Buck and the Preacher

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Buck and the Preacher opens with deep rhythm and blues soundtrack reminiscent of a modern John Wayne Western that was given deep soul and harmony from the 1970s. The camera then switches scenes into a camp of African Americans who were just freed from slavery and are traveling West for a better life. Suddenly, a band of men on horseback terrorize the camp by burning wagons and tents and killing men, women and children. The leader of these white bandits, DeShay (Cameron Mitchell), is wearing an old cavalry jacket hinting at his military past.

Buck (Sydney Poitier) enter the scene and dismounts his horse about to walk up to his home. DeShay makes Buck’s wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee), wave to him as if everything is all right. Buck begins to approach the house and is then engulfed in a firefight between DeShay’s posse. He gets on his horse and flees the scene after being chased by the posse and stops at an apparently empty campsite that has a campfire, food and a horse. A naked man, the Preacher (Harry Belafonte), is washing at the stream below and approaches the campsite to dress, but Buck stops him and steals his horse and breakfast at gunpoint.

The Preacher dresses and takes Buck’s horse to the nearest town where he grabs a drink and finds out the location of the nearby camp from an African American boy working at the general store. The Preacher is approached by DeShay and is told that any information leading to finding Buck or bringing Buck in dead or alive will be a five hundred dollar reward. The Preacher is excited about this because he has a good feeling Buck is out by the African American wagon camp the little boy spoke of earlier.

Buck returns to the camp to be told by the men that the elder wise man thinks they should continue West and not turn back. The elder is shown using animal teeth and throwing them on a towel, which the audience assumes to be a prediction of the future. Buck agrees to further helping the group when the Preacher appears and punches Buck in the face. Buck agrees to feeding the Preacher and giving his horse back, after which the Preacher must depart and leave their camp. Buck does this because he is fearful of the Preacher’s motives for wanting to stay after he is caught looking at the women folk and wondering where the money was kept.

The Preacher leaves the group and stalks Buck when he leaves to make a deal with the Native Americans. The Native Americans pursue the Preacher and Buck bargains with them for protection of the wagon group. The Native Americans are portrayed as shrewd bargainers who constantly haggle for a better deal with Buck. After reaching an agreement, the Preacher has a newfound respect for Buck because of his hard work effort and desire to help the traveling freed slaves.

While the two protagonists were negotiating, DeShay and his men strike the camp again and do similar damage. The Preacher turns cheek at this point in the film and stops attempting to corner and kill Buck for the reward because of Buck’s compassion towards the wagon camp. The Preacher tells Buck where DeShay and his men are quartered at and suggests an ambush.

Buck agrees to the Preacher’s plan and they ambush DeShay and kill him and most of his men. The sheriff in the town pursues the two, but they make a dramatic escape on horseback. The two then decide with Buck’s wife to rob the bank at the town where they murdered DeShay’s men with hopes of gaining more money for the African Americans in the camp so they have a better chance of surviving the winter West. The three rob the mail office first unsuccessfully and then cross the street and rob the actual bank. The entire scene is a comedy because of the daunting risks being taken while still doing so in a relaxed manner. The sheriff returns during the robbery and chases the three money filled robbers out of town.

Buck, the Preacher and Ruth ride hard for the Indian Territory and reach it just in time. The Native Americans are formed in columns on horseback defending their boundary and do not permit entry to the sheriff and the posse. The sheriff continues the search and finds the wagon camp and decides not to attack it. One of the men in the posse suggests they attack the camp to bring out Buck, but the sheriff disagrees arguing that the African Americans did no harm.

The man kills the sheriff and orders the posse to attack. Buck approaches the wagon camp and lures the posse away to the mountains. A gunfight ensues and the Preacher is wounded, but the posse is defeated. The Native Americans who said they would not help fight Buck’s battle did send several men to help and ended up being the force that turned the tide of the shootout in Buck’s favor.

The movie ends with Buck, the Preacher and his wife riding happily into the prairie.

