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

The White Buffalo (1977)

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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 great western 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.
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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 Craig S. Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) gained real admiration as a rich and gruelling entry that truly understood where the overlap between the genres lies.
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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).
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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 hardy 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.
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Thompson, who came from a theatrical family and made his start as a playwright, had served as a tail gunner during World War 2. 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 into a different zone, 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).
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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 great 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 take bright light, and the pair of vintage dark glasses he perpetually wears 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.”
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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.
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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 great 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 great 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.
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“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 great 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.
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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.
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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.”)
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One aspect that ties The White Buffalo together with great 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 greatest 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.
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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 great 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 tell Crazy Horse, to Charlie’s delight and Hickok’s rueful warning, 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.”
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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.
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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 great 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.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Western

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenwriters: Edward Anhalt, John Milius (uncredited: David Rayfiel)

By Roderick Heath

John Jeremiah Garrison “Liver-Eating” Johnson was one of those authentic characters of the American West’s history who nonetheless occupies a blurred zone between fact and legend. Born in 1824, Johnson became one of the strange breed of wandering trappers and traders called mountain men in Western mythology, after he deserted from the US army during the Mexican-American War. In later years he served during the Civil War, worked in various law enforcement jobs around Montana, and died in Santa Monica, California in 1900, a month after finally entering a retirement home for veterans. In between these reasonably verifiable incidents in his life, Johnson survived by hook and crook, trying his hand in dozens of professions and money-spinning endeavours, becoming the subject of campfire tales and popular legend along the way. The defining event of his life, and his myth, was a twenty-five-year-long blood feud with the Native American Crow nation, sparked when some of their warriors supposedly killed his wife, a woman of the Flathead nation. Johnson supposedly defeated untold numbers of their braves and committed the purposefully blasphemous act according to Crow belief of eating the livers of his felled foes, before eventually making peace with the tribe.
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In the late 1960s Western films began to change radically. After years of being annexed by Italians and over-plied on television, its great stars aging or dead, and many of its fundamental assumptions held in dubiety by the rising new zeitgeist, the genre seemed ready to slide into pompously moribund irrelevance. For a while, however, a fresh, eccentric, wilfully heretical breed of Western film suddenly appeared on the scene, armed with a revisionist outlook and shot through with countercultural questionings of both the historic and current states of America whilst often trying to call back to the cultural roots of the genre with greater authenticity. Sydney Pollack’s take on Johnson’s life isn’t as celebrated today as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) or Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1972), but it stands with them as an exemplar of the breed. If Pollack’s adherence to an ethic of chic entertainment eventually made him entirely too safe and tony later in his career, his first decade’s work in particular remains startlingly strong for the way he managed to blend this ethic with the verve of genuinely rich and inventive cinema, achieving rhapsodic intensity in his best work.
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Pollack’s work with actor Robert Redford eventually defined much of both men’s careers, and began with Jeremiah Johnson, with Redford playing a role far out of his familiar character zone and yet echoing through his career to his solo role in 2013’s All Is Lost, where he played a similar self-exiled wanderer who has given up the world of men but finds that self-reliance entails facing great existential terror. Pollack’s film was made in uneasy collaboration with the spikiest of the young talents in New Hollywood, John Milius. A more peculiar collision of talents is hard to imagine. Milius, the self-appointed wild man of the Movie Brats, had steeped himself in frontier and outlaw mythology, and as he kicked off his directing career with Dillinger (1973) he also gained attention writing Jeremiah Johnson for Pollack and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1973) for John Huston. Milius was hired by Warner Bros. to try and wrangle a workable script out of Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker’s biography of Johnson, Crow Killer, and accomplished the feat by working in material from Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man. Milius’ love of rambling narratives that move in obedience to the happenstance rhythm of folklore might have seemed a tad too eccentric at first glance and Pollack fired him, hiring the experienced Edward Anhalt in his place during production, only to then be obliged to rehire Milius because only he could handle the stylised, old-timer idiom of the dialogue.
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Jeremiah Johnson became a passion project for Pollack and Redford, who both eventually mortgaged their houses to help get it made, and some of it was shot on Redford’s Utah property. They were rewarded when it became the first Western ever in competition at the Cannes Festival, and became a big, surprise hit. Jeremiah Johnson extended a theme Pollack explored repeatedly as he depicted various periods in history and portrayed deeply alienated individuals at odds with official mythologies in each. Such characters ranged from the pathetically marooned protagonists of Castle Keep and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (both 1969) and the radicals of The Way We Were (1973), the conscientious spy hero of Three Days of the Condor (1975), the rebellious rodeo man of The Electric Horseman (1979), and the cross-dressing wannabe of Tootsie (1982). Even Pollack’s Oscar-winner Out of Africa (1985) to a certain extent offered a gender-flipped take on Jeremiah Johnson as it portrays Karen Blixen’s introduction to a land that serves as cradle for personal transformation.
