The eighties may well be remembered for cheesy action flicks, one liners, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a yellow Lycra jumpsuit but, were you into that genre, there were some damn good westerns too. I don’t give a fuck about the others so much as I do Pale Rider, however.
Directed by (and starring) flinty Clint Eastwood, the film spins a familiar but solid tale of a mysterious stranger showing up to help a small settlement of gold miners in the fictional place of Carbon Canyon, California. They are being harassed by a wealthy mining company owned by local bigwig LaHood who also owns the town (which is named after him – yeah, who does that?).
When LaHood (Richard Dysart) sends his thugs on a particularly nasty raid on the miners’ settlement, people are hurt and animals are killed. In the aftermath, the young protagonist, Megan (Sydney Penny), carries the body of her little dog into the woods to bury her. As she recites Psalm 23:4 (yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…), we see the stunning backdrop of the snow-dusted Sawtooth Mountains (Idaho, where the film was shot) and a lone rider on a pale horse.
We’re first truly introduced to the stoic stranger, played (obviously) by Eastwood, as he steps in during a scrap in the town, where LaHood’s mean are beating on one of the miners – a man named Hull – and wipes the floor with them, earning thanks and the invitation of a place to stay.
Later, as the miners in the Carbon Canyon settlement recover and order is slowly restored, Megan sits by the window of their cabin and reads from the Bible – Revelations 6:8: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” As she finishes, the stranger rides into shot through the window. It’s a beautifully choreographed moment and works with the earlier appearance to suggest that all is not as it appears. Were this in the hands of modern Hollywood, it would have been announced with a thick soundtrack, or worse, but here it’s a subtle moment, allowing us to get a sense of who this man could be.
After he appears at dinner wearing a clerical collar, he becomes known as the Preacher and, with his help, the miners begin to stand up to La Hood and his cronies (notable names on the roster of bad guys include a very young Chris Penn and the much-missed Richard Kiel).
When further threats, violence and bribery fail, La Hood calls in a corrupt Marshall, Stockburn, and his gang of deputies (whose number include one of our favourite ‘That Guy’s, Billy Drago) to take care of the mysterious Preacher and the miners. The scene between LaHood and Stockburn is brilliantly played – stellar performances here – and with very few words we understand that there’s a good chance Stockburn knows the Preacher. The man appears distinctly uneasy at the possibility that this mysterious stranger could be a man from his past. Especially as that man is dead. The whole scene is brilliant; quiet, understated, and powerful – much like the film itself.
What helps it stand out is that Pale Rider shies away from the feel-good Westerns of my parents’ times. This is uncomplicated, hard and, were it not for the underplayed, realistic characterisation giving us people to feel for, even a touch bleak. The cold setting and harsh (but beautiful) landscape are as much a star as Eastwood and co., and no doubt contribute to the earthy feel of the piece, but the performances are superb.
What I love is that the film feels authentic. It doesn’t have a fuzzy feel to it – no cowboys, hearty homesteads, or rinky-dink piano music over a bar scene. There are no bar fights with men in colourful shirts shooting one another or throwing stuff/people/no claims bonuses through windows. It gives us a totally believable snapshot of the lives of a small mining settlement and their victimisation by a controlling, all-powerful corporation. The film’s supernatural themes are massively understated and thankfully so. This sort of thing in another film, in another time, or at the hands of a different director could have degenerated into screaming the obvious from the mountaintops, layering on the biblical stuff and imagery and practically spelling everything out, complete with flashbacks. We don’t need someone to hold our face in backstory and scream ‘get it? Do you get it?! Do you get what must have happened?! Do you want some explosions and shit now?!’
Eastwood adheres to the less-is-more approach and it pays off beautifully. We never know who the Preacher is, where he comes from, and what his past is and, although there are a couple of fascinating hints, it is left to our own imagination. And that’s how it should be. It’s perfect.
The film pulls to a dramatic close in the final scenes in the town, with the Preacher facing off against Stockburn and his deputies. It’s brilliantly done. Tense, smart, well shot (no pun intended), and not bombastic or overblown as, one by one, the Preacher picks off Stockburn’s deputies until it’s just the two of them left.
Absorbing, well-written and directed (and having Richard Kiel and Billy Drago is a big plus), Pale Rider ranks among my favourite westerns (if not THE favourite, just beating out Tombstone), for the story and the intriguing but beautifully underplayed themes of death, justice, and divine retribution. It’s a film to be savoured. Eastwood’s mysterious character and the imagery in the subtle tale stay with you through the closing credits and beyond.
Eighties fans with a passing interest in either Eastwood or westerns should check this one out. It’s hard and believable. There’s no John Wayne drawling, no over-the-top bullshit, no cowboys, just a fucking simple but solid western of the highest calibre (pun intended). Watch it.