The White Buffalo Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
They called him Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson), the prince of pistoleers, a frontier adventurer, and a killer of men -- now, in his last years, he is an old gunfighter, plagued by fears and driven by a need to make peace with himself. The White Buffalo is his constant nightmare; he must find the fabled beast and destroy it...before it destroys him. He was Crazy Horse (Will Sampson), the greatest of all Sioux chiefs. A warrior of dignity and pride – now, a father who searches for the legendary albino buffalo, so that the spirit of his dead child can go to heaven and he will stop at nothing to obtain the sacred white pelt. (From Kino’s official synopsis)
J. Lee Thompson’s The White Buffalo has the unfortunate reputation of being weird enough to be ostracized by general audiences, yet not weird enough to be fully embraced by cult audiences. Despite revising the mythologies of two of the West’s greatest historical personalities – Wild Bill Hickok and Crazy Horse – its closest cousins are actually not the other post-spaghetti, postmodern westerns of the ‘70s, but the (accidentally?) surreal pseudo-blockbusters that Dino De Laurentiis’ was producing in the era. It’s no mistake that was released alongside Michael Anderson’s Orca in 1977. Both films were mystifyingly odd cash-ins on the success of Spielberg’s Jaws and featured giant mechanical monster effects, foggy photography, and bewilderingly bleak tones. What’s stranger is that they were both bubbling with ominous existential malaise and explored the themes of modern manhood between action scenes and shots of stiff, yet charming creature effects.
Before offering his workman-like talents to this outlandish dread-soaked movie, Thompson had made an international name for himself with movies, like the incredibly influential WWII ‘guys on a mission’ adventure, The Guns of Navarone (1961), the original Cape Fear (1962), and the best of the Planet of the Apes sequels, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). White Buffalo suffers from long boring streaks that stretch the reasonably short runtime into a minor eternity, but Thompson gets loads of mileage from the surrealistic, almost nightmarish tone and screenwriter Richard Sale’s (whose script is based on his own novel) constant stream of wise adages. Any scene including the rampaging bison is pretty hard to resist, too. Even the occasionally stiff performances – not an unexpected result from kings of understatement, Charles Bronson and Will Sampson – fits the singular mood. At the very least, it is an interesting companion piece to Arthur Penn’s vastly superior ‘alternate history’ epic, Little Big Man (1970), as well as Orca, which puts it in a very unusual category, indeed. This was Thompson’s second collaboration with Bronson, following St. Ives (1976), and the two of them worked together six more times, from 10 to Midnight (1983), to Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (Thompson’s final film, 1989).
White Buffalo was released on DVD in European territories and made the rounds on HD television, but hasn’t had a stateside home video release since VHS. This 1080p, 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfer more or less matches the 1080i version I saw on MGMHD, including half-decent details, soft dynamic range, and the bandy gradations. The problems are not all due to compression and iffy scanning processes – Thompson and cinematographer Paul Lohmann shot a lot of the movie through fog and smoke with soft focus and short lenses. Dark scenes are a bit muddy and snow-capped/foggy shots can be overrun with discolored grit and noise. Grain levels are pretty natural otherwise. Details are soft but patterns are more complex than SD versions, but contrast levels are too harsh, leading to crushed blacks (which are still kind of gray) and overly thickened edges. The colour scheme is relatively bland by design (lots of browns) and looks consistent here.
The imdb.com specs claim that White Buffalo was mixed in mono, but a number of DVD releases claim to include a stereo track. The Russian release even has a 5.1 remix. MGM appears to have handed Kino a mono track for this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix. The white buffalo’s rumbling hoof beats and the major damage he does to natural environments could’ve used more impactful bass to get the message across, but there’s little need for directional enhancement. Dialogue is clear, as are the rather minimalist sound effects (aside from very loud gunshots), but the real star is John Barry’s boisterous music, which gives the movie an epic fantasy/supernatural horror vibe (no James Bondisms here). The score could benefit from a stereo enhancement, especially the full-force orchestral stings, which come across a bit soft here.
The only extra is a trailer.