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It says as much for the mood of 1972 as much as Pollack’s efficiency in erecting the essentials of the story that it takes little to explain why Johnson wants to leave behind civilisation and the company of human beings for a solitary existence relying on his own muscle and wit (and it might well explain why it feels a tad appealing now, too). A quick glance at Johnson’s faded military trousers, a store sign that invites white men only as customers, and a general sense of disgust with civilisation is quite easy to grasp. Johnson steps off a boat and takes only what he needs to survive up into the Rocky Mountains, “the marrow of the Earth” as one character calls them. Johnson is hardy but inexperienced in fending for himself, and his early travails confirm his lack of bushcraft, his fires doused by snow, his attempts to fish by hand ending in humiliation as he’s watched by a silent, grim-faced Crow warrior on horseback, a man he will later know by the name Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquín Martinez): so pathetic a figure does Johnson cut that the great warrior decides he’s not threat and rides on. Johnson knows his life in the mountains depends on the forbearance of the local native populaces, so he makes a gift of hides he’s collected to Paints-His-Shirt-Red. He obtains a longed-for article, a .50 calibre Hawken rifle, when he comes across the frozen body of a predecessor named Hatchet Jack, who, with legs broken in a struggle with a bear, took the time to pen a will explaining the story and bequeathing the weapon to whoever finds it.
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Johnson soon encounters the prickly, long-experienced mountain man ‘Bear-Claw’ Lapp (Will Geer), who specialises in hunting grizzly bears for their hides, and chews out Johnson upon their first meeting for scaring away one of his quarries with his blundering ways. Bear-Claw gives Johnson a rude introduction to his own sense of humour as well as the vicissitudes of grizzly hunting as he deliberately lets one chase him into his cabin and leaves it to Johnson to deal with the critter. Johnson nonetheless sticks with Bear-Claw for a time as the old-timer schools him in survival in the mountains. After he takes his leave, Johnson encounters a tragic scene: a frontier cabin with two children left dead and scalped by some Blackfoot marauders, leaving their mother (Allyn Ann McLerie, in a brief but extraordinary performance) a distraught, unhinged wreck. When she threatens the interloping Johnson with a rifle, he manages to placate her (“Woman, I am your friend.”) and helps bury for the dead children, prompting a cruel miniature lampoon of John Ford as mother and man sing a ragged version of “Shall We Gather at the River” over the graves: the “civilising” march, which Ford so often used that hymn to denote as having arrived in the frontier, here has outpaced itself in the ugliest way possible. Johnson finds she has a third child, a young boy who can’t or won’t speak, and the woman thrusts the lad upon him with a vague assignment to get him away so she can maintain her mournful vigil. Johnson takes the boy in hand, naming him Caleb.
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Johnson’s picaresque encounters see him, in a fashion anticipatory of Steven Spielberg’s fascination for pick-up families, piece together the rudiments of a quasi-normal life, forging odd and spiky friendships with men like Bear-Claw and shaven-pated nut-job trapper Del Gue (Stefan Gieresch), performing neighbourly acts for the crazy lady (his using a boot sole as an improvised hinge for the cabin door is one of the film’s marvels of throwaway detail), before finally gaining a son in the form of Caleb and then a wife and setting up a home. Johnson’s first encounter with Gue is a surreal moment as he and Caleb find him buried up to his neck in sand, victim of robbery and misuse by the same band of marauding Blackfoot warriors that killed Caleb’s siblings. Johnson digs Gue out and agrees to help him take back his stolen articles when they locate the sleeping band, but Gue starts a fight with them, forcing Johnson to help until all their foes are dead. A band of Flathead braves comes upon them and Gue transfers his collected scalps onto Johnson’s horse in fear they might want to repay the favour, but instead Johnson finds himself celebrated for the feat of slaying the wanton band. When he accidentally commits a faux pas by gifting the scalps to the head of the Flathead tribe, Two-Tongues Lebeaux (Richard Angarola), a gift that’s hard to match, Gue warns they’re at risk of being killed, until Lebeaux gets the great idea of marrying Johnson to his daughter Swan.
