suggestion of mutual recognition, a sense transmuted into the film and Hickok and Crazy Horse’s screen amity. Bronson praised Thompson’s to-the-point style and economy on set, something a coal miner’s son made good like the former Charles Buchinsky appreciated. Beyond that, both men seemed to share an understanding as talented guys who nonetheless found themselves increasingly reconciled to servicing an ever-narrowing notion of what they were good for, and continuing to work for the sake of sheer professional cussedness. Bronson had become a big star in the 1970s playing variations on the terse-talking, stone-faced, death-dealing persona he’d perfected in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), including in huge hits like Death Wish (1974), but sometimes he tried to stretch his persona and occasionally reminded moviegoers he had a latent romantic streak and a talent for dry comedy on movies like St. Ives and the wonderful From Noon ‘Til Three (1976). Bronson’s Hickok probes Bronson’s screen persona as a dealer of death and picks up the same notion of the Western hero who finds he’s live long enough to become a victim of his own legend as in From Noon ‘Til Three. Hickok has just returned from performing on the New York stage with Buffalo Bill Cody, serving up that mythology to audiences. Now Hickok tries to outrun his one real talent, as a killer, returning to a territory where the myth is still being played out and the costs on the intimate, human level still flagrant.


Identity is a performance in The White Buffalo, but the typecasting also runs deep. Novak’s Poker Jenny affectionately calls Hickok “Cat-Eyes” for the mesmerising beauty she once saw in his killer gaze, most ironically, when he was in the heat of battle rather than love. Sale seems to have taken some licence from the encrusting of folklore that built up around Hickok in particular, like the fact that he supposedly had odd premonitions, like fearing Deadwood would be the last town he would visit – the new settlement is mentioned fleetingly by Zane – and of course the totemic meaning of his legendary last hand of aces and eights Hickok would hold before being shot in the back. So, here Hickok is a protagonist drawn on to his duel by prophetic dreams and blessed with an intimate relationship with the great beyond. Aspects of The White Buffalo anticipate Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996) in conjuring a spiritual western, where adventure out into the wilderness becomes an allegory for confronting mortality. Both films regard with horrified fascination the mountains of bones built up by buffalo hunters, engaged in wiping out the food source for the unpliable plains nations, and consider the American West as a vast amphitheatre of annihilation. Charlie Zane reports to Hickok seeing the white buffalo standing off the other Custer and his 7th Cavalry soldiers at a river crossing, bringing the touch of imminent demise to them too.


“You know what I hate more than anything else in this world?” Hickok asks Zane as he contemplates the inevitable journey out into the mountains to court his destiny: “Even more than dying? Being afraid.” Mastery of death, the honed talent for dealing it out, is in Western mythology necessary for life, for civilisation and order to take hold; that’s the essence of the genre. But it’s also, equally, a fact that must be put to bed as soon as its end is accomplished, the corollary to the myth enacted in many a movie like Shane (1953) and The Searchers. “It was like you were fighting Armageddon with Satan himself,” Jenny declares after Hickok’s riddled her bedroom walls with bullets following one of his dreams, and though the fight with the real buffalo appears to only be a confrontation with a wild animal, its seems to have just such a spiritual import. The demonic bull awaiting Hickok and Crazy Horse becomes a mystical task only two titanic death-dealers can take on, the task of putting down the rampaging incarnation of death, in order to give some sort of peace to the anguished spirit of the place and allow the possibility of eventual peace. Hickok seems to unconsciously sense this as he ruefully considers the chance of developing a real rapport with Crazy Horse, although a ticking time bomb threatens to wreck their amity: Hickok is considered a callous and committed enemy for shooting dead one of their chiefs, a man who was called The Peacemaker. Before he properly encounters Crazy Horse, Hickok survives another attempt to shut his eyes, this time at the hands of the hulking “Whistling Jack” Kileen (Clint Walker), out for vengeance because one of the soldiers Hickok shot down in Cheyenne was his son.


Hickok meets up with Zane, an old comrade, in a memorably bustling, grimy tavern for miners called the Frozen Dog, a place where men line up to sleep with the couple of frazzled prostitutes on hand and otherwise get drunk and gamble; it’s the standard frontier dive as rendered by Breughel or Bosch, one even Peckinpah and Altman might have turned their noses up at. Zane helps Hickok blow away several of Kileen’s gun-toting friends, and the two head out into the mountains, trying to keep a step ahead of further reprisals as well as track their quarry. Hickok falls in with the ornery Zane, who has a glass eye and a general contempt for Indians, one that Hickok protests he shares, and yet he soon proves to be surprisingly proficient in the courtesies of Native American negotiations as he deals with Crazy Horse. The war chief pays back Hickok for his help by saving him from Kileen when he ambushes Hickok and keeps him pinned down, riddling Kileen and his confederate with arrows after sneaking up on them by pretending to be a wolf. Knowing the white buffalo is close after it gores one of their tethered horses, the hunters settle down to wait out a snowstorm and hammer out their fractious philosophies around the campfire.


The White Buffalo has an odd rhythm at first, almost tripping over its own feet in rushing through early scenes and utilising some patched-on narration by Fowley to fill in the gaps, probably the result of studio tampering to get the film down to its current runtime of just over an hour and a half (Thompson and Bronson’s follow-up Caboblanco, 1980, would be more seriously wrecked by this). But rather than being gutted, this only seems to have compressed the film’s essence, managing to evoke a sense of the Wild West that is, in its way, as epic and disorientating as something like Apocalypse Now (1979), with which it bears kinship as a trek towards the edge of human experience enacted as a physical journey, a succession of vignettes illustrating a zone of life where history and morality are in a state of flux. Thompson’s highly mobile, often lunging camera, mediated by DP Paul Lohmann, heightens the feeling of being constantly dragged on by a current through a flooded cave. Sale’s brand of frontier lingo with its blend of archaic grammar and salty directness is constantly in evidence (one favourite line, from Carradine, in explaining the cause of death for two corpses he’s burying: “This one with the moccasins allowed as how this one was a fork-tonged lying asshole.”)


