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After playing Hollywood's first black Western hero in Duel atDiablo (1966), Sidney Poitier blazed new trails when he took over thedirection of this 1972 saga of freed slaves fleeing oppression to find anew home in the West. In a year of revisionist Westerns, including BadCompany, Jeremiah Johnson and The Life and Times of Judge RoyBean, Buck and the Preacher was a standout. In addition tobeing Poitier's first directing credit, it marked the first time a blackman had directed a Western for a major Hollywood studio.
Poitier had dreamed of moving into direction for years and had begunobserving his directors more carefully on the set. But when old friendHarry Belafonte approached him about co-producing and co-starring in thisWestern version of the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egyptto the Promised Land, he felt he was still a few years away from switchingto work behind the cameras. So the two hired Joseph Sargent, anaccomplished television director, to film the large-scale project.
Once the company was on location in Mexico, however, they ran into trouble.Although Sargent's work was professional and polished, it was clear fromthe first day of shooting that he favored a completely different approach to the materialthan the two stars. Where he was directing a standard western, Poitier andBelafonte wanted to focus more on the racial elements, particularly thedetails of black life in the late 19th century and the relationship betweenthe black settlers and the area's Native American population. After a week,Belafonte approached Poitier with his concerns and urged him to take overdirection.
The only problem was their fear that studio executives at Columbia, whichwas backing the film, would pull the plug rather than risk their investmenton an untried director like Poitier. So when they fired Sargent, they toldthe executives that Poitier was only going to direct until the studio mencould find a permanent replacement. Of course on such short notice, therewas little likelihood of the studio's finding a suitable replacement beforethe production would be completed. Columbia was supposed to get them a newdirector within three days, but they couldn't find one. So a week afterPoitier had taken over the film, they sent two executives down to reviewthe situation. After screening Poitier's footage, they agreed that he wasdoing a fine job on his own and allowed him to finish the film.
This was no minor undertaking. To film on location, the production companyhad created a small living complex in Durango, Mexico. Since transportingblack extras from the U.S. would have been too expensive, producer JoelGlickman had recruited more than 100 extras from the black Americanexpatriate community in Guadalajara, to which were added blacks who hademigrated to Mexico from Cuba, Brazil and other parts of Latin America.Added to this were another hundred or so Indian extras, a U.S. film crewaugmented with the best of Mexico's film industry, and such seasonedprofessionals as Ruby Dee, one of the pioneers of America's black theatremovement; character actor Cameron Mitchell; former Wagon Train starDenny Miller; and Hollywood veteran Clarence Muse, who had been afront-runner to play Sam in Casablanca (1942). In addition, Belafonte'swife, Julie Robinson, played the Indian chief's wife.
Buck and the Preacher marked the start of a new career for Poitieras one of Hollywood's first black directors. Future projects would includeUptown Saturday Night (1974), which reunited him with Belafonte infront of the cameras, and the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy hit StirCrazy (1980).
Producer: Joel Glickman
Director: Sidney Poitier
Screenplay: Ernest Kinoy, Based on a Story by Kinoy and Drake Walker
Cinematography: Alex Phillips, Jr.
Art Direction: Sydney Z. Litwack
Music: Benny Carter
Principal Cast: Sidney Poitier (Buck), Harry Belafonte (Preacher), Ruby Dee (Ruth), Cameron Mitchell (Deshay), Denny Miller (Floyd), Nita Talbot (Madame Esther), Clarence Muse (Cudjo), Julie Robinson (Sinsie).
By Frank Miller