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“I see I missed another war down there,” Bear-Claw notes as he sees Johnson’s military trousers, offering the promise of blissful indifference to the drop-out who can make a go of it in the mountains. Later, Johnson has to ask whether or not the war he fled is over yet. Jeremiah Johnson contemplates this corner of the American landscape as a place of terrible but rarely entirely arbitrary violence. People kill for many reasons in the course of the film, for the cause of survival, defence of territory, for revenge and points of honour and even an eccentric spiritual cause; but it’s a deeply personal kind of violence all the way, rather than the anonymous clash of civilisations and abstract forces of history, which is one reason why, for all the woe he suffers and exacts, Johnson still prefers this way of life to any other. The narrative describes a great concentric circle that moves in accord with Johnson’s peripatetic ways, early scenes meeting their mirror later in the film, those early episodes gaining new meaning and import, as Johnson returns to places and reencounters people he met along the way, and experiences things he previously only glimpsed as an onlooker in his attempt to remove himself from the flow of history and society. The mountain man gives way to the settler; the land of the Crows becomes the Department of Colorado. The land gives unto Johnson unexpected bounties and burdens and then takes them away again with the same curt beneficence.
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Jeremiah Johnson bears distinct traces of the odd and volatile blend of creative sensibilities involve in its making – Milius’ ornery admiration for outsized figures at war with the world, Redford’s quiet, mindful observation and regard for setting, Pollack’s romanticism – and yet it never feels divided against itself. The film mediates ideas and images Pollack had parsed already in his films as well anticipating works to come. His interest in characters trying urgently to find a place for themselves in the world, and finding they can step in and out of roles with surreal mutability, echoes the gritty social drama of This Property Is Condemned (1966) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? as well as the multiverse fantasia of Castle Keep, whilst The Electric Horseman would transplant the drama to a contemporary setting. Pollack’s suggestions of time and being in a state of flux as human nature wars with itself explored in Castle Keep recur here too, particularly in the sense of time in a gyre, of events repeating over and over according to cycles of nature and human perversity. The eagle embodying some spiritual force that haunted the soldiers of Castle Keep returns here to appeal to Johnson and warn him as it wings high above, seen vanishing in the mountain peaks where Johnson will soon face a consequential test.
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Since Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), with its band of troubadour choruses, and particularly High Noon (1952) with its faux-folk ballad theme song explaining the film’s essence, many a Western had aspired to entwining musical and cinematic narrative. This idea had a particular appeal in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in the wake of a folk music boom, and many of the Western films around this time aspired to the state of achieving a cinematic texture closely akin to such music, a moody, low-key, ambling place that immerses completely in a way of feeling and seeing. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, with its soundtrack of carefully inserted Leonard Cohen hits and Bob Dylan’s score for Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) came close, but Jeremiah Johnson matched them with a specially crafted soundtrack that entwines deeply with the onscreen images and presaging motifs, like “the day that you tarry is the day that you lose” for a hero whose dedication to movement lends him the aspect of a holy fool. Purportedly because it was a cheaper option than hiring a name composer, actors Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein successfully sold Pollack on using their score with interpolated songs, charting Johnson’s life passage playing over images of his physical journeying in low, sonorous phrases. All this leads to the totemic final sung line, “And some folks say he’s up there still,’” as Johnson passes through a metaphysical veil to become the spirit of the land itself.
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The song scoring is particularly vital as otherwise Jeremiah Johnson could be one of the quietest mainstream films ever made, with long passages with scarcely any dialogue spoken or with untranslated Native American speech, and Pollack depending almost entirely on the rhythm of the editing and behaviour to hold the screen: he referred to it as his silent film. The audience learns the arts of mountain survival alongside Johnson. Pollack’s developing instincts as filmmaker for a mass audience nonetheless emerge in touches like the bear scene, where he offers an effect faintly reminiscent of Looney Tunes cartoons by simply watching the cabin from outside with the tumult within registering on the soundtrack. The cinematography by Duke Callaghan always considers the characters in relationship with their environment, the great cathedral domes of the mountains crusted in snow beckoning with promises of the sublime, the snow-packed alpine forests and grey, gritty scrublands. All have a specific meaning in terms of the human drama as well as foraging, as Johnson’s yearnings for escape aim always towards the high peaks but demand hunting for subsistence down where the animals lurk, and finally when Johnson drifts into something like wedded bliss he builds a cabin down on the flatlands. When he finally does venture into the highest stretches of the mountains, Johnson finds himself doomed to disturb a taboo, because communing with the sky is a pleasure reserved for eagles and spirits.
