Charles Bronson in White Buffalo (1977)

Let the Face Speak for Itself: Hard Features in ‘The White Buffalo’

The mortal authenticity of Charles Bronson’s face needed no surgical denials or plastic justifications, unlike the onscreen stars of today's image-obsessed culture.

Although cults of personality dominate the popular consciousness, I can’t possibly be alone in resenting actors chosen for their looks. It’s strange that Americans like myself, who allegedly champion justice and pontificate about hard-won “merit”, are expected to identify with unwitting inheritors of genetic tallness, whiteness, and facial moderation. Of course, we’re really supposed to view heroic archetypes as aspirational models and not presumptuously “identify” with them (unless Americans are delusional, infantile, or actual children).

Realistically, we should identify with manufactured film idols, forged in the furnace of publicity, about as well as we might identity with lively mannequins or ambulatory stacks of meat. But even the aspirational model is a pretty bad lie, since Americans generally don’t aspire to murder, as do most movie characters — granted, I’m thinking of mainstream, male stars, dripping with faux virility. I suppose we’re supposed to aspire to the hero’s courage if not his fun homicides; yet what is less courageous than spending two hours munching glucose and buttered corn in the dark?

Realizing the martial hero’s fireball-aided catharses fail to translate into anything offscreen — basically what Buster Keaton learns in the coda of Sherlock, Jr. — our cinema-addled eyes grow accustomed to the deceit. Yet we persist in the voyeuristic farce, funding the Hollywood payroll and believing we were its intended beneficiaries. Such is the lure of “entertainment value”.

If our faces droop disappointedly on occasion, the high-definition screen becomes increasingly wrinkle-free. The star’s visage — plastered with makeup, flatteringly lit, coyly shot, airbrushed for ads — means to overwhelm, stun, and seduce, even as the need for “transnational” marketing fades faces into bland homogeneities. Yes, there used to be faces, as sentimentalists like to say, and the good faces transcended their greasepaint. Roland Barthes famously described Greta Garbo’s face as “at once perfect and ephemeral”, claiming that it “offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined.” (Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, New York: The Noonday Press, 1991, 56). “Sexually undefined” is probably overstating Garbo’s mannishness, but she did wear an ivory ambiguity that distinguishes her from a Claudette Colbert or Myrna Loy and that rebuts our present syndrome of painted postfeminist affectation.

When the male hero is comic, he occasionally shares some of the ephemerality Barthes assigns to perfect beauty, but in his witlessly heroic mode, his Platonism is undiluted. NeNew modes of masculinity can corrupt comedy, too: our clowns are no longer grotesque outsiders, but poseurs a la Zach Galifianakis, who exchange the misshapen inhumanity of a Groucho Marx or W.C. Fields for mere scruff and a gluttonous belly. Carved from some ancient marble, the male hero always bleeds confidence: Plato’s prearranged rocks allow no neuroses to wash through their pores.

The face of the matinee idol has always been tabula rasa, empty enough to absorb any projected fantasy and hardened enough to deflect believable traces of humanity. I’ve never seen anything in Leonardo DiCaprio’s face, certainly not Platonic perfection. Perhaps his is a parody of some Hollywood executive’s idea of perfection. But even parodies have a schedule: DiCaprio’s face, unable to resist the justice of time, now slouches into unsightly furrows with each passing year, wrinkling into a squashed, suntanned apricot.

The Japanese director Nagisa Oshima tells a story about Yukio Mishima: “Why don’t you include beautiful men and women in your films?” Mishima asked him. At that moment, Oshima realized Mishima was not only terribly conventional but likely doomed; he was too enraptured by orthodox appearances, by the stoniness of his own suicidal body, by transient shells pretending to transcendence.

What lurks in Channing Tatum’s face? At best, an ordinary nothingness — not even a parodic nothingness. His face is illegible without being enigmatic. A reviewer’s blurb on the cover of a Magic Mike DVD declares he is a “revelation”. But what kind of revelation reveals only a little skin and not any soul? His image apotheosizes New Hollywood Realism: a blank facsimile of handsome, his face sleeps below a militaristic haircut and mouths barely competent line readings. But don’t exhaust yourself with resistance; reserve your limited energies for suffering through traffic, for the theater’s a long way off.

If the entire economy of Hollywood, and that of America itself, depends on the sellable face, occasionally a star comes along encrusted with a strange ugliness, and some wise man lets him through the gate. In his Lithuanian creases, darkened with the residue of a coal-mining youth, Charles Bronson conveyed an authentic realism rarely seen in Hollywood. The Italians dubbed him “the brute”, but such a moniker — more appropriate for the pruned Eddie Constantine or horse-ugly Tomisaburo Wakayama — misperceived the sadness set in Bronson’s crags. Whereas the twitching face of Dirty Harry evoked a primitive misanthropy (something Clint Eastwood ably parodied in Gran Torino), Bronson’s face spoke of some ancient Tatar suffering, mellowed with modern disenchantment.

