This morning, I discovered an amazing film from 1978, Buffalo Rider. In a refreshing bit of honest advertising, it is about a guy who rides a buffalo. It is a classic exploitation film. By that I mean that the producers found this guy (Rick Guinn) who rode a buffalo and thought, “Well there’s a movie in that!” After all, it was only in 1974 that the low budget The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams became a blockbuster. And Adams doesn’t ride around on Ben in the film. So Buffalo Rider certainly must have seemed like independent film gold.
If I had to pick a film that Buffalo Rider is most like, it would be Death Bed: the Bed that Eats. But George Barry’s masterpiece is so much more. It’s the work of a truly warped mind without consideration for what an audience might think. It is also a purely amateur production. Buffalo Rider is a professional production and it is interested in one thing above all: money.
The Real Buffalo Jones
Supposedly, it is based on the life of Charles “Buffalo” Jones. The real Buffalo Jones did not, as far as I can tell, ever ride a buffalo. He is remembered as a conservationist, although what the term meant in the late 19th century is a little different from what it means today. While he did save a lot of buffalo, it was mostly to sell to zoos and such. And before that, he was best known as a killer of buffalo. Like the makers of Buffalo Rider, Buffalo Jones was mostly interested in making money. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all gotta eat.
Buffalo Rider seems to be based on a film the same group made two years earlier, The Life and Legend of Buffalo Jones. But I can’t find out anything about it except what commenter Nokose Fixico at CasCity wrote, “Only thing I really remember of the plot was this man Jones catching and breaking a buffalo and doing some riding and shooting.” He might be remembering Buffalo Rider.
A Most Bizarre Film
The film is part nature documentary and part revenge comedy. Forty minutes into it, the film sidetracks for ten minutes on the story of a raccoon. It really has nothing to do with the rest of the film. But then, very little in this film has anything to do with anything else. Why would it need to? There’s a guy who rides buffalo! And clearly, they had an animal trainer. “Oh look, a scene with some wolves! Hey, a black bear! Some grizzly bears fighting!” It’s all good.
It reminded me very much of the octopus in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. Why’s it there? Wood apparently got his hands on some stock footage of an octopus. You know the old saying, “Don’t let a good thing go to waste”? For the exploitation filmmaker, it’s a little different: don’t let anything go to waste. Hence: The Terror. And don’t get me wrong: I think it’s awesome. Did I mention Buffalo Rider has a guy riding around on a buffalo?
Buffalo Rider Plot Summary
Anyway, the story, so much as there is one, is this: there’s this hippy living the life in the old west. He comes upon a young buffalo being attacked by two wolves. Jones saves the poor creature. Eventually, he tames it and breaks it, allowing it to be ridden. Other than the wolves part, this appears to be exactly what Rick Guinn himself did. Then, three bad guy buffalo hunters shoot Jones so they can kill his buffalo. But Jones and his buffalo are saved by Sam Robinson. Robinson and his wife bring Jones back to health.
Now Jones is bent on revenge. He’s going to get those men. It’s all good because Mrs Robinson’s brother and his family are coming for a visit. As the brother is on his way, he is spotted by the three bad guys who really need his horses. So they kill him and his wife, but not before she cleverly hides the baby. Shortly thereafter, Buffalo Jones happens upon the baby. He determines (1) that the dead man is Mrs Robinson’s brother and (2) this terrible act was done by the same bad guys.
He rushes back to the Robinson’s place to say, “Sorry about your brother, but here: have a baby!” Then he goes after the bad guys. They have broken up so that there can been two cool revenge scenes. The first involves him riding his buffalo (Who would have thought?!) into a bar, tearing up the place, and then shooting the two bad guys. Then he kills the final bad guy who was on a mule.
Why the Film Failed to Attract and Audience
It could have all worked rather well. But it has a few problems. One is that it is almost all shot MOS, so the whole thing is narrated excessively. The narrator, C Lindsay Workman, is very good. But the subtext of everything he says is, “The filmmakers weren’t good enough to make this clear, so I’m tellin’ y’all!”
Even that might have been okay and made for a financially successful film. But there is one problem that you cannot get around. As cool as it is that this guy can actually ride a buffalo, he looks ridiculous doing it. It just doesn’t matter what a badass he is. And so Buffalo Rider has a very dorky feel to it. I loved it! But I can well see why people weren’t swarming the movie theaters looking for it.
Guy on a Buffalo
In 2011, Buffalo Rider found a new audience in four short videos, Guy on a Buffalo. They were created by the band Jomo & the Possum Posse, who refer to themselves as, “The Greatest Band in the World. Possibly Ever.”
They describe their music as a “blend of cynicism, dead-eyed soul, and anti-machismo honky-tonk.” I really like all the music of theirs that I’ve heard. (The lead guitar on High Grounds Coffee Shop reminds me a lot of Maury Muehleisen.) But they are a good deal too interesting to be stars. They have an album out this year, Local Motive. It sounds good and I would buy it, but you know I’m old and must have something I can hold. On the other hand, for $8.99, maybe it’s worth finally trying to download some music.
Anyway, Jomo & the Possum Posse do right by Buffalo Rider. But these videos only give you a small taste of the eclectic band. Regardless, what they did is a great act of creative collaboration. These videos are even more funny after you watch the film. Ultimately, they aren’t satirizing the “guy on a buffalo,” but the narration that describes everything that is happening. Doing it musically is brilliant — and one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time.
Of course, now I’ll have that song stuck in my head for days.
For most people, “Guy on a Buffalo” is about as close as you will want to get to Buffalo Rider. I thought the film was wonderful. I like things that are different, even when they are technically “bad.” Skill is a great help to art. But in a society that wants commodity, it is normally used in the service of the banal. The unskilled often provide us with moments of genius we can’t find elsewhere.
It probably helps that I know just how hard it is to get anything on film. I imagine someone coming to me today and saying, “I got a camera, some old film stock, and a guy who can ride a giraffe. Can you write a screen for us by next weekend?” Are you kidding?! I’d have a first draft done tonight. Although rather than “Giraffe Rider,” I’m thinking more along the lines of, “The Man Who Loved Giraffes.”
Image of Buffalo Rider poster cropped from one at Wikipedia; licensed under Fair Use.