Tag Archives: Pale Rider

Pale Rider

31 Jan

Spoiler alert:- if you haven’t seen the following films; Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Noon, Shane or Rio Bravo, but you plan to and you don’t want to have any plot details revealed, then maybe you should stop reading now.

I don’t normally write about films I don’t like, but I’m willing to make an exception for Pale Rider.

I should also mention that I have a great respect for Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker (I don’t care to comment on his politics) and the following remarks should be read with that in mind.

Maybe Pale Rider should have worked, since it’s an example of Clint Eastwood revisiting an idea that he had used successfully before.

The origins of High Plains Drifter (as I think Clint Eastwood has said himself) lie with High Noon. High Plains Drifter starts off from considering what would have happened to the town of Hadleyville if Will Kane (Gary Cooper) had been killed by Frank Miller and his gang.

Needless to say there’s more to High Plains Drifter than that, and it can also be read as a ghost story where the drifter (Clint Eastwood) may be the ghost of Jim Duncan, the murdered sheriff of Lago. (Or possibly he’s a man who’s haunted and driven by Duncan’s ghost, it’s hard to say and to a degree this enigmatic quality is part of what makes the film so effective).

Pale Rider, on the other hand is pretty obviously a reworking of Shane. And maybe this is where the problems start because while High Noon is a complex, brilliant and highly intelligent film, that’s not a moment too long, Shane, in my opinion, is a pretty lightweight children’s novel that was adapted into an overblown, overlong, pretentious sagging mess of a film.

In fairness I should add that it’s also a film that is loved and revered by an enormous number of people whose opinion is every bit as valid as mine and it’s also worth mentioning that even I enjoyed watching Jack Palance, clearly having a whale of a time, playing the wicked gunslinger. In fact I would have found the film much more tolerable if he’d had a lot more screen time, but regrettably that’s just not the way the story was written. (Maybe an idea for another film, anyone?)

Having said that, starting from what I consider to be vastly overrated source material needn’t have been a fatal weakness. Sometimes you can create something really interesting as a response to source material that you really don’t like. For example Rio Bravo was very much John Wayne’s reaction to High Noon – a film he described as ‘un-American’ and essentially it’s his retelling of a broadly similar story in his own way, reflecting his own values and perceptions. (Personally, I think High Noon is the better film, but both are undeniably classic examples of the genre). But then again, maybe Clint Eastwood doesn’t dislike Shane as much as I do and he’s trying to emulate it, rather than reacting against it.

So in Pale Rider Clint Eastwood is revisiting a method of working that had worked form him before. Pale Rider is also similar to High Plains Drifter in having an enigmatic central character (played by Clint Eastwood himself) who may, or may not, be the ghost of a righteous man who was murdered.

The film starts with thugs riding into the camp of a group of eco-friendly(?) gold miners where they cause mayhem and shoot a small dog. The small dog belongs to Megan (wikipedia puts her age at 14, I had the vague impression that she might have been a little older than that, but I’m a poor judge of ages and I suspect that Sydney Penny, who played Megan, probably was a bit older than 14).

Megan goes off by herself to bury her little dog and prays over the grave. As I recall her prayer is not altogether Christian in some respects and her prayer seems to act as an invocation that summons the eponymous pale rider out of the haze. (And this recalls the appearance of the Drifter in High Plains Drifter).

Megan’s, would be stepfather, Hull Barret (played by the excellent Michael Moriarty) heads off into town for supplies, against the advice of all and sundry and is set upon by a gang of thugs, basically more of the same thugs who rode into the miner’s camp. He is then rescued by an enigmatic stranger (Clint Eastwood) whom he invites home for supper.

So far so good.

But then Clint Eastwood seems to start making a series of mistakes that turn a promising start into what seems to me to be a self-indulgent vanity project.

I think most of the mistakes revolve around the character of Megan. She is clearly a young girl who is hovering somewhere on the verge of sexual awakening and maybe this was dangerous territory for a man at the stage of life that Eastwood had reached when he made this film.

The first problem with Megan is that she’s under written and under developed.

From a promising beginning, where she seems to conjure the mysterious drifter, out of the ether, she then lapses into being a silly little girl who falls in love, or at least becomes infatuated, with Eastwood’s character. (Henceforth referred to as The Preacher). There is even a somewhat toe-curling scene where Megan offers The Preacher her favours (and is turned down in manly fashion). This rejection seems to prompt Megan to make the absolutely bizarre decision to visit the mining camp owned by Coy Lahood. (The truly hissable villain who not only employs the thugs who have been harassing the miners, but who is also an eco-rapist using hydraulic mining methods that are shown to be incredibly destructive and are also apparently about to be outlawed).

The camp is being run by Lahood’s son, Josh (played by the late, and sadly missed, Christopher Penn). Josh is initially hospitable and shows Megan around the camp. He is also closer to Megan’s age than The Preacher and, one suspects, the underlying reason for Megan’s visit. The implication seems to be that, having had her advances rejected by The Preacher, she is now throwing herself at Josh. (Honestly, outside of the fantasies of middle aged men; do teenage girls really behave like this?).

