If there’s one thing I wish the bad guys would learn, it’s that no matter the circumstances, you do not mess with Clint, the next film in the Shootout At High Noon Marathon is further proof of this fact!
Written By: Michael Butler & Dennis Shryack
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Pale Rider brings an otherworldly, ethereal aesthetic to the table. This is due to the way Clint Eastwood shot the film, as well as the way he acted his part, and the time frame when the movie was released. I can’t think of any notable Westerns released in the mid-1980s, this adds to the sense of the dying West that permeates Pale Rider. This isn’t Mr. Eastwood’s last Western, as a director or an actor, but he has brought to the screen a movie that gives the impression that it is speaking about a dying age. The lack of quality Westerns being produced during the time period of the 1980s has to play a major role in this. Maybe I’m wrong, and feel free to let me know if I am, but I heard the death rattle of the Old West loud and clear throughout Pale Rider.
A way that Mr. Eastwood contributes to this idea of the death of the Old West is the character of the Preacher. He doesn’t quite seem to fit in with his surroundings in the film, and by that token neither do the Marshall and his deputies that the Preacher squares off against late in the picture. They, along with the Preacher, are relics of a dying era, they don’t belong in the same frame of film as other characters with more modern sensibilities. There’s a feeling of inevitability to the conclusion of Pale Rider because of this. The moment Coy LaHood mentions Marshall Stockburn and his deputies it’s clear a confrontation is coming. What isn’t clear at that time but becomes clear retroactively is that it is a showdown to determine the future of the West. If the Marshall and his deputies win then the Old West will live on and nefarious men like them will stay in positions of power. If the Preacher wins then he will slink away into the sunset, allowing a new breed of man and woman to claim the New West as their own. When Stockburn and the Preacher have their final showdown it’s no coincidence that Mr. Eastwood follows that with long shots of the looming mountains. The duel between Stockburn and the Preacher has paved the way for those mountains to open up and for the West to truly be colonized, yet those mountains loom suggesting that the Preacher’s victory may not be all for the best.
Another method Mr. Eastwood uses to convey the changing of the guard in the West is the attraction that both Sarah Wheeler and her daughter Megan form towards him. In the Old West the Preacher could have and possibly would have won both of them. His personality and his way of life were appealing in the Old West, and it was not uncommon for a fifteen year old girl to run off with a man much older than her. But, he rebukes the advances of young Megan, showing that the Old West is in a transition. That transition is completed when Sarah looks past the preacher to the much safer Hull. The appeal of the gunman who is