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Johnson finds unexpected accord with others who share the land with him even though they’re all seemingly defined by the same distaste for company; even the mad woman and her husband seem to have been driven out to the middle of nowhere (which is always someone else’s somewhere) in obedience to impulse that has no name. The likes of Bear-Claw, who admits that he’s never been able to adapt to a domestic situation and remains bewildered by the thought (“I never could find no tracks in a woman’s heart.”) and the shambolic Del Gue are weirdos suited for the wilds, whilst Johnson is still young and retains the reflexes of a romantic hero, much as he tries to bury it under a taciturn surface. The gentle humour, close to a romantic comedy, of Johnson’s unwilling marriage and setting up home with Swan and Caleb, sees Johnson gobsmacked by erotic contact (“Lord!”) and contending with forces he’s not too happy with, like religion, as Swan comes from a Christianised tribe who insists on saying grace. Johnson’s occasional slips into absurd boastfulness with Bear-Claw and then his serendipitous wife and son (“Great hunter!…Fine figure of a man!…That is all you need to know.”) betray his intense unease with company and also the constantly noted tension between his pretences to haughty self-reliance and the knockabout way he achieves it.
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The longing for a Zen-like deliverance from the bawling pressure of American life Pollack would return to repeatedly comes closest to being realised in Jeremiah Johnson, but also terminates in the fractious violence that results when ways of life collide. There’s an echo of this in a pivotals scene in The Yakuza (1974) in which Richard Jordan’s young gunman meditates upon his Japanese lover’s tea making skills moments before a gang of hoodlums breaks down the door. Johnson’s journey can be seen as a logical end-point for the countercultural idyll of going back to nature, and as a wistful conservative fantasy for the days of self-reliance. Pollack depicts the process of Johnson, Swan, and Caleb fusing together into a family and constructing a life for themselves with a dash of cosiness that might seem a bit too Little House on the Prairie at points, although it’s a cosiness that eventually turns out to have a ruthless price. Pollack’s sense of rhythmic visual storytelling and feel for detail certainly never desert him. Life together sees Johnson absorbing Swan’s language to the point where they can converse, the couple clearly genuinely in love, and Johnson taking pride in Caleb learning the arts of trapping and other vicissitudes of frontier life.
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Casting Redford as Johnson had a counterintuitive quality, particularly considering Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood had been considered for the role before him. Redford’s screen persona was usually considered anything but hard-bitten, with his golden boy looks and urbane, upright, but slightly cagey aura, and the period brogue sounds odd coming out of his mouth at first. But his presence soon proves vital, as he imbues Johnson with an everyman quality. He’s no giant frontier warrior who seems fittingly born to the wilds, but an ordinary guy who slowly but surely grows into the role he’s chosen, and there’s an almost shocking sense of revelation when he finally shaves for Swan and Redford’s handsome mug is revealed again. Wry deflations continue, as Johnson does the unthinkable and shaves off his beard to save Swan from being scratched by it, only to find she doesn’t recognise him, and their domestic bliss is frustrated by annoyances like scarce game and Swan’s unimpressive cooking skills. Nonetheless Johnson finds tranquillity in a life that seems to be the opposite of what he wanted, enacting, after a fashion, a version of the real Johnson’s life that doubles as a parable for the unexpected way life tends to accumulate around us.
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Johnson’s reverie is shattered when a cavalry unit arrives outside his cabin, and for a long moment he stares in bewilderment at the commander, Lt. Mulvey (Jack Colvin), and a reverend, Lindquist (Paul Benedict), before laughing and explaining to them he hasn’t heard so much English spoken to him in a long time. The soldiers have sought him out because he knows the land and can guide them to a party of settlers lost and probably snowbound up in a high mountain pass, and Johnson agrees to help. A unique diptych is offered for Johnson’s perusal: Mulvey, with his dedication to service and sense of necessity (“You say you have to hunt – I have to try.”) represents the best of civilisation and Lindquist, with his casual racism and self-righteous disdain for Johnson’s sensibilities and anything outside the purview of God and empire, embodies the worst. Crisis arrives when Johnson finds the path he’s leading the unit on leads through a Crow burial ground. Johnson becomes afraid of what offending the Crow might entail, Lindquist advocates bullishly moving through, and Lindquist feels bound to do what will fulfil his orders. Johnson reluctantly acquiesces, presaging a strikingly tense and eerie sequence as the horse soldiers proceed in deathly quiet across a somnolent, snowclad land amidst vaulted skeletons grinning at the sky, the feeling of deadly violation and broken covenants all but palpable.