One aspect that ties The White Buffalo together with authority is John Barry’s superb score, evoking in the opening dream sequence a sense of foreboding, a mood that pervades the entire film; indeed, it’s one of the great Horror movie scores. Discordant strings hint at the presence of numinous influences and lurking fear, whilst deep, sonorous brass signifies the force of the buffalo and what it represents. One of the film’s finest moments comes when Thompson stages a breathtaking long-range zoom shot that pulls back as Hickok dashes down a snow-clad slope in pursuit of his foe, revealing the small and hapless human amidst a vast mountain landscape under roiling storm clouds, Barry’s music surging with grand, sepulchral menace. The cathedral of nature is a place where Crazy Horse’s mode of spiritual understanding reigns, and communing with the wind and sky and the stone bulwarks means negotiating the dreams dark and light of the universe, and the path of the white buffalo leads Hickok into Kileen’s trap. There was some irony in Thompson finding his niche in action films given that his wartime experiences had left him a considered pacifist. But that tension surely informed the particular strength of much of his work in the adventure film mould, as he thrived on depicting microcosms where characters come into conflict because of violent schisms in their most stubborn faiths.


Situations like the cross-country train trip in the midst of a religious war in North West Frontier and the problems of using expedience against epochal evil versus personal feeling in The Guns of Navarone were ideal for Thompson, although he could also wield it in a setting like Eye of the Devil, where adherence to a pagan faith clashes with traditional religion and modernity but unsettles both with fervent promise. Here this manifests in the uneasy endeavour by Hickok and Crazy Horse to understand each-other’s perspectives is one of the most interesting and meaty attempts in any Western to depict such a negotiation. Hickok ripostes to the Sioux chief’s claims that they were given their territory by divine providence that his people won in conquest over neighbouring tribes, and that the white man is only doing the same thing. Crazy Horse counters in turn that at least they did it honourably. “That’s a thing called progress.” Hickok states, to Crazy Horse’s sharp retort: “It’s a thing called greed.” Finally Hickok tries to warn Crazy Horse, to Charlie’s delight, that no matter what kind of stand he makes, sooner or later the whites will swamp his nation with sheer numbers and terrible weaponry. Crazy Horse declares his intention to die trying, but he and Hickok nonetheless make a pact of brotherhood and not to fight each-other in the future, much to Charlie’s disgust. Nonetheless Crazy Horse has no intention of leaving the white buffalo to them, and he sneaks out in pursuit of the beast. But all three men are destined to converge on a landscape Hickok recognises in shock from his dream, and declares, “If this is the night I was born for then so be it.”


The buffalo itself is seen fairly early in the film as it rampages through the Sioux camp, but lurks for much of the time glimpsed in fragmented close-ups of a balefully glaring eye and curling maw. The animal was cleverly realised in animatronic form by Carlo Rambaldi, who would gain repute a few years later for creating the title character of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982); it’s a little marvel of pre-CGI monster making. Thompson offers astonishing images of the buffalo charging through underbrush, barrelling out of the night and careening by the hunters: Hickok seems to have a perfect shot at the beast but realises too late his trigger’s become caked with ice, and almost finishes up skewered on its horns. The hunt builds to the grand moment reminiscent of John Huston’s film of Melville, when Crazy Horse manages to spring onto its back and stabs its hump furiously with a handful of arrows, red blood caking white fur, until it throws him and bounds away. The hunt proves a real battle but also one invested with a ritual quality, hinted at through Hickok’s premonitions and the way the buffalo behaves, sneaking up on its foes as if just as determined to wipe them out as they are it. Finally a few quick-draw shots from Hickok manage to bring the buffalo down just before it crashes into him and Crazy Horse.


The White Buffalo was widely criticised upon release for not spelling out what the symbolic thesis is here, but to me, that’s precisely what makes it so intriguing, as the underlying drama is constantly suggested and delineated without needing to be overtly stated. D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death dream at the heart of the frontier warrior legend finds a suggested purpose as legendary gunfighter and war chief perform their allotted metaphysical task, enacting blood rite and spiritual cleansing. Hickok defends Crazy Horse’s right to take the hide nonetheless to an outraged Zane. The coot stomps off after accidentally letting slip Hickok’s real name to Crazy Horse, who declares with sad solemnity to the gunfighter that although they’re now brothers in spirit they can’t ever meet again without being obliged to enact their roles as avatars of their societies, “and we will both solve the great mystery.” The film fades out to fake tintype images of the two men, noting the similarity of their ages and the fact both would soon be murdered. As the film would have it, they succeeded in reining in the dominion of the death dream, but at the cost of offering themselves up as sacrifices to the violent gods they were committed to worshipping without understanding why. The White Buffalo stands as a unique achievement for both the Western and the Horror film in the way it manages to outdo the likes of Sergio Leone and Mario Bava on one crucial level, by leading both back genres to the same inception point in primal mythology, the battles of culture heroes with the monstrosities born of perverted natural order, given a new and coherent shape in terms of history.

The White Buffalo .can be viewed here.