Buck and the Preacher

The war is over and the slaves are free, but promises made during campaigns are always destined to be broken, even by the victors. The land which was to be given to the former slaves never granted, instead they make their own way across Kansas in wagon trails to unclaimed territory to stake out their own lives, but even then they are hunted by those who still cling to the old ways.

Attacked at night, some shot on sight, the encampment burned and the livestock killed, those who are left alive are told by bounty hunter Beau Deshay to return south to the plantations to cut cane, but they are not so easily persuaded to give up what they have fought so dearly for and on their side is a former soldier called Buck who refuses to capitulate even when the odds are against him, and with him the wily Preacher who has fallen into his company, Willis Oaks Rutherford.

Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its original release with a new edition released as part of the Criterion Collection, Buck and the Preacher was the unexpected directorial debut of Sidney Poitier, taking over from Joseph Sargent only a few days into shooting when it was felt that he was not capturing the intended spirit of the material nor that the footage was suitably cinematic, the action of Poitier’s vision presented in wide shots showing the grand expanses of dusty plains beneath the mountains, a rowdy epic of forty five cast, two hundred extras and one hundred and fifty horses.

With Poitier leading the ensemble and his good friend of over twenty years Harry Belafonte at his side, two of the most prominent African American actors and activists of the era, Buck and the Preacher was a landmark in cinema, a Western told entirely from the point of view of those who are normally marginalised and victimised, the production largely filmed in Durango, Mexico, to avoid the union rules of the United States allowing Poitier to fill both cast and crew with minorities.

Less a revisionist history than setting the record straight, filmed in an era when the civil rights movement had made progress yet stood short of its goals, Buck and the Preacher reflects that struggle and also that of the native American tribes with whom Buck has come to an understanding, united against the white settlers who have abused and taken advantage of them all, the word of the law treating them as equals but impossible to enforce out on the prairies, Buck and the Preacher becoming outlaws because they have no choice.

Taking vengeance on those who targeted them but consciously avoiding hurting bystanders, that firm morality and the righteous fury behind it reflects the awareness of the men behind the film who speak at length in archive material in footage captures on set and in two contemporary promotional interviews, a light-hearted hour with Dick Cavett counterpointed by a deeply probing segment conducted by Ellis Haizlip which emphasises the weight and importance of the film to the two thoughtful leads who had fought hard to attain their position, insights which put the stage-managed soundbites of modern publicity rounds to shame.

Buck and the Preacher will be available on Blu-ray from Criterion from Monday 26th September



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