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Johnson succeeds in guiding the soldiers to the lost party, but panics at some subliminal cue as he returns through the burial ground and speeds home. Pollack stages one of his greatest sequences here as he portrays Johnson’s dash along the last few metres to his cabin with a hand-held camera shot, breaking upon a scene of carnage as Swan and Caleb both lie dead and scalped. Johnson remains sitting for a night and a day in silent meditation before his horse wandering around outside rouses him. Johnson tenderly places Swan and Caleb together on a bed and sets the cabin afire, watching it burn down as their pyre before setting out after the Crow war party responsible. When he finds them encamped, Johnson strides into their camp, taking them by surprise through his sheer audacity, and a whirlwind of violence is unleashed as Johnson shoots two and smites others. Johnson only comes out of his berserker state when the last one stands off against him and starts singing his death song, and Johnson lets him flee. Something like justice, blended in with primal revenge, but Johnson soon learns the cost is a vendetta as the Crow send out warriors one by one to take him on, dogging his days and nights.
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Jeremiah Johnson reveals itself as, in part, the tragedy of a man who gains exactly what he wanted at first even as life gave him other possibilities. A late scene sees Johnson reunited with Bear-Claw and the two men struggling to work out what month it is. But it’s also a tale that uses Johnson’s life as a parable for mastery over self, the necessity life sometimes presents of picking up from square one again and making sense of it according to a private compass, and the narrative undercuts the idea anyone can live a life separate from humanity, as Johnson’s initial status as onlooker at the crazy woman’s calamity gives way to his own. The land itself is bounty, arena, church, and trap for all the characters: Johnson’s late encounter with Del Gue sees him deliver an ecstatic, poetic paean to the glory of the Rockies, a land worth all suffering to experience and dwell in, in the film’s most Milius-esque moment. The film’s gyre-like structure sees Johnson encountering his comrades in solitude and returning to the crazy woman’s shack, where he finds a shrine set up to him by the Crow and a new family led by a quaky patriarch named Qualen (Matt Clark), representing the clumsy, clueless, yet unstoppable tide of colonisation: they might be doomed to like their predecessors end up strewn around like gory confetti, but there will be more, and more.
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The slaying of Swan and Caleb was a remarkably dark and risky twist even by the brusque standards of early ‘70s cinema, however demanded by the nominal historical record and leavened by proto-Death Wish (1974) satisfaction in Johnson’s swift retribution, reflecting the way the film sprung from, and spoke to, a specific anxiety of its era about roles of masculinity and fear of social breakdown. But eye-for-an-eye morality quickly descends into a self-perpetuating bloodbath, albeit one that both Johnson and his Crow enemies feel represents a deeper challenge. White man and indigenous man are doomed to ruthlessly battle, but there’s a sense of unity in opposites that points the way to the film’s last frame. It’s not the cheeriest of portraits of the old west, but it’s certainly greatly superior to the laboured, audience-flattering parables of Dances With Wolves (1990) and its ilk in suggesting a tentative understanding between Native American and European emerging from ruthless struggle for domain. The film’s last segment is often criticised, but I feel it’s perhaps the best thing Pollack ever did, as he depicts Johnson’s transformation from man to myth in a dazzling montage, Johnson battling various adversaries. Such contention is glimpsed in a string of Pollack and Callaghan’s most technically masterful shots, as Johnson is glimpsed atop a great boulder, a lens flare grazing across the screen as his opponent is felled and tumbled down a rock, somehow encapsulating all the epic flavour of folklore into one frame.
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The montage ends with Johnson swatted off his horse by an ambusher’s bullet, and another amazing shot results as Johnson plays possum, lying in wait for his enemy with one eye wide and waiting as the warrior pads cautiously up to his fallen form. Johnson refuses to be ousted from his chosen home and the Native Americans pay tribute to Johnson in the form of the shrine, which each warrior going out to meet him adds to, for Johnson learns he’s become a great ennobling enemy to the Crow and a fabled figure to the settlers. Although their duels apparently have little to do on the surface with the war of civilisations unfolding on the American landscape, still they become spiritual avatars for that clash, locked in a perpetual death brawl that ends not in triumph but in exhausted, wary, mutual respect. Johnson sees Paints-His-Shirt-Red salute him from a distance, and Johnson, after a long moment of contemplation, returns the salute with a smile: Pollack freezes the frame and fades out, using only that song lyric as a capstone. It’s one of the most understated movie endings ever, but also an enormously moving one, as it condenses a sense of struggle becoming accord, chaos birthing understanding, hatred yielding to brotherhood, the crude and terrible business of life touched with a breath of the eternal.

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