One possible reason that the Western has become a less popular genre in the past few decades is that audiences aren’t as willing to accept (or at least celebrate) the notion of Manifest Destiny, or the type of masculinity usually represented by the hero. Though this is a positive thing, it’s also something of a shame, because not every Western, past or present, plays into the same values. Most people who claim to hate Westerns seem to think they haven’t changed since the forties, but as often as the typical Western lead has been an unemotional, Indian-killing white man, there’s plenty of room within the genre for different points of view. Indeed, with his directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher, Sidney Poitier made an unconventional Western that manages to be fun as well.
Poitier plays Buck, a wagonmaster who does his best to escort former slaves to land where they can make new homes. These people are often pursued by Southerners and forced to return to their former owners. When Buck falls afoul of the Preacher (Henry Belafonte), a fast-talking conman, he’s made a devious enemy. However, after the Southerners attack his latest wagon train, Buck, the Preacher, and Buck’s lover Ruth (Ruby Dee) are the only people who can get back the settlers’ money and lead them to safety.
Buck and the Preacher is something of a buddy movie. The stoic and moral Buck stands in contrast to the eccentric, stylish Preacher. Of course, once Preacher starts caring about people other than himself, they’re going to make a great team, and the actors play their parts well. Surprisingly, though, there’s room in the partnership for Ruth too.
The film has a laid-back sense of style about it. There’s some odd framing in a few shots, but the film feels nicely quirky. The soundtrack, which combines harmonica with a lively bassline, is certainly off-kilter. A scene where the lead trio rob a bank so seamlessly that they don’t even need to say a word is impressively cool.
Buck and the Preacher’s plot is fairly predictable and the pacing is a mite slow, but it’s hard not to like this film. Though it takes on a much overlooked, weighty subject, the overall tone is optimistic. It’s also impossible not to admire a Western that mostly stars black men, gives a major role to a black woman, avoids making all the white characters bigots, and respects its Indian characters. Westerns need not be riddled with racist cliches (even if, like most Hollywood films, they often are) and not every film in the genre is cut from the same cloth. Buck and the Preacher reuses many familiar elements but, with only a few changes, becomes something markedly different. When so many more modern Westerns, from There Will Be Blood to The Ballad of Little Jo to Deadwood to The Proposition, take a heavy tone, this film’s lighter touch is appreciable, too.