Directed by Sidney Poitier
Produced by Joel Glickman and Harry Belafonte (uncredited)
Screenplay by Ernest Kinoy
Based on a story by Ernest Kinoy and Drake Walker
When I was growing up there were few actors cooler than Sidney Poitier. Here was a black man who personified everything that I myself wanted to be: smooth, intelligent, proud, articulate, charming, and witty. I missed the mark on a lot of those aspirations but as a role model I couldn’t ask for better. He distinguished himself as a major actor way back in the 50’s and 60’s and when his movies such as “To Sir, With Love” “A Raisin In The Sun” “In The Heat Of The Night” and “Lilies Of The Field” were shown on television in my house it was a major event. My mom and dad plopped me and my sisters down in front of the set right alongside them to watch. I know it’s kinda difficult for anybody under the age of 30 to understand why an actor such as Sidney Poitier was so important to black people back in the 60’s and 70’s because now we’ve got Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Avery Brooks, Wayne Brady, Don Cheadle, LeVar Burton and two dozen other notable black actors both male and female. But once upon a time not so long ago, Sidney Poitier was all we had. He was it. He not only was at the top of the pyramid, he was the pyramid.
BUCK AND THE PREACHER is notable for a couple of things that lifts it a couple of notches above your average western. First off, it’s Sidney Poitier’s first directorial effort and it’s a damn good one. It’s a western that addresses a major problem former slaves had after The Civil War: okay, we’re free but now what do we do with that freedom? And it’s got a wonderful comic performance by Harry Belafonte, previously best known for popularizing Caribbean calypso music in The United States. Harry Belafonte had done a number of films previously: the classic “Carmen Jones” with the outrageously beautiful Dorothy Dandridge and 1957’s “Island In The Sun” which was considered a daring movie at the time due to the subject matter of interracial relationships. But all of his previous movies had been dramas. In BUCK AND THE PREACHER Harry Belafonte demonstrated a real gift for comedy that he would display again in a later film also directed by his good friend Sidney Poitier: 1974’s “Uptown Saturday Night”
After The Civil War, wagon trains of former slaves are heading west, the promised forty acres and a mule never having been delivered. But there’s plenty of unspoiled, unclaimed land far to the west and the former slaves are willing to make the hazardous journey. Buck (Sidney Poitier) is a former Union soldier/scout who uses the skills he learned in the Army and the valuable alliances he has made with the Indians to take the wagon trains through. It’s not an easy job. The wagon trains are hunted down by “labor recruiters” who use any means necessary to turn the former slaves around and drive them back to the southern plantations. And Buck has a price on his head, himself being relentlessly tracked down by bounty hunters Deshay (Cameron Mitchell) and his sadistic right hand man Floyd (Denny Miller)
It’s during one of his escapes from Deshay’s posse that Buck encounters The Reverend Willis Oakes Rutherford of The High And Low Order of The Holiness Persuasion Church (Harry Belafonte) a smooth talking wandering minister with bad teeth and a six shooter in his Bible. Buck switches horses with The Preacher which leads to The Preacher almost getting killed by Deshay’s men. It isn’t long before The Preacher catches up with Buck and he thinks he’s got an easy mark in the prospective settlers. But a bloody nighttime raid affects The Preacher more than even he would have guessed and before you know it, both men have joined together to become outlaws in order to get back the money stolen from the former slaves and get them to their new home in the west, far from the harsh unhappy life they previously knew.
BUCK AND THE PREACHER doesn’t beat you over the head with a history lesson but the motivations of the characters are different enough from your average western that it gives the material a fresher spin than you might be used to. The plight of the former slaves is laid out with no punches pulled so there’s a clear understanding of what’s at stake. And the performances by Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte sell the movie. Poitier’s the grim stoic while Belafonte is the grinning trickster. They make a great team. Ruby Dee plays Ruth, Buck’s woman and she has a great scene where she lays it out for Buck as to what she wants out of life and she doesn’t want it in America.
There’s a nice subplot with Buck’s relationship with an Indian chief (Enrique Lucero) and his wife (Julie Robinson) who are sympathetic to the plight of the former slaves but not so sympathetic that they’ll risk the lives of their people. Cameron Mitchell and Denny Miller (a former Tarzan and for years was ‘The Gorton Fisherman’) make a great pair of bad guys. Cameron Mitchell has a nice little scene where he explains to a sheriff how slaves are a way of life in the south and without them, that life will soon be nonexistent.
So should you see BUCK AND THE PREACHER? I think you should. It’s got a story that showcases a little known period in The Old West so there’s something extra for you. But it’s also got some great shootouts including the final one where Buck and The Preacher make a last stand against a dozen opponents. The performances are solid and Harry Belafonte is obviously having a great time with his character. It’s got Sidney Poitier. And it’s a western. What more do you need?