In any case, Josh soon shows his true (and rather despicable) colours by attempting to rape Megan amidst a cheering mob of Lahood employees. Megan is rescued by Club, (Richard Kiel) another Lahood employee, but one whose mother clearly taught him better. A shot of The Preacher looking on approvingly indicates that he would have intervened (probably with a rifle shot) had Club not done so.

In the meantime Lahood Snr hires the sinister Sheriff Stockburn (John Russell) and his posse of equally sinister deputies. (Billy Drago in particular makes a superbly sinister deputy). Stockburn’s reaction to a verbal description of The Preacher indicates that the two men have a history although Stockburn indicates that The Preacher is already dead. (As he may well be – it’s that sort of film).

From here on in we should be back on reasonably solid ground. The sinister sheriff and his sinister deputies will seek to kill The Preacher and drive the eco-friendly miners off their claims and they will, in turn, be duly despatched in various ways by The Preacher.

Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood makes another mistake at this point. One of the themes of the film has been the somewhat troubled relationship between Hull Barret and Megan’s mother, Sarah Wheeler (played by the truly excellent Carrie Snodgrass). Barret has been nothing but nice and kind and gentle towards Sarah and he has been protective and nurturing towards Megan (and not even a tiny bit sleazy, his intentions towards both women are entirely honourable and appropriate). Unfortunately Sarah has been abandoned by Megan’s father and she feels unable to commit to Hull and accept his offer of marriage due to her consequent inability to trust men.

For some reason, Sarah then has a sexual encounter with The Preacher and we are expected to believe that this, somehow, facilitates Sarah’s relationship with Barret. (As opposed to undermining it and possibly even destroying it completely, which seems much more likely to me).

Other than sheer vanity on the part of Clint Eastwood, or possibly pandering to what he assumes his fans expect of the characters he plays, I don’t see why the plot should take this turn.

Much like Megan’s infatuation with The Preacher and her subsequent visit to Lahood’s mining camp it seems to be driven by male fantasy and not by any plausible motivation on the part of the women concerned. And this is particularly curious in a Clint Eastwood film given that, generally speaking, he has a pretty good record when it comes to the female characters who appear in his films. He has even been described as the most successful feminist filmmaker in Hollywood.

All in all, I think that somewhere inside the self indulgent mess that is Pale Rider, there’s a much better film trying to get out.

So what would have made Pale Rider a better film?

Well, the first thing that could, and should, have been done would have been to give Megan a little more complexity. Not to mention a little bit of common sense.

It seems to me that having conjured The Preacher out of the ether, Megan’s attitude towards him should have been a little more ambivalent than simple-minded adolescent infatuation.

She might well have been fascinated by him, but wouldn’t she have been the least bit unsettled, and possibly even afraid of him? Shouldn’t she have been the least bit disturbed at what she had managed (albeit inadvertently) to do?

Her visit to the Lahood camp also seems like clumsy story telling. She has to know that the camp is full of people who are far from friendly neighbours and while she might not anticipate the attempted rape, surely anyone with any common sense would have expected some kind for trouble from the visit. Is she supposed to be stupid, reckless or just self-destructive? (I won’t even bother with the possibility that she’s somehow inviting rape. It would have a parallel with one of the more disturbing scenes in High Plains Drifter, but there’s a difference between an adult woman of uncertain sexual mores behaving in a provocative manner and a pubescent girl doing the same).

So it seems to me as though this scene is about placing Megan in jeopardy and in giving Josh an opportunity to demonstrate that he’s really not a very nice man. The first purpose seems to me to be redundant and the second could surely have been managed rather better.

I also think the sexual encounter between Sarah and The Preacher could also have been dropped. It seems to come out of nowhere, to serve no real purpose and to be altogether implausible.

I also think that Hull Barret is much too passive as a character.

He’s presented as being nice, reliable, decent, altogether tedious and ultimately ineffectual. I think if he had been shown to have a bit more moral authority, preferably expressed in a non-violent way, the film would have been more balanced and there would have been a greater degree of moral complexity.

In short there would have been the possibility of suggesting that there are ways of being a good man other than simply killing bad men.

As it is, however, the suggestion seems to be that good men who don’t kill are boring (and sexually unattractive) and that the only way to be truly heroic (and get laid) is to kill someone. (Even Barret ends up shooting Lahood Snr in order to prevent him from shooting The Preacher in the back. The fact that The Preacher has clearly already survived being shot in the back, given all the scars revealed when he takes his shirt off to have a wash, suggests that Barret’s gesture is an unnecessary precaution, although I suppose a welcome act of generosity nonetheless).

So there it is.

In my opinion Pale Rider is one of Clint Eastwood’s failures. He does have them from time to time. And I think the reason it’s a failure is because in this film Clint Eastwood does not follow his usual practice of allowing his female character to be fully developed and have credible motivations and because he builds his own character up at the expense of other characters.

If you want an example of where Eastwood gets it right see The Outlaw Jose Wales where Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) may be strange and certainly falls in love with Wales, but is at least an interesting character. As is Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams) and Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman).

In addition to this Clint Eastwood consistently gives most of the best lines to Lone Watie (Chief Dan George who delivers those lines with understated aplomb), while Fletcher (John Vernon) plays a key role as observer and commentator (almost like a one-man Greek chorus). This is Clint Eastwood at his best and most generous and it’s one of his best films.

And you’ll see similar characteristics from him in what may be an even better film, Unforgiven.