Monday, 18 May 2009

When The Man Comes Around: Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider

“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him...” Revelation 6:8

Pale Rider (1985; directed by Clint Eastwood)

For his first straight Western in the nine years since The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) Clint Eastwood took on the genre’s central myth of the romantic hero saving the idealised community from organised greed: Pale Rider (1985) is his take on George Stevens’ Shane (1953), updated to include more violence, sex and an environmental theme, but it also extends the Eastwood persona developed in the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and those he made after, like High Plains Drifter (1973).

By cross cutting between the peaceful mining community (lots of women, laughing, clean-looking children and a small dog) and a gang of mounted men riding towards them to destroy their peaceful settlement, Eastwood opens the film clearly evoking sympathy for the former. Miners replace the small farmers of Shane, but it’s made clear that they are not considered a destructive force and live off the land, invoking the tradition of the idealised yeoman farmer prevalent in many Westerns. Instead of Shane’s cowboys who demonstrate their destructive intent from the start by riding through the Starretts’ vegetable garden as opposed to around it like the hero, Pale Rider has the mining company that employs the gang.

In keeping with traditions of the genre, the duality of the role of landscape is clear:it is savage when the gang emerge from the wilderness, but it also harbours the hero, who rides out of the mountains (snow-covered to imply his moral purity), seemingly in response to the prayers (a mixture of New Testament understanding and a call for Old Testament-style revenge) of the girl, Megan, whose dog has been killed by the gang, while the sound of thunder foreshadows the violence that will come. In light of the prayer, it’s appropriate that Eastwood is on a white horse, as in the Book of Revelation, Death rides a pale horse, which the girl’s mother, Sarah Wheeler, notes ominously when she first sees him.

Eastwood looks like an older version of his usual Western persona, unshaven and stylishly, if roughly, dressed, and he demonstrates his fighting skill (including some bizarrely ill-advised martial arts-style pick handle twirling!) and moral judgement by siding with the victim of the gang members in a fight as he rides into town. The man turns out to be Hull Barret, played by Michael Moriarty, the head of the household that stands in for the Starretts from Shane.

The Eastwood character is revealed to be a preacher and has a curious circular wound pattern on his back. Although Barret isn’t married to Sarah Wheeler, to all intents and purposes, it appears to be a marriage; however, it is made clear that both Megan and her mother are sexually attracted to the hero and while he refuses the advances of the teenage girl, the mother eventually initiates sex with him, unlike Shane where the attraction to Marion Starrett is obvious but it goes no further and is one of the reasons the hero feels he must leave. Nothing is made of the sexual liaison and Barret doesn’t seem to be aware that anything is going on.

As in Shane, the protagonist works with the small community; here the values of co-operation and community are stressed when he helps Barret move a large rock from the middle of the stream.However, they are helped by other members of the community, unlike the similar scene where Shane and Joe remove a tree trunk from the farm; thus the empowerment of the small community as it comes together is emphasised and celebrated.

The value of roots and community and the chance to make something of oneself are stressed by Hull, who points out that it is not gold, but the hope of living in a free and caring community that holds the miners together in the face of the ruthless corrupt capitalism of the mining company.

Like Shane, the Eastwood character does not get wholly involved in the fight until one of the miners has been gunned down by marshals employed by the mining company in a scene clearly paying homage to the one in Shane where Jack Wilson shoots Stonewall Torrey – although here, he faces several marshals who shoot him with the same bullet pattern as the one already noted on the Preacher. The other act that provides a stimulus is the attempted rape of Megan by the son of the company owner; hence the Preacher is given, within the boundaries of the genre, moral imperative for his actions.

While the environmental theme is central to the film, it also exploits the tension between the traditional views of civilisation in the genre where it can be both good and bad: the country can be a better place to live in, but with progress comes corruption and greed. The image of the machine destroying the garden is a powerful one and there are several scenes of the company’s hydraulic mining methods, using water jets to blast away the earth from the hillsides to underline its destructive nature; the owner, Coy Lahood, is seen arriving on a train – which, in some films, can signify progress, but it can symbolise, as it does here, the corrupt values of the East which will spell the end of the ‘yeoman’ miner and the democratic frontier community. The fact that a gang of marshals are hired by the company shows that even the law is corrupt, and the way they are filmed when the miner is gunned down,standing in line, drawing their guns in unison and firing together,suggests they too are mechanised.

The final confrontation between the Preacher and the marshals is a stylised, drawn out affair as he picks them off one by one until he faces the leader. There is never any doubt about the outcome; it’s the way the fight is filmed and some of the particular incidents that add tension. The use of close-ups and the sound of the spurs are familiar from Leone’s Westerns, although the dramatic music is not there. The coolness of Eastwood’s character which has been established not just through Pale Rider, but throughout his previous work in the genre (and, indeed, in other genres, as with his cop films like Dirty Harry (1971)), is emphasised as he walks slowly up to the marshal while loading his gun. It is apparent that the marshal knows him from the past and when the Preacher shoots him, he puts the circular bullet pattern in him, suggesting that he had been a previous victim of the marshal and his men and had somehow survived – unless we go for the supernatural option, which Eastwood has referred to in interviews, and we read this as revenge by a living ghost – a device already used by Eastwood in his High Plains Drifter (1973), in which the ‘hero’ virtually destroys a small town and we learn that he is a ghost, returned to wreak vengeance for the treatment he received from the townsfolk when he was alive.

The ending has echoes of Shane as the daughter tries to persuade him to stay while he rides off back into the mountains – but, of course, he cannot. His work there is done; there is no place for a man of the gun now that the lawlessness has been removed and if he stayed, he would disrupt the equilibrium of the Barret family (where mother Sarah has already found that Hull cannot match up to the mythic standards of the Preacher), and the promising frontier community he has just fought to save.

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack
Edited by Joel Cox
Cinematography by Bruce Surtees
Music by Lennie Niehaus

Clint Eastwood - Preacher
Michael Moriarty - Hull Barret
Carrie Snodgrass - Sarah Wheeler
Chris Penn - Josh LaHood
Richard Dysart - Coy Lahood
Sydney Penny - Megan Wheeler
Richard Kiel - Club
John Russell - Marshal Stockburn


  1. A wonderful movie.

  2. Far from his best, but hugely underrated.