Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack
Cinematographer: Bruce Surtees
Producer: Clint Eastwood
by Jon Cvack
I had long heard about Pale Rider, never knowing it was directed by Clint Eastwood, and especially not knowing that the film was in many ways a preview of what Eastwood would go on to explore in The Unforgiven (1992) seven years later. I went in with modest expectations, figuring - given how little I had heard about the movie - it would be an 80s B-level Western from the master. Instead, it opens up with a gorgeous opening sequence with a gang of bandits riding across screen with Idaho’s Boulder Mountains in the background.
The film takes place at a prospecting sight in what’s supposed to be Northern California during the gold rush. The riders attack the area, terrorizing the residents in order to try and get them off the lucrative land so that their boss Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) can move in and claim the gold he knows it there. The story focuses primarily on prospector Hull Burret (Michael Moriarty) who’s been courting Sarah Wheeler (Carrie Snodgress), who has a fourteen year old daughter Megan (Sydney Penny) who’s eager to grow up and had lost her dog during the raid.
Intercut with this is Eastwood’s classic Man with No Name -in this case dressed as a priest and referred to as The Preacher. When Hull heads to town against his neighbor’s warning, he’s nearly beaten to death by LaHood’s cronies until The Preacher hops in to save him, beating the six men away and following him back to the prospecting site where Hull and Sarah put him up.
LaHood refuses to back down, having his son Josh (Chris Penn) recruit a giant man named Club (Richard Kiel) to end things once and for all. While The Preacher and Hull work on demolishing a massive boulder that Hull’s certain has gold beneath it, Club attempts to beat them off, with The Preacher once again saving Hull, beating Club with a sledge hammer. Later the two crack the boulder and Hull discovers a massive load of gold beneath.
LaHood refuses to be dissuaded, offering $1000 per claim to each of the prospectors in the hope of getting them off the property. When they still refuse, LaHood hires a band of freelance deputies who lend their “law enforcing” services to the highest bidder. In addition, LaHood has his son Josh blow up and dam the stream further up the river, preventing them from further panning. During the feud, The Preacher takes off, with Hull and the other prospectors thinking he ditched out when, in fact, he actually went back to town’s bank, grabbing his gun from a safe deposit box.
In an earlier and uncomfortable scene (though per other thoughts, in line with the 80s cinema) Megan admits her love for The Preacher, who politely rejects her, causing Megan to go even further and offer to make love though he again politely rejects. When The Preacher leaves, Megan goes in search of him, ending up at Josh’s site which provides one of the films coolest set pieces in which heavy streams of water blast into the hills, eroding the soil and allowing the men to find the pittance of gold. Josh welcomes the girl under the guise of care, then attempts to gang rape her with the other men when The Preacher returns and shoots Josh.
That night, The Preacher admits to Sarah that he’s not at all an actual preacher, then sleeps with her much to Hull’s resentment. Nevertheless, the next day, The Preacher and Hull head back to Josh’s mines and destroy the camp by tossing sticks of dynamite. The situation escalates when another fellow prospector of Hull’s finds a small boulder of gold, heads to town to get drunk, pay off his debts, and show LaHood that they’re not leaving; challenging the six deputies LaHood hired who then make him dance with gunshots before finally shooting him down dead. So begins the traditional final shootout before the Man with No Name takes off to his next destination.
Although the film wasn’t a high def remastering, it remains an absolutely beautiful film; especially when the snow falls and the snow capped mountains hang behind in each shot. Better is the set design, placed within the gorgeous environment as a town, prospecting site, and the strip mining camp. There’s a combination of roughness and carefully crafted frames that embody the wild west spirit which make for any great neo-Western. It’s far from the first film to take on the Seven Samurai trope, in which helpless locals rely on a near superhuman to save them. Yet as with any great films, it’s about taking what works and soaring with it, allowing craft across the board to create the most vivid images possible.
As with most of Eastwood’s Man with No Name films, there’s a spiritual quality to the plot. The title being taken from the Book of Revelation, chapter 6, verse 8: "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him." Although I haven’t seen High Plains Drifter in years, I’m confident in saying this film fixes the abstraction that film posed. Opting for realism over surrealism though with a similarly cryptic Eastwood. At one point, The Preacher mentions the fact that people can’t serve God and mammon “...mammon being money”; in many ways serving as a harbinger to the rest of the community - if they want to survive not just LaHood and his gang, but preserve their community overall, they need to ensure that the gold is for the betterment of all rather than just a few members. Whether against the overreach of Big Government or Big Business, the film reflects embodies Eastwood’s unique libertarianism.
BELOW: Eastwood kicking axe
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