Butcher’s Crossing is a western drama film that starts off with high prospects and an interesting premise, but ultimately tells a story that could have been made more interesting. The film is about Will, a young man from a wealthy family who gives up the privileges of his life for real adventure in the Wild West in the changing times of 1874. Despite the beautiful landscapes that are shown and mostly good performances from the actors, Butcher’s Crossing falls short of delivering any moving or noteworthy narrative.
Plot Summary: What is the film about?
Butcher’s Crossing begins in 1874, as a wagon travels through somewhere in Kansas with a young man sitting inside, reading a book, and often looking up at the wild lands around him with excitement on his face. This man, Will Andrews, has recently left his very stable life as a student at Harvard and has, therefore, gone against the wishes of his rich and influential family. In a letter that Will has left behind for his father, he has written the exact reason for his leaving Boston, as the young man wishes to see the world beyond the confines of the city. The open lands of the Wild West, which are supposedly full of excitement and adventure, have called out to him, and Will has decided to answer this calling, desiring to find purpose in life and to get a different perspective. At the end of the wagon journey, the young man reaches a small town by the name of Butcher’s Crossing, the place that had been the destination he had dreamed of for days.
Like the name suggests, Butcher’s Crossing is a frontier settlement of hunters and butchers who survive on the herds of wild buffaloes roaming the open heartlands. The buffaloes are hunted down in large numbers, and their pelts are sold off at Butcher’s Crossing, from where the highly valuable goods are sent off to the east for high prices. To be part of one such hunting party and to witness and take part in the killing of the wild beasts is what Will aspires for at the moment, and so he reaches out to the man who runs the trade. This man, McDonald, refuses to send a city boy like Will on a dangerous hunting mission, despite him being an old acquaintance of Will’s father. Unwilling to give up on his wishes, Will approaches another man named Miller, who is himself a hunter, wanting to lead a hunting party.
Miller convinces Will that he knows of a secret piece of the valley where wild buffaloes still roam in huge numbers, in contrast to the lands around Butcher’s Crossing, where the animal has been hunted down to very low numbers. Finding adventure in such a plan, Will agrees to fund the mission with whatever money he still has and to go along with Miller. Soon, Charlie Hoge, a wagon driver, and Fred Schneider, a skinner, are hired by the group, and the four men set out to find the wild buffaloes that would fetch them great riches.
Do Miller and his men find the wild buffaloes?
After joining Miller’s party, Will has a romantic encounter with a woman named Francine, who is also part of the group as long as they are in town. Unlike all the other men at the place, Will is reasonably more sensitive and well-mannered, and Francine sees this characteristic in him very soon. She is immediately interested in and attracted to the young man, and she tries to seduce him. Will gives in at first, but then ultimately pulls away for some unmentioned reason. It seems like this interaction, to him, feels like taking advantage of the young woman and her somewhat helpless situation. The purpose of keeping this scene in Butcher’s Crossing does not seem too clear either, other than establishing this interaction as the only sweet memory for Will, which ultimately turns bitter as well, with his deteriorating mental stability.
The four men set out to search for the valley high in the mountains, with Fred still being very skeptical about the existence of any such place. It makes sense, too, for thousands of wild buffaloes being present at a place, and yet no other hunter getting to know of it does seem unbelievable. Once Miller heads the party in the direction he remembers the place to be, it seems more of a possibility, as the route is far from any civilization and into very unexplored lands. During their journey, the group also comes across a woman and her two kids, who helplessly beg for water. However, Miller knows that this might be an ambush, especially since the woman has guns on her cart, and so he sends them away. The woman or her kids do not retaliate in any way, perhaps suggesting that they were indeed innocent people who had gotten lost, but the toughened Miller does not take this into consideration.
They soon reach lands that fall under the Native population territory, and this also ties in with Will’s question to Miller about why the buffaloes are hunted at all. Butcher’s Crossing does not directly mention it, but there are obvious suggestions about the cruel history of hunting American buffaloes on the continent. Most of the Native populations in these wild American heartlands survived entirely on wild buffaloes, even looking up to the animals as revered beasts. The slaying of a single buffalo provided meat for consumption, fur, and skin for clothing, and bones and horns for various other essential items for the Native people. Therefore, the sudden romanticized charge towards hunting buffaloes on the western frontiers and the heavy price paid for the animal’s skin and fur were also indirect methods for the white man to wipe out the Native population.
Miller and his men finally cross a mountain pass and reach the valley where he had first seen the buffaloes in large groups. As the men look on from the pass, there are indeed thousands of buffaloes running around free, without any fear of hunters targeting them. After they make it down to the valley, quite close to the animals, Miller takes Will along for the hunt, and the man starts to butcher every buffalo group in front of them. This section of Butcher’s Crossing is particularly reminding of the very racist and systemic oppression of the Native people and everything that stood as symbols of their peaceful existence. As Miller keeps killing one buffalo after another and Fred skins them all, collecting the pelts, they harvest only some meat for their own consumption, while the rest of the carcass is simply left behind as waste. Will is also taught how to shoot the creatures, and the men obsessively keep killing the animals.
What happens to Charlie and Fred?
The constant butchering of the animals has an immediate effect on Will, who grows extremely disturbed both mentally and physically from the whole experience. The young man still keeps pushing himself, and at one point, he just seems to lose his mental balance. When Miller is carefully rounding up the wild buffaloes to trap them, Will opens fire and is unable to hit any of them, instead just scattering them around. The others in the group are also affected and frustrated by their elongated stay. While Charlie gets drunk and gets religious every night, Fred keeps warning that the weather might change and that the group might get stuck at the place if they do not leave soon. Miller, however, wants to kill as many buffaloes as possible to harvest the fur, and he insists that everyone listens to his orders and stays back.
The weather does indeed change very soon, as a horrible snowstorm hits the valley. Miller and his men get stuck at the place since the mountain pass is covered deep under snow, and they obviously cannot travel in such a condition. This desperate situation also brings out the worst in the men, as they already have some bitterness growing inside them. Fred Schneider had always been a crude and ill-mannered man, whose favorite pastime was to make fun of the difficulties and shortcomings of others. Charlie Hoge, an elderly man with a handicap, is an easy target for Fred, and he always keeps instigating Hoge. Charlie is also extremely religious, especially when drunk, and he often pulls out the Bible and starts reading verses aloud. One night, Fred snatches the holy book and tosses it into the campfire teasingly, making Charlie scamper to protect it. This is enough provocation for old Charlie, and as he curses Fred for being a blasphemer, he also makes a plan of revenge in his head.
Being the oldest man in the group, Charlie had obviously spent the most time in the outdoor wilderness among the others, and he had the habit of spraying strychnine powder to keep away wolves from the camp. Since he considered wolves to be creatures of pure evil, the man did not mind poisoning the animals. Now, after spending this long with the irritable man, and especially when the group is trapped due to the snowstorm, Charlie also starts to see Fred as an equally unnecessary evil. Therefore, the old man, who also serves as the camp cook, starts to mix the strychnine poison in Fred’s food. The skinner keeps falling sick despite eating the same food as the others, and one night, he finds out about the cook’s secret act. With extreme anger and fierce vengeance, Fred Schneider beats Charlie terribly, almost to his death. By the time Will and Miller discover this, there is no way to save the man, and Miller shoots old Charlie Hoge to relieve him of the pain.
Miller admits that the only reason he is letting Fred walk away from such a violent act is that the man can lead the group out through the mountain pass now that the snow is clearing away. Before leaving, Miller decides to stack as many buffalo hides onto their cart as possible, to be taken back to McDonald’s in Butcher’s Crossing. The rest of the hides, summing up to three thousand in total, are left behind at the camp in the valley so that Miller and McDonald can come and retrieve them later on. Dreaming of the unimaginably rich eighteen thousand dollars that this stash will earn them, the group heads towards the frontier town. However, disaster now strikes, as was almost expected, when the cart gives way because of the tremendous weight of the hides. Fred Schneider, who was driving the cart, falls along with the cart and dies immediately.
Does Miller sell the stash and earn riches like he intended to?
Miller and Will manage to return to Butcher’s Crossing town, hoping to still make a fortune with the three thousand hides stashed away at the campsite. However, the frontier town is extremely different from what it was earlier, and the place is empty with heaps of old, rotting hides lying around. The two men reach McDonald’s office, where they find the man sick and frail. As he reveals, the market for buffalo hides had completely fallen apart, and the goods were of no value at all at this point in time. Had Miller not been so greedy and stayed back at the valley for so long, he could have indeed earned a lot of money with the hides he had already harvested. This was because the price of the goods had risen the most at this time, following which everybody started hunting buffaloes, and soon, there was an extreme supply of hides in the market with falling demand. By the time Miller and Will returned, the market was completely devastated, and therefore, Butcher’s Crossing, which solely depended on the hide trade, was also in similar shambles.
McDonald asks Will whether his journey into the West was really worth all the effort, and the young man replies that he had seen and learned what he needed to. But the almost hysterical laughter that follows this statement makes it clear that the adventure had taken a lot away from Will’s mental well-being than it had given him any life lessons. On the other hand, Miller still refuses to see his blame for the extreme loss, and out of anger and frustration, he sets McDonald’s office on fire, tossing in all the remaining hides. When the old man tries to stop him, Miller strikes down McDonald as well before riding away.
During Butcher’s Crossing‘s ending, Will Andrews is also seen riding away on his horse through the wildlands, far from any town or civilization. While it is possible that the man would return to Boston, it seems more likely that Will won’t be able to survive in any civilized town after witnessing the butchery and might spend the rest of his life as a lonely man roaming the lands.