When Where the Buffalo Roam arrived in the spring of 1980, there was a bit of confusion upon seeing the movie poster of Bill Murray with a bat over his head. This didn’t seem like a second installment of Meatballs nor any of his characters he played on Saturday Night Live. Who was Bill Murray supposed to be? In the days before the internet, answers took longer. Finally it was revealed that he was playing Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the father of gonzo journalism. Although that still drew a blank since Rolling Stone wasn’t passed around on the junior high school bus like Cream or Tiger Beat. Finally it was explained that Hunter was the basis for Uncle Duke in the Doonesbury comic strip. He was what made it funny. But sadly by the time I figured it out, the movie had come and gone. It wasn’t until years later when the VHS era started that I got to see Murray’s Buffalo after I’d read Hunter’s most important literary work. I was letdown by the experience. Strangely enough, my view of the movie has changed after watching Where the Buffalo Run: Collector’s Edition on Blu-ray.
Bill Murray plays Thompson during the Nixon-era when America was dealing with the Vietnam War, the rise of the counterculture and pure paranoia. The movie opens up in Hunter’s writing room up in Aspen, Colorado. He’s freaking out on pills and a mojo wire machine demanding to be fed a story for Blast magazine (really Rolling Stone). The prologue plays like the opening of a one man show about Thompson’s life with the exception of his dog that he’s trained to attack Nixon’s crotch. But quickly it turns into a two man show as he reflects on his friendship with lawyer Carl Lazlo (Young Frankenstein‘s Peter Boyle). Their first encounter is in 1968’s San Francisco. While we imagine this time and place as a do what you want futureworld, there was harsh law and order eager to stamp out the hippies. Lazlo does his best to prove the police overstepped to bust the kids. He explains his legal case to Hunter during a distracted driver sequence where instead of texting, the writer using a typewriter and steering. But things don’t go right in the courtroom and Lazlo loses his faith in the system. This leads to their second encounter during the Super Bowl of 1972. Hunter has basically holed up in a hotel suite with a football, pills and shellshocked staff. Lazlo hijacks his pal to show him his brilliant new career. He’s running guns for the revolution. Hunter is messed up as he deals with suspicious revolutionaries. This doesn’t end pretty, but it isn’t the end of their relationship. The final meeting comes when Hunter is part of the press corp following Nixon’s campaign for re-election in 1972. Lazlo makes one last plea for Hunter to join him in a free country in Latin America.
When I finally saw the film on VHS it was frustrating experience. The adventures in the movie weren’t even close to reality in Hunter’s books. The Zoo plane in the final section and the candidate in the bathroom story were part of Hunter’s time with George McGovern. Karl Lazlo was really Oscar Acosta who did most of his work with Chicano youth in Los Angeles. It really was like a studio executive in Hollywood just wanted to juice up everything to be cooler. Who wants to see McGovern at a urinal when Nixon would be funnier. Where the Buffalo Roam was hamstrung because it couldn’t use the greatest adventure Hunter and Acosta made. Those rights belonged to Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. In a sense, 30 years, I felt ripped off by Where the Buffalo Roam. But something happened when I rewatched the Collector’s Edition. I was able to accept Hunter and Lazlo as characters like Uncle Duke in Doonesbury. What amazed me was how for the most part, Bill Murray completely lost himself in the role of Hunter. This wasn’t just a variation on his basic character that helped him become a star in Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters. He didn’t care if he mumbled his lines refusing to remove the cigarette holder from his mouth. He gets deeper into Hunter than either time Johnny Depp played the man (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas & Rum Punch). Likewise Peter Boyle drags us into Lazlo’s losing faith in the American way. The film might be a bit of a mess, but these two actors elevate beyond the material. The duo get to the bonds and non-bonds that can exist in a friendship between their characters.
The film also plays better than the previous VHS version since the original soundtrack has been restored instead of the ’80s rock song replacements that took the film out of its spell. The sound mix improves Neil Young’s variations of “Home on the Range.” The movie ages better if you don’t know too much about Hunter. Sure superstar producer Art Linson (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Fight Club, Sons of Anarchy) might have been a mediocre director, he had the wisdom to let Bill Murray and Peter Boyle inhabit their characters and not just read lines in Where the Buffalo Roam.
The videos is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The transfer brings out the details so that you can notice Otis Day from The Blues Brothers trading with Hunter for Super Bowl tickets. The audio is DTS-HD MA stereo with a good level on the sound of the typewriter. You might want to turn on the subtitles to figure out what Hunter is mumbling.
Inventing The Buffalo: An Interview With Screenwriter John Kaye (41:58) has him explain that he originally was hired by Universal to adapt Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Later he turned the project when Hunter wrote about his friendship with his attorney in “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.” Kaye was an alcoholic and drug user so he got wasted with Hunter S. Thompson as research. He relates a few strange things they did. He also discusses Art Linson going from producer to director. Kaye was on the set along with Hunter so it was a weird time. Turns out Hunter wrote the scene where he meets Nixon in the bathroom. In reality, it was Hunter’s fantasy sequence and not just botched history.
Original Trailer (3:14) reminds us that Thompson was a fierce creature during the Nixon era. The trailer doesn’t quite explain that this is a buddy cop movie. They’re just selling the gonzo writer.
Shout! Factory presents Where the Buffalo Roam: Collector’s Edition. Directed by: Art Linson. Screenplay by: John Kaye. Starring: Bill Murray, Peter Boyle, Bruno Kirby & René Auberjonois. Rated: R. Running Time: 99 minutes. Released: June 6, 2017.
Tags: Bill Murray, Shout Select, Where the Buffalo Roam