REVIEW:

So, it is February, also known as Black History Month (or whatever the politically correct term is this week). In honor of this, I will be inserting a few films that feature a prominently African-American cast, or a highly respected actor of color…and of course, Pam Grier will be in the mix before the end of the month, one way or the other. First up, is a film that I had never heard of, but my friend that is much more well versed in the way of westerns recommended, Buck and the Preacher. Let’s see if the recommendation was worth it, or if he was just blowing smoke.

What is this about?

Sidney Poitier made his directorial debut with this 1972 action-comedy about odd couple Buck (Poitier) and an ex-con preacher (Harry Belafonte) who battle bounty hunters while leading a group of former slaves to Western settlements.

What did I like?

Strong debut. Last week, I sort of jumped all over Sidney Poitier for directing Ghost Dad. Well, this is his directorial debut, and it turned out to be a strong one. There are missteps, to be sure, but for the most part, he manages to keep everything nice and neat. The mistakes that a first time filmmaker would make are not obvious here, if there are any mistakes at all, and that it something to be said about a film like this which wasn’t made in the most harmonious time regarding racial equality.

Deuces. Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier actually have good chemistry together. When I looked at the trailer the other day, I had my doubts, as it seemed like this was just another odd couple. As it turns out, they play off each other’s differences without one trying to change the other, for better or worse. Belafonte is still the conniving preacher at the end of the film and Poitier is still the stoic military man.

Themes. There is a bit of social commentary in this film. First, there is a little bit of talk of slavery, as this is set after the Civil War, but that is like watching an NFL game and hearing about what went on in college football the night before. It happens and is touched on, but not dwelt upon, except for Ruby Dee’s character, who seems to have a major chip on her shoulder. The big to-do actually involves the Native Americans. This is not a Western where they Indians are chased off their land, but rather one where our protagonists help them out, albeit in exchange for safe passage, but there are few to no Westerns that follow this formula.

What didn’t I like?

Teeth. I’m assuming that the teeth they put on Harry Belafonte were meant to be that way because this is the old west. All that would be well and good, except for two things. Shouldn’t everyone else’s teeth look near as bad? Also, he’s a preacher, so one would think that he would have made some kind of money, at least enough to have his teeth fixed up, but I guess not. For me, it was just a bit of a distraction.

Back to the field. Of the white characters in this film, at least the ones that were focused on, one of them really seemed obsessed with trying to “maintain his way of life”. Again, remember that this is after the Civil War, so he is referring to slavery, obviously, but the film seemed to keep wanting to avoid the topic. This bothers me because there have been films that were released around this time that went deep into the topic, and yet this one skirted around this issue. Granted, this film is a little lighter in tone and want to maintain that status, but there is still the fact that they brought it up and then avoided it for some mysterious reason.

Too little, too late. At the time of this release, as I recently found out, westerns were well past their prime. Audiences were becoming disillusioned with the old west and had moved on to another subgenre, perhaps gangster flicks such as The Godfather flicks and their ilk. This is such a shame, as I believe this film would have been more of a historically significant film that people are aware of.

As far as westerns go, Buck and the Preacher is pretty average. I hate to say that the race part of this film is what makes it special, but sadly, it is. That being said, this isn’t the kind of flick that is for everyone, but most can actually have a decent time watching. Do I recommend this? Yes, but with hesitation. This is the kind of film that shows Poitier’s acting and directing ability, as well as Belafonte as a comedic actor (we all know he can sing), but other than that nothing is really going to stick with you. Well, maybe the part the Indians play in the climax does, but not much else. So, you have to decide for yourself with this one, but at least you now know it exists.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

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2 Responses to “Buck and the Preacher”

  1. […] to first time directors. Earlier this week, I watched Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher and tonight I have the chance to watch Lake Bell’s debut with In a World… Now, it is […]

  2. You might put this film in the context of strong, black leading men, especially one (Poitier) in the role of an iconic character often played by a white actor. Consider that it was made the same time as SHAFT (1972).

    Add to that a galvanic performance by Ruby Dee, who co-stars. Their scenes together are powerful and convention busting…But like you, I did not get Bellafonte’s character. It either did not work as intended or it was not meant to be easily understood by a white audience.

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