May 31st 2020 marks the ninetieth birthday of Clint Eastwood. In recognition, I went back to re-visit one of the most overlooked and undervalued entries in his filmography, the elegiac Pale Rider, which he serves as star and director.
Eastwood clearly has a lot of affection and fascination with this genre, and not just simply as it gave him his break back in the sixties. He went on to make more westerns beyond the Dollars trilogy, with Pale Rider coming in 1985, a time when everyone assumed the genre was a long dead.
He clearly believed there was more that could be said with the western. While at first glance his first eighties foray in the genre may, at first glance, seem like a no-thrills yarn, it’s actually far more fascinating exploration of both the genre conventions and limitations, coming long before Eastwood did so to terrific effect in 1992’s Unforgiven.
His character, known only as The Preacher, has many traits of the archetypal western hero, but in many ways Eastwood is playing against type here. The Preacher is far more thoughtful, methodical and compassionate than characters he has played before. When he does resort to violence it is more as a last resort, after seeing that he can’t appeal to the good nature of others.
In Pale Rider, he comes to the rescue of a small community, who get by panning for gold in a nearby stream. They are also terrorised by a rival prospecting concern, backed by wealthy miner Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart), who wants to buy out all potential competition.
The Preacher is a model of the character that made Eastwood a star, The Man With No Name (First seen in A Fistful of Dollars). But while he was motivated by his own needs and what he could gain for himself, the Preacher is the inverse.
His motivation here is to help those in need, he is not after anything material for himself. Also, while Clint’s past incarnations were largely about the strength of the individual, here he promotes unity and group heroics. When members of the community consider leaving, he urges them not to, as they will be stronger together.
From the start, The Preacher is purposefully made out to be a mysterious presence: he first appears after the youngest member of the community, Megan (Sydney Penny), prays for help. He also appears to have unearthly strength, the ability to disappear and bullet marks all over his back. What’s most mysterious about him, though, is given he at no time does any actual preaching, is he indeed a man of God?
Eastwood, though, seems aware that the audience can work out what is being alluded to about the character. So instead focuses not on who this mysterious person is but what are his intentions and what effect does he have on the events and characters around him. In many ways, Pale Rider is evocative of High Plains Drifter, the first western directed by Eastwood, also about a mysterious gunslinger who arrives in a small town for unspecified reasons. (Though that character had more malicious motives than this one.)
There are also shared elements with George Stevens’ Shane, and not just that both have similar plots. Much like Van Heflin in that film, the men of Pale Rider begin to feel emasculated when The Preacher arrives. In particular, Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty), who sees his intended is infatuated with The Preacher. He doesn’t respond by trying to outdo his rival, though, instead staying true to who he is, which is what ultimately makes Sarah (Carrie Snodgrass) respond to him.
The scenes between The Preacher and Megan are the emotional core of Pale Rider. Megan is coming of age, but is in an environment where she would be unable to act on or express her newfound maturity. When her dog is killed in the film’s opening set piece she has no vessel for her affection, until The Preacher arrives.
She confides in The Preacher how she feels about him. Whereas Clint’s characters had previously never turned down the advances of a women, this relationship will never become an intimate one. Megan feels hurt when she is turned down by the only man she has ever had feelings for, but she soon learns hating The Preacher will be more destructive than continuing to feel love for him, even if it hurts.
As painful as it will be to live without The Preacher, she realises and accepts that she has to let him go, and her final words to him are truly heartbreaking.
Pale Rider is a visual film, the way characters respond to one another with body language, the effect of their environments on them and how the locations serve as part of the story are all important here. Eastwood recognises that and he and cinematographer Bruce Surtees have ensured the photography is first rate to serve the visual storytelling. It is very handsomely shot and also complimented by a minimalist but effective score from Lennie Niehaus. The music is important, but allows all the room for the atmosphere to really take hold.
Tough it may not look like it, Pale Rider is a very different film to what we might expect from Clint Eastwood. It has all of his hallmarks but the only area where he goes in guns blazing is the relationship between the characters and the events of the film. It shows that Eastwood can see the opportunity and application of a project and executes it with sensibility and intelligence.
For its heart and soul and what it achieves both technically and emotionally, Pale Rider is a film worthy to mark it’s makers’ ninetieth special day.