Though taciturnity is the action hero’s hallmark, Bronson never grunted through his worst scripts, as did Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Chuck Norris, none of whom had the promise Bronson intermittently revealed in the ’50s and early ’60s. He exuded a rare charisma in Delmar Daves’ 1954 Drum Beat, an ambitious Cinemascope Western in which his vainglorious Indian villain “Captain Jack” totally overshadows the bland Aryan appeal of hero Alan Ladd. Some of the French Cahiers du cinema critics admired 1958’s Machine Gun Kelly, a Roger Corman quickie in which Bronson, surprisingly at ease with his plentiful dialogue, reveals a hardboiled, overheated intensity, a la Richard Widmark.

Though 1960’s The Magnificent Seven brought greater stardom, the film squanders Bronson’s magnetism and charisma (though it does grant him a heroic death). Even when his line deliveries border on woodenness, his few scenes smolder with an energy totally absent whenever the screen is dominated by Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner, both of whom are frankly terrible here, confusing stoicism with lifelessness (I fault the direction of John Sturges, who went downhill after Bad Day at Black Rock). Indeed, one can only imagine how Bronson might’ve vitalized the film had he one of the lead roles.

Bronson’s enigma partly stems from his late blooming and numerous missed opportunities. He was Sergio Leone’s first choice for A Fistful of Dollars, but at the time was saddled with Hollywood commitments. Becoming a full-time leading man only in his mid-40s — after Honor Among Thieves and the European success of Once Upon a Time in the West — he arrived as a hero already equipped with world-weariness and disillusioned middle-age. We rarely saw him as a youthful hero, save in worthless B-movies (Showdown at Boot Hill) or in television (Man with a Camera), and his memorable earlier roles were often villains, from 1953’s House of Wax (as the hunchback Igor) through 1967’s Guns for San Sabastian (one of his many Native American roles).

Though all action heroes age into embarrassment, oblivion, or defensive self-parody, in his advancing years Bronson retained a semi-tragic aura, a reminder of the promise that went frustratingly unfulfilled. While a few of his ’70s films are mildly entertaining (Red Sun, Mr. Majestyk, etc.), only a few films of that decade fully capitalized on his magnetism: Rene Clement’s Rider on the Rain, the closest he came to a European art film; Walter Hill’s Hard Times, wherein his wearied yet resilient fist-fighter impressed even the sanctimonious Pauline Kael; and Frank Gilroy’s Western satire From Noon Till Three, which not only showcases his best performance but reveals a theretofore hidden talent for comedy. And, yes, he could actually be pretty funny.

The aging Bronson was roundly and rightly criticized for plasticizing his face with surgery in the early ’80s, betraying a petty vanity we’d hoped he could rise above. (This was around the time John Carpenter deemed him too geriatric for Escape from New York). Even before his surgery, Bronson always evinced a certain valiant tiredness, as if he were too fatigued to indulge the gun-slinging chores of an action hero. In his waning days, apotheosized by the immortal Death Wish 3, he seems astonished to discover that, well into his 60s, he must pursue delinquent youths with a 50-caliber machine gun. Yet for all his latter-day absurdity and terrible vetting of scripts, his charisma endured, even if perversely.

The recently issued Blu-ray of 1977’s The White Buffalo provides an opportunity to see Bronson at his career’s crossroads, spiraling downward from his box office dominance of the mid-70s but still a safe distance from his disreputable descent into Golan-Globus muck. Bronson’s final Western, and one of the oddest Hollywood ever attempted, The White Buffalo was the brainchild of producer Dino de Laurentis, who transplants Moby Dick (via Jaws) to the untamed Western frontier, making Ahab into a neurotic Wild Bill Hickok, the pagan Queequeg into the animistic Crazy Horse, and the whale into a giant stuffed buffalo that, moved around on visible tracks, terrorizes Native American villages and symbolizes, well, something — presumably Hickok’s dread of death, the rebellion of imperiled Nature, or the end of Native American lifeways.

Though The White Buffalo is that peculiar postwar animal, the “psychological” Western, it’s a far cry from the Freud-on-the-range adult westerns of the ’50s, like Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie and Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun. It’s more like Jung-on-the-tundra, a subgenre of which this film may be the only outstanding member. The plot sees Bronson’s haunted Hickok, veiled behind dark spectacles and pursued by old enemies, teaming up with Crazy Horse (Will Sampson, a native Muscogee) to slay the titular beast, which not only stars in Hickok’s nightmares but manifests materially, storming through snow-clad mountains and trampling to death Crazy Horse’s daughter. Now a disgraced Crazy Horse roams the wilderness, wearing the dis-honorific “Worm”, killing members of enemy tribes, and hunting down the unholy bison, with whose flayed hide he can enrobe and hallow his daughter’s corpse, allowing him to wear again his true name.

The buffalo proposes no single allegory, and, unlike most Westerns of the ’70s, the film doesn’t excessively romanticize Native American mysticism. Traditionally, the white buffalo is a holy symbol of power, but here it is oddly unholied and run amok, presumably maddened by the white man’s poaching. A rather effective scene sees Hickok in the midst of a corral stacked twenty-feet high with thousands of silvery bison bones.

Though the white man plunders the buffalo to prove his superiority and dominion, Hickok implicitly sees the beast not only as a symbol of death but as a stealer of masculinity and a harbinger of his own impotence. The latter idea is revealed when he sheepishly refuses sex from an old flame and awakens from his nightmares as if from a wet dream, his six-guns blazing ineffectually in the dark. Like Anthony Mann’s Winchester ‘73, the film revolves around exchanges of fatal phallic symbols: the buffalo’s deadly and prized horn, Crazy Horse’s many arrows, and Hickok’s long gun, which notably freezes solid in his final confrontation with the beast. When Hickok, consumed with neuroses throughout the film, presses frantically against his long gun’s frozen trigger, paralyzed and unable to shoot, the film inevitably links the aging hero’s thanatophobia to his vanishing potency.

If the action hero’s face is usually underdetermined in the original psychoanalytic sense — that is, determined only by one thing, thrusting heroism — the film’s mechanized buffalo is overdetermined, as enigmatic as Bronson’s shaded face, ambiguously subject to an excessive number of interpretations (or “determinants”, in Freud and Jung’s earliest usage). The film’s wishy-washy Jungianism tends to strip away the signature realism from Bronson’s face, stylizing him into a heroic archetype ruined, smothered in the shadows cast across the film’s sundry snowy landscapes.

The film’s dreamlike otherness is amplified in the dialogue of screenwriter Richard Sale, otherwise known for penning the tough Frank Sinatra thriller Suddenly (1954) and the source novel for the legendarily campy The Oscar (1966). I can’t think of another Western of its era with language so stylized, inscrutable, or artfully contrived. Sale not only peppers Crazy Horse’s lines with untranslated Cherokee but has characters speak in Americanisms arcane enough to make Deadwood seem like Hopalong Cassidy. When one of his female passengers is felled by an Indian bullet, coach-driver Slim Pickens laughs, “Blue Whistler must have caught her right in the third eye!” Your ears may do a double-take, too, when grizzled pioneers figuratively use “snaffle” (a double-barred bit for horses) as a verb or employ words like “defalcate” and “flummery” in secondary, less common meanings.

The film’s verbiage, treading a thin line between high folk poetry and opulent hokum, is part and parcel of the film’s otherworldliness. Visually unlike any other Western I can recall, the film is pervaded by a darkly fabulous atmosphere made even stranger by the juxtaposition of location shooting and fairytale sets. Scenes of a muddy pioneering town and a slow, lengthy shootout in the midst of a blinding snowfield alternate with the buffalo’s surreal appearances, on sets as colorfully phony as those of any Shaw Brothers wu xia or mad Busby Berkeley pageant.

The White Buffalo is often criticized for its phoniness — apparently, special effects guru Carlo Rambaldi had difficulty animating the stuffed leviathan — but the set-bound fakery is in fact one of the film’s great pleasures. The film’s contrivances (the purpled dialogue, robotic buffalo, blood as thick as red primer) confirm rather than dilute an ideal cinematic fantasy, which is predicated not on the removal of technological limits but the cozy creation of a vision within the limits of material possibility. A computerized bison would be graceful, fluid, svelte, and totally un-fantastic, representing not a bison-in-itself but merely a technology advanced enough to produce any arbitrary image.

There is a lamentable scene in Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator that recreates the filming of Hell’s Angels with gaudy CGI, a horrible irony since the beauty of the 1930 film’s aerial sequences lies in actuality, the ostentatious accomplishment of genuine fliers braving fearsome atmospheres. Though potentially awesome, a computer’s complacent and sterile imagery holds no terror or passion. On the other hand, The White Buffalo’s taxidermic monster conceals no charlatanism or pretense. Honestly and nakedly fake, it requires no cosmetic technology, much as the mortal authenticity of Bronson’s face needed no surgical denials or plastic justifications.