BUCK AND THE PREACHER (1972)
Directed by Sidney Poitier
Available on Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
A wagon master, by the name of Buck, finds himself on the hit-list of bounty hunter Deshay and his men for helping fellow African-Americans relocate after lawfully gaining their freedom following the American civil war. White plantation owners, knowing they no longer have a taskforce to work the fields, hire Deshay and his men to convince the black community to return to them in the South, by any means necessary. After Deshay and his men destroy a black settlement and steal their money in the hopes of destroying any chance they have at a new life, Buck promises the community that he’ll provide safe passage and escort them to a new home. But without any money to buy food or seed, the African-Americans won’t survive the winter. What will it take for the black people to finally live free? With the help of a travelling preacher, Buck decides enough is enough and brings the fight to their pursuers.
BUCK AND THE PREACHER is an energetic Western movie that puts the story of black people, as well as Native Americans, front and centre in an era that was previously dominated by white cowboy movies. The story manages to bring the entertainment and excitement we’ve come to expect from a Western whilst showcasing a serious and profound truth of what happened post-civil war. As a result, this movie has more heart than your average film and feels like a more realistic representation of the west with all the struggles that came with it, highlighting the alliances as well as the tensions between different groups.
Sidney Poitier cuts a dashing and daring figure as Buck, a former soldier who uses his skills to help relocate his fellow African-Americans, but with this service he draws some heat. Despite the law saying otherwise, the freedom of black people is something those in the South don’t take kindly too, and Buck is standing in their way from persuading the former slaves to return to their plantations. Even though there are white people upholding the law, like a local sheriff who protects their freedoms, this doesn’t stop hired men from following their bosses’ orders and their own beliefs, and will gladly raze any black settlement they find and take lives whilst they’re at it. With his own life at risk, Buck tries to keep the balance of surviving long enough to keep the promise he’s been paid to do, and to hopefully have his own future with the woman he loves, Ruth (Ruby Dee).
Mostly known for his calypso music, Harry Belafonte is unrecognisable as Willis Oaks Rutherford, the travelling preacher. With his shoulder length hair, beard, stained teeth and wild eyes, he has the appearance of a shady character who’s looking out for himself and that’s not that far from the truth. However, this preacher is also a man with a heart and, despite his initial intentions, does his best to help Buck in order to protect any other black lives from being snuffed out by those who hunt them. He knows the risk is high, and that by doing so he puts himself on Deshay’s hit list too, but he can’t sit back and do nothing. Belafonte’s Willis also provides the comic relief to Poitier’s more serious character of Buck. They work beautifully together as a double act, with Buck the noble do-gooder, who’ll do what it takes to keep his promise, accompanied by the eccentric preacher, who has the wiles to outfox their adversaries.
With its boingy score accompanied by harmonica music, accented by the ping of bullets being fired, BUCK AND THE PREACHER feels part and parcel of the genre as much as any of the other Western greats. It works to entertain as well as educate, providing a different view from what we’ve seen before and portraying it unflinchingly. It also features a strong supporting cast, in particular Ruby Dee, who plays a prominent part in their plans as Buck’s partner Ruth, and Cameron Mitchell, who wonderfully simmers as villain Deshay.
Shot in Durango, Mexico, the film takes advantage of its sprawling, dusty landscapes to wonderful effect with horse chase scenes a particular highlight. When the action does navigate to the towns, it’s action-packed and high tempo to keep the momentum and energy high throughout. Poitier may have slipped into the role of director purely by chance after the first director was decided not to be a good fit, but it seems he was made for the role if this film is anything to go by.
The Criterion Edition transfer of Buck and The Preacher on Blu-Ray looks crisp and detailed but the colour appears saturated at times, with colours far too bright and bold, such as the sky and flora. There’s also an issue with contrast that varies throughout the movie. Sometimes it appears as though shots have been inserted into the film that may have been from poorer quality source material, such is the visual shift. However, this is only a minor distraction and is more evident and the beginning of the movie than it is the latter.
The Criterion Blu-Ray contains just a handful of extras, but what extras they are! Fans will love to get their teeth into the special features which includes an insightful breakdown of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte’s careers in Exploring The Western (24 mins) by film scholar Mia Mask, created specifically for this release in 2022; two archival interviews with both actors, the first from Soul! (1972) where the presenter interviews the pair (28 mins), and then The Dick Cavett Show (1972) which features an extended interview, first with Harry Belafonte before he’s later joined on the sofa by Sidney Poitier. This particular talkshow interview has a duration of 1 hour and 4 minutes.
Under the interview sections, there’s also an on-set featurette where Poitier and Belafonte discuss the movie whilst we’re treated to some fantastic behind-the-scenes action (13 mins).
Finally, to round off the special features there’s a new interview with Belafonte’s daughter, Gina Belafonte, who talks about his work on the film and her father’s involvement in music, acting and politics (14 mins).