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Buck and the Preacher review – Poitier and Belafonte are glorious in overlooked western

Sidney Poitier’s first directorial effort makes for a wild ride, packed with memorable turns and smart filmmaking

Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, two icons of the Civil Rights movement, sit at the centre of Buck and the Preacher. The two occupy a totemic space in the cultural imagination that has to some extent calcified their images. Part of the brilliance of this much-overlooked western is how it plays against this calcification – Belafonte, as the Preacher of the title, is introduced bathing stark naked, a rambunctious character with the gift of the gab, grimy teeth and scratchy beard. It’s a far cry from Belafonte’s more clean-cut roles, and a glorious against-type performance devoid of ego.

Poitier for his part, ostensibly plays another stoic good man, the type he built his career around. But here, too, there are wrinkles, perhaps unsurprisingly given that this was Poitier’s first directorial effort, taking over the shoot having had the initial director Joseph Sargent fired over creative differences regarding the depiction of race. Poitier’s Buck may be a lawful man, but he’s taciturn and cautious, pushed to lawlessness mostly by the threat of white violence.

The two titular characters meet out west. Buck is a professional wagon master aiding Black folk looking for safe passage away from the post-slavery South, with former masters hiring “labour recruiters” (as they call themselves) to force them back to the cotton field. The Preacher is more chaotic, a lifelong con-man primarily motivated by money. The clash of these two characters against a wider environment of white hostility provides the film with much of its dramatic tension.

As with many actors-turned-directors, Poitier’s direction could be accused of being a little staid at times: this is certainly a handsome western, but parts do lack a bit of flair, such as an opening raid that's simply dull. And yet on occassion Poitier-as-director hits upon a rich seam of inspiration.

Two scenes late on in the film are a case in point, a brilliant marriage of action and theme. The first is the quietest bank robbery ever committed to film, told almost entirely in whispers, our protagonists pushed fully outside of the law as a means of survival. The second, their final stand, stranded on a rocky, claustrophobic outcrop, surrounded on all sides, having to remain hidden under cover. Poitier is using both aural and geographical textures to comment on Blackness – survival in a racist society requiring both silence and invisibility – expressed purely in filmic terms.

It’s remarkably smart and astute directing in these sections, yet the central charm of this film remains Belafonte. His Preacher is a delicious, smart-talking and charismatic creation, a shifty anti-hero that plays nicely against Poitier’s righteousness. Buck and the Preacher might not have the rawness or nihilism of the predominantly revisionist westerns produced concurrently, such as those by Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and Robert Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), but it remains a smart and entertaining film.

Buck and the Preacher is re-released in UK cinemas on 3 March.

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