The Supernatural Westerns of Clint Eastwood
This article contains spoilers for both High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider.
I recently watched High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider for the first time. Both films were directed by and star Clint Eastwood and also share some similar themes. I'll talk about Pale Rider first as that's the one I watched first.
It tells the story of a small mining town whose residents are victims of raids from the gang members, employed by a local businessman and owner of a big mining group, Coy LaHood, who is trying to force them from their land so he can have a monopoly on gold mining in the area. After a raid, in which a female teenager's dog is killed, she prays for help. Later we see her reading a passage from the bible in which she quotes:
"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."
Enter The Preacher. Over the course of the movie he rallies the members of the community and gives them the belief to stand up and fight for the land whilst helping them fend off the gang and its employer. After unsuccessfully trying to negotiate with the miners, LaHood employs a corrupt Marshall named Stockburn to kill The Preacher and finally drive the miners away. The film concludes with a showdown in the town between The Preacher and Stockburn and his gang, which culminates with The Preacher shooting Stockburn between the eyes.
What I like about the supernatural element of Pale Rider is that, despite Eastwood coming out and saying, after the film was released, that his character was an out and out ghost, it can still be viewed ambiguously. The two scenes that can interpreted either way are when the teenage girl prays for help and when she reads from the bible. The first is faded in and out between The Preacher on his horse getting closer to the town and the girl praying, and the second is when he appears outside the home of the girl as she reads the bible passage. But neither are filmed or presented like an apparition, they're just cool cinematic introductions and entrances for the character. Nothing is made of the bullet wounds on The Preachers back, it just shows that he's been a victim of a shooting.
The first sign that all might not be as it seems is when LaHood describes The Preacher to Stockburn:
"Sounds like a man I once knew"
"Might be. He recognized your name"
"It couldn't be. The man I'm thinking about is dead"
When their eyes finally lock at the climax of the movie you can see the disbelief on his face. But he doesn't go mad screaming "you're dead" or anything like that, his eyes widen and he just says "You". He then gets shot in the same pattern as the wounds we saw on The Preachers back and then through the head. I still think it's quite underplayed and subtle. Because of this I think you can view the whole movie without applying any sense of the supernatural and the film loses nothing. It still plays as a good old straight up Western.
When I finished Pale Rider, our own Dr Action, Paul Crowson from the Facebook Group, told me to check out High Plains Drifter as it can almost be seen as a prequel. So I did.
In this one Eastwood plays The Stranger. He rides in to the town of Lago whose residents don't take too kindly to strangers. We learn that the townspeople are worried about Stacey Bridges and his gang, who are soon to be released from prison, as they fear they will be coming back to town to seek retribution for putting them in jail in the first place.
They employ The Stranger to protect them and to help fend off the impending attack. What we learn, through a couple of flashbacks, is that not only was the former Sheriff of the town, Jim Duncan, whipped to death by Stacey and his gang but that they were employed by the townspeople themselves who feared for their futures after the sheriff discovered they were mining on government owned land and he was about to blow the whistle. After the deed was done they double crossed the gang and they were sent to jail. Now they're having second thoughts about employing The Stranger too and unsuccessfully try to kill him.
After literally painting the town red and renaming it Hell, Stacey and his crew are shot at by The Stranger from afar, injuring one of the gang. They eventually ride in to town and wreak havoc. All the town members are terrified, a few even try to make a run for it but are gunned down. The Stranger then takes out two members of the gang using a whip and then kills Stacey in a showdown. He leaves town the next day with one of the towns members, Mordecai, asking
"I never did know your name?"
"Yes you do" The Stranger replies as we see Mordecai carving the name of the dead sheriff in to his previously unmarked gravestone.
The Stranger rides off across the plains and fades away.
So who was The Stranger? He wasn't the Sheriff's ghost, even though there is a slight resemblance. Was he an avenging Angel? Sort of.
Eastwood wasn't as specific when describing his character for this one, saying he was just someone who brought justice to the town. Well that definitely makes the most sense. He was not really here to help the townspeople, well not all of them anyway. He exacts revenge upon those who stood by and watched the sheriff get killed. The one woman who tried to help him is the only person at the end of the movie that leaves town. She is also the character that says that the spirit of Jim Duncan won't rest as he lies buried in an unmarked grave. The rest of them are left here to rebuild the town and those that were complicit in the sheriff's murder were killed by Stacey and his gang.
Is the scene with Mordecai at Jim Duncan's grave a contradiction to what Eastwood said later? Is he the spirit of Jim Duncan, or possibly, as I've heard elsewhere, his brother?
In Pale Rider it's not a question of The Preachers identity that's open to interpretation, just whether you believe he is a ghost or not, whereas in High Plains Drifter it's open to interpretation as to actually who The Stranger is. Either way you end up with two really solid Westerns with Clint Eastwood shooting bad guys, and whats not to like about that?