Clint Eastwood produces, directs and stars in Pale Rider, a 1985 western that certainly plays to his strengths. This movie features a screenplay by Michael Butler and Dennis Shyrack and, like High Plains Drifter, is full of meaning. Pale Rider is certainly less otherworldly in comparison to Eastwood’s 1973 “fever dream,” but that doesn’t diminish it as a film.
Of course, many of the traditional tropes are present. Eastwood plays a mysterious stranger sent to rescue people from some sort of plight. But whereas hell likely sent him in High Plains Drifter, he is the literal answer to prayer in Pale Rider. And he doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of those he’s come to save, going so far as to develop a nearly tender relationship with a group of miners.
Outside of the town of LaHood, a cluster of miners and their families have settled to pan for gold. They are set upon by a group of thugs representing Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart), an industrialist who wants the land the miners live on. The thugs terrorize the miners and even shoot the dog belonging to Megan (Sydney Perry), so she prays to God for assistance.
Help seems to come in the form of Preacher (Eastwood), who first intervenes when Hull (Michael Moriarty) is set upon by some ruffians in town. Hull wants to marry Megan’s mother Sarah (Carrie Snodgress) and this has created an interesting family dynamic. Preacher agrees to help Hull and the miners, which leads to a showdown with LaHood and his cronies.
There is little moral ambiguity to be found in Pale Rider and the battle lines are drawn early and often. LaHood believes the land belongs to him and he wants to continue to use hydraulic mining to make his fortune, even as the legal rights to the harmful method seem to be diminishing before his eyes. He wants to double-time it, which means applying even more pressure on the miners in his way.
It stands to reason that LaHood would try to bribe the bothersome Preacher, but that’s where Eastwood has his character stand firm. He tells the businessman that he can’t serve both God and money, which infuriates the bad guy and leads him to hire a group of dangerous men led by Marshal Stockburn (John Russell). Naturally, Stockburn and Preacher have a history.
Eastwood plays his Preacher as a direct hero, but that doesn’t mean there’s a lot of light shed on who he is. He arrives out of a thunderclap and cinematographer Bruce Surtees ensures that he’s bordered by shadows. Eastwood’s character is almost always backlit, with little eruptions of illumination drawing focus to his mouth or eyes.
The interiors of Pale Rider are befittingly dark, often lit only through the wood slats. The wide vistas are contrasted against the nooks and crannies of Hull’s home or the store belonging to the Blankenships, but the aesthetic is perhaps used to its best effect when Preacher meets with LaHood for the first time. His shadowy intentions are hardly clear and his muttering menace drives the antagonist nuts.
This romanticism of the hero is further exemplified by his relationship with Hull, a man who clearly looks up to him for a number of reasons. But this is perhaps where Pale Rider oversteps. While it’s reasonable to have the 14-year-old Megan reveal her love for Preacher, things become more convoluted when Sarah also appears to have some lusty designs on the fella.
Consider Hull, or what’s left of him. He’s a man desperate to protect his family from the LaHood onslaught and he finally finds some courage in the form of the enigmatic Preacher. He even has Sarah on the hook for marriage, but then something happens prior the climax that seems needless. It only undermines poor Hull while further insisting, overly so, on the vigour of the protagonist.
This issue aside, Pale Rider is a top-tier Eastwood western. It illustrates his understanding of the genre and showcases his raw character appeal, with his Preacher personifying all of the No Name values while toting a spiritual dimension. He emerges as though cast from the Book of Revelation itself, seemingly sanctified to mete out God’s retribution on the wicked.