Sidney Poitier has probably done as much as anyone to remind moviegoers that there were black people on the Western frontier.
He played a freed slave in “Buck and the Preacher” and an ex-soldier in “Duel at Diablo.”
Tonight and Tuesday, he takes the role of Gypsy Smith, the half-black, half-Cherokee gunfighter in an adaptation of the Clancy Carlile novel, “Children of the Dust.”
In a way, Westerns were the starting point for Poitier’s acting career. “I was raised on a very primitive island called Cat Island in the Bahamas,” he recently recalled. “I saw my first movie at the age of 10. I didn’t know there was such a thing as motion pictures.
“They took me to a movie theater when I was 10, and I was astonished at all those images on the screen. And the first film I saw was a Western. I grew up with Westerns, and I grew to love them. They were my heroes, and I always wanted to be a cowboy.”
He became an actor instead, fashioning a 40-year film career that includes a best-actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field.”
In “Children,” Poitier is surrounded by a terrific cast in a sprawling piece that has action and tension on many fronts.
“Children” embraces most of the classic Western themes: There are conflicts between westward-moving whites and Indians during the declining days of the wide-open frontier. And there are romance and melodramatic intrigue.
Added to that mix is a seldomsounded theme, the push west by black Americans.
From the start, the viewer knows that “Children,” while beautifully filmed, is not going to be a pretty picture. In the opening scene Poitier rescues an Indian boy from the crossfire of a massacre. The child is given to Michael Moriarty, playing an Indian-affairs agent, and wife Farrah Fawcett, who is not coping well with frontier life.
The youth, played as a young man by Billy Wirth, grows up with Moriarty’s children, Joanna Going and James Caviezel. One of the siblings loves Wirth, the other resents him. And Hart Bochner, in a role vaguely reminiscent of Rhett Butler, sweeps Joanna Going away.
Meanwhile, Robert Guillaume has persuaded Poitier to use his talents with a gun to escort a group of freed slaves from Tennessee to Oklahoma Territory, where they will take part in a land rush. On the trail, Poitier meets and falls for Regina Taylor (“I’ll Fly Away”), one of TV’s better actresses, here playing a hopeful settler.
But the trail west is lighted by the torches of the Ku Klux Klan.
Before the first night is over, Poitier has challenged the Klan, and when they abuse him in the worst way, he departs from the sort of character we’ve become accustomed to seeing him play. He doesn’t work through the system, use reason on the irrational or pit his patience against the racial storm.
In “Children of the Dust,” he doesn’t so much fight back as he seeks revenge. It is a dramatically refreshing - and saddening - twist on the theme.
MEMO: This is a sidebar that appeared with the story: “Children of the Dust” airs Sunday from 9-11 p.m. and Tuesday from 8-10 p.m. on CBS (KREM-Channel 2 out of Spokane).