A feature-length exercise in padding out a movie’s running time as much as possible, the film opens with an eight-minute “In Search Of…”-style history of the decline in the once-voluminous buffalo population and confusingly alternates between narration from some unidentified individual who claims to have heard the movie’s details from his grandfather, and the grizzled tones of a secondary narrator who is apparently meant to represent the common buffalo hunter (it’s never actually made clear). Tons of nature/animal footage unspools as the audience is filled in on the year 1871 seeing a new tanning process that made buffalo hide as easily rendered into numerous products as simple cowhide, thus escalating the already ruinous and wasteful efforts of sleazy buffalo hunters who skinned the beasts and left their carcasses to rot, leading to the tragic and staggering figure of some forty-million buffalo being slain between 1871 and 1875. This sequence also introduces us to a trio of scurvy buffalo hunters who serve as the flimsy story’s villains, and these guys would easily fit in as the standard unwashed human vermin common to Spaghetti Westerns and certain Sam Peckinpah horse operas, but more on them later.
According to the narrator, Jake Jones, the titular character, was (apparently) a thoughtful and silent former buffalo hunter who sickened of the slaughter and left to live as a buckskin-clad mountain man in the wilderness of Utah and Wyoming, until the Fall of 1881, when he encountered a baby buffalo whose mother had been killed by some scumbag hunters and was under attack by a pack of hungry coyotes. Jake and the buffalo fight off the coyotes and Jake decides to care for the orphaned calf, rather than let it fall victim to the assorted predators in the area (this despite Jake clearly having been established as one of those hardcore crunchy, bearded at-one-with-nature types). Deciding he would have to care for the buffalo until its wounds healed, Jake immediately ties up the poor beast and embarks on a long period of breaking the wild buffalo in a homemade corral. Despite already having a totally serviceable horse, Jake soon chucks a saddle on the buffalo — which eventually grows into a 2000-pound behemoth named Samson (a name the narrator oh-so-helpfully reminds us is “from the Bible”) — and learns to ride the clearly-unwilling shaggy bulldozer in a lengthy, slo-mo-accented sequence replete with “stirring” ‘70’s faux-frontier music and the frequently repeated and awful theme song, a tune that evokes ‘70’s-era TV commercials for pickup trucks and beer, and the lyrics of which bestow upon Jake the heroic nickname of “Buffalo Jones,” thus cementing him as a legend or something.
Once man and beast forge themselves into a clumsy team, the wafer-thin plot finally gets underway. In fact, calling it a plot is something of an overstatement since what we really get is mostly a series of sporadic events, punctuated with footage of animals that are meant to make the film’s kiddie audience “ooh” and “aah” at the wonders of nature, and counterpointed with occasional looks at the douchebaggery of the bad guy buffalo hunters. Said douchey hunters encounter Buffalo Jones when they try to kill his horned mount and end up shooting Jones in the process. Samson runs away from the hunter with Jones on his back and the pair stumble upon the conveniently-located home of another mountain man/minor-league gold-panner and his wife, who nurse Jones back to health and welcome him into their household. From there, the highlights (?) include:
- An uneventful encounter with a “Grizzly” that’s actually clearly a standard black bear.
- A feeble run-in with an Injun who wants to kill Samson because he’s perceived the beast as “big medicine” thanks to there being some crazy bearded hippie on its back. The Injun proves to be quite incompetent at his task and ends up with his jaw broken by Buffalo Jones’ rifle butt. Remember, this is supposed to be a family film.
- Buffalo Jones’ friendship with a raccoon named Bandit, a creature whose presence is included solely to stretch out the running time. Once introduced, the focus of the narrative completely shifts to Bandit and his adventures in the desolate winter landscape as he faces a hungry cougar (featuring moments where I would have sworn the cougar was about to eat the poor raccoon’s head), endures an icy flash-flood and, despite having been clearly identified as a male, is suddenly revealed to be a female that gives birth to a pair of adorable babies, thus providing the film with yet more footage of cute l’il animals. All of this Bandit stuff goes on for a solid ten minutes, after which Bandit and her babies abruptly disappear from the film, never to be seen or mentioned again.
- Uninteresting sequences in which we see the buffalo hunters going about their business and basically being a pack of repulsive assholes. Meant to establish character, all these bits do is make us fervently wish these goons were excised from the story because they seem to serve no purpose whatsoever, but our endurance is eventually rewarded (sort of)…
- Buffalo Jones’ mountain man friend goes out hunting for game and runs into two hungry Grizzlies — this time actual bears of the proper variety — who very savagely fight in such a manner as to make me think the film’s animal wranglers had little or no control over what happened when they unleashed the bruins for the shoot. The bears bloodily tear the living shit out of each other and I swear it does not look faked in the least. Again, this is supposed to be a wholesome “family” film.
After dropping the baby off with the mountain couple, Buffalo Jones rides off on Samson in search of the killers, but first he runs into more film-padding in the form of a pack of wolves who want to eat him and Samson. (Jones does not simply whip out his gun and shoot the wolves because that would be douchey and against nature, something that forcing a buffalo to let him ride it obviously is not.) The hunters have split up, so Buffalo Jones tracks two of them to a saloon where, in the film’s most visually-outrageous moment, Jones rides his buffalo into the place and blazes away with his revolver, executing the two hunters and confusing the living shit out of the assorted drunken prospectors and mountain men in attendance. The remaining hunter is soon located and meets a deservedly horrible slo-mo end when he’s mercilessly trampled by Samson, while Buffalo Jones stoically drives the beastie. With justice served, Buffalo Jones and Samson ride off into the sunset and the narrator announces that the orphaned baby was his grandfather. That revelation was clearly meant to have a certain level of profundity but its desired effect merely elicits a dozy “And I care because…?” from the half-asleep audience.
BUFFALO RIDER is one very odd entry into its genre. Though ostensibly a family feature, the film is an uneasy fusion of the western, the ‘70’s post-hippie back-to-nature zeitgeist, and stoner entertainment that kind of floats from incident to incident in something akin to a dreamlike state. The virtually silent hero who rides a buffalo looks like a mythic figure straight out of a peyote-fueled mystic vision and the film’s whole vibe fairly reeks of good, skunky buds as inhaled in the back of a tricked-out van some thirty-plus years ago. If I still smoked weed, I’m betting this ultra-mellow oddity would not be half-bad to sit through while completely baked, but seen without illegal intoxicants its flaws are glaring. For a movie containing supposedly family-acceptable violence of both the human and animal varieties, it’s not at all exciting, and its story particulars at times feel as though they were communicated by a child randomly dropping building blocks into place and hoping the narrative makes sense and flows naturally. It's worth a look for western completists, but I most strongly recommend it for insomniacs who may find its meager charms a soothing lead-in to solidly nodding off.