Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher (1972) is in a fine tradition of the anti-Westerns of the late-’60s that continued through the mid-’70s until the genre largely died away. The finest of these, such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969), took the traditional ideals of good and evil and blurred the lines, creating anti-heroes and noble villains, often in ultra-violent tableaus. Other anti-Westerns such as The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) emphasized humor in their deconstruction of classical Western form and it’s in that group Buck and the Preacher finds itself.
Poitier stars as Buck, a former Buffalo Soldier and current wagon master who helps caravans of former slaves head for the supposed riches and freedom of the West in the days immediately following the Civil War. The trip is dangerous for the most prepared of travelers; it becomes even more so for the poor and uneducated freemen who leave less with a destination in mind to reach and more with a location to leave. Among the physical snares the land represents, political forces bedevil the journey as racists attack and terrorize the travelers at the behest of Southern landowners who aren’t pleased their work force is leaving in droves. One of these groups of bitter defeated rebels is led by Deshay (Cameron Mitchell), whose gang of bandits has run through Buck’s camp when Buck is away, taking his wife Ruth (Ruby Dee) hostage. When Buck returns, he’s able to mow down some of the bandits and see Ruby safely away before being pursued by Deshay and his gang. During the pursuit, Buck’s destiny becomes intertwined with the Preacher’s (Harry Belafonte), a traveling con man, spreading the good word of the “High and Low Order of the Holiness Persuasion Church” to whomever seems like the biggest sucker. First the two work against each other, then together to kill Deshay, find the estranged Ruby and elude the law, all while shepherding a group of travelers to the Western territories and negotiating the prickly rules of the Native Americans who are also trying to keep some of the land for their own.
Keeping all the different plates in the air would be a tall order for a seasoned director, and Poitier, behind the camera for the first time, does an admirable job making the movie push ahead smoothly and comprehensibly while leaving enough room for humor and characterization. Belafonte is excellent, playing slightly against type, as a swindling ne’er-do-well. How he could make a living conning anyone, given his gnarly set of teeth which cry out not to be trusted, is beyond me and yet, he has a certain ingratiating appeal, bridgework notwithstanding. Mitchell is fine as well as the head marauder, a bully licking his wounds from the war by terrorizing those he doesn’t like. Pitted against him is John Kelly as a local sheriff with a laudable respect for the law who sees beyond race when it comes to his duty, even if he’s undercut in that by his own deputies. In fact, it may be Poitier who has the least to work with as Buck spends most of his time squinting, frowning and carrying a big gun a la Clint Eastwood. This was a time when Poitier was frustrated by being the sole representative for racial dignity in Hollywood, and he was tired of playing roles where he had to be the most smart, the best mannered, the most acceptable in order to display his simmering anger at the injustice around him. It must have been fun for him to play a role where he could just blow a racist full of holes without having to explain himself.
Fun is a good adjective for Buck and the Preacher, which has a racial consciousness to be sure (beyond debunking the myth of the absent African-American in the Old West, it takes special care to make sure you realize that in this story it’s the Native Americans, not the cavalry, that come to the hero’s aid), but at its heart it’s a rip-snorting adventure, told more or less straightforwardly. It has a number of good, well-defined action pieces, especially an ambush put on by Deshay’s gang of an unsuspecting Buck that is a textbook for setting up a space. There’s also a well-mounted horse chase at the end, but my favorite is the sudden storm that is Deshay’s death. The scene begins with the Preacher entertaining Deshay and his men at a card table before giving way to Buck’s righteous fury. Poitier is more of a technician than an artist at this stage in his directorial career, but in a script that has a lot going on, perhaps he’s wise to stay largely out of the way. Plenty of directors of great Westerns have let the landscape tell the story anyway. Most impressively, he displays the gentle touch for comedy that would distinguish his career behind the camera, very difficult for first-timers who may want to force things. There’s very little forced in Buck and the Preacher, certainly not its appeal to an audience.