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Off The Chain: ‘Buck & The Preacher’ & ‘Blazing Saddles’

Django Unchained : Off The Chain 'Buck And The Preacher' & 'Blazing Saddles'
To mark the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Southern-Fried Western, Django Unchained, Movie-Moron is taking a look at the cinematic rarity that is the black cowboy film. We’ll be highlighting some good, bad and downright ugly movies, and we’d like to have you along for the ride. Welcome to the second grindhouse style double-feature in the series – Now Showing: Buck and the Preacher & Blazing Saddles.

In 1963 Sidney Poitier became the first black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, and while as an actor he became a star in Hollywood he also later found success as a director. For his directorial debut Poitier chose to make a Western, Buck and the Preacher, the tale of a man trying to lead a band of freedmen into the West and the wily scoundrel who reluctantly helps him through the ordeal. That wily scoundrel is the “preacher” of the title, played by Harry Belafonte. We know Belafonte like this:

The Banana Boat Song by Harry Belafonte on Grooveshark

The movie gives us Belafonte like this:

Poitier’s Buck is very much the traditional hero, stoic and determined, whilst the preacher much more unconventional, and the pair make for a very watchable duo. As great as Poitier is, Belafonte manages to deliver a scene-stealing performance, but the fact that Buck is essentially the straight man in the movie doesn’t mean he’s boring. He definitely gets his moments to shine, a particular favourite of mine being the scene in which he announces ‘I’M BUCK’, guns blazing as he bursts in on some unsuspecting foes.

Buck is also smart and resourceful in a way that contrasts nicely with the preacher’s street-smarts (prairie-smarts?), which makes watching the partnership that develops between the two all the more entertaining. From hiding behind his horse in order to surreptitiously protect himself from the threat of gunfire to capably negotiating with the Native Americans whose land he needs to traverse, Buck is always thinking, and you can see the wheels turn in his head.

The effectiveness of the team makes you wish that the villain they have to go up against made more of an impact. DeShay – GREAT villain name, at least – is a serviceable character, played by Cameron Mitchell, but not one that ever really leaps off of the screen and makes you hate him, and the resolution of the conflict between him and the protagonists isn’t saved for the climax, which seems like an odd choice given his presence throughout the film.

Stylistically Buck and the Preacher isn’t all that remarkable, though a nice opening crawl sets the stage before the sepia toned credit sequence transitions to full colour, and its accompanied by a VERY bluesy theme tune, that feels appropriate, but is also quite different from what you might expect – it’s funky:

Theme From "Buck and the Preacher" by The New Birth on Grooveshark

Bonus tidbit: the preacher is introduced having a wash, just like the introduction of Will Smith in Wild Wild West. And 100 Rifles featured a couple memorable sequences of characters performing their ablutions…what is it with westerns and bathing scenes?

Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles was originally to star Richard Pryor, who contributed to the screenplay, alongside Gene Wilder (a duo Sidney Poitier would later team up in one of his most notable directorial efforts, Stir Crazy), but the producers had concerns over Pryor’s reliability. They thought he’d go all Lindsay Lohan on them, basically, due to his well documented drug-fuelled activities which they had firsthand knowledge of due to his writing process being fuelled by drugs. Instead of Pryor, Gene Wilder was paired with Cleavon Little, who took centre stage as Bart, the black railroad worker who (as part of a villainous ploy) is made sheriff of a town called Rock Ridge.

The dramatic, ridiculous title song sets the tone and the film leaps right into lampooning racism and exploitation with a joke-filled scene showing railroad workers (the future Sheriff Bart among them) being worked to the bone and undervalued by the people heading up the construction. Two of the earliest memorable jokes include an altered rendition of “I Get A Kick Out Of You” – the first sign that the film is going to play with anachronisms for a lot of its humour – and a scene in which a piece of construction equipment is shown favour over Bart and one of his fellow workers.

It takes half an hour for Gene Wilder to show up, but he more than makes up for it:

Blazing Saddles confronts the marginalization of minorities in Westerns by putting the focus on it entirely and making light of subject, at times provocatively, and seamlessly moving from race-related humour to sight-gags, meta jokes, wordplay, and fourth-wall breaking. And if that weren’t enough, a dude punches a horse in the face. And there’s more bathtub villainy! Seriously WHAT IS IT with Westerns and bathing…?

Previous Chapter: ‘100 Rifles’ & ‘Wild Wild West’

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