Clint Eastwood directs and stars in High Plains Drifter, a 1973 western that often feels like a fever dream. The Ernest Tidyman screenplay wanders through various allegorical wastelands, providing multiple layers of possible readings and introducing a character that is both an ethereal amalgamation of common western tropes and a distinctive force of nature.
It’s interesting to consider this as Eastwood’s sophomore effort as a director, with Play Misty for Me serving as his debut outing in 1971. High Plains Drifter suggests a return to the western stylings of Sergio Leone and even Don Siegel, but there’s something more to it in terms of its entrancing layers. This is a disconcerting tale, but a tale rich with meaning nevertheless.
Eastwood stars as an unnamed stranger and he’s riding into the town of Lago with bad intentions. The townspeople see him and are frightful, almost immediately. He kills three men and rapes a woman named Callie Travers (Mariana Hill), twice enacting a form of justice and punishment for misdeeds. Sensing an opportunity, the town’s sheriff (Walter Barnes) tells the stranger he won’t be charged.
What’s more, the townspeople are worried about the release of three men who they expect to seek vengeance against Lago because of past misdeeds. They turn to Eastwood’s character for protection, effectively giving him full run of the town in exchange for his expertise. He agrees and takes over, painting the town red with his hellish intentions.
High Plains Drifter begins on an uncomfortable note with the rape of Travers. This asserts that the stranger is no hero, no man riding in on a white horse to save the day. The men of the town don’t take Travers seriously, either, even after she seeks out her revenge. Mordecai (Billy Curtis) chalks up her anger to the stranger’s not having “gone back for more.”
So yes, things are sinister. Eastwood’s character is the invading force that corrupts and destroys the place he’s charged to protect. It’s a pretty convincing allegory, especially as he assumes power and starts the nasty business of tearing the town apart. Anyone who doubts his authority is trampled or humiliated. One unfortunate man has his property destroyed.
And the people of Lago are supposed to be good people, as they keep insisting. They are Christians, damn it, and that gives them the moral high ground. They can look the other way when it comes to Travers’ silly complaints, for instance. There’s no point in listening to her. She’s just a woman and the stranger is the dominant champion sent from the bloody heavens.
Eastwood’s direction, together with the cinematography of Bruce Surtees, suggests a world that turns the western concepts of settlement and civilization on their sides. This is an austere, blood-soaked world. It is hell, as the stranger insists, and it is a hell of their own making. They’ve given up much for the consecrated sanctuary of lead and fire. And they pay the price with innocence.
According to film lore, John Wayne loathed High Plains Drifter and insisted that it wasn’t what the West was about. But in many ways, it is exactly what the West was and is about. How many stories have been woven throughout history of conquerors settling into dead lands to impose their wills? How many headlines have been written about invasions and destruction and losses of cultural virtue?
Often, what society will give up for the illusion of security or the moral thrust of revenge is enough to paint the town red. In High Plains Drifter, that is literally the case. Eastwood’s character appears out of nowhere and he can’t be killed. He is the force of vengeance itself and he’s associated with all the costs that come with it, bringing sacred waves of blood on horseback.
In that sense, High Plains Drifter is a necessary western. It examines more than it presses, marking its dark line in the sand from the very wordless moment Eastwood’s stranger rides into town and staying the course all the way to the blood-spattered, neck-wrenching end. It divides the West not into epic types of hero and villain, but rather weaves the costs of vengeance as written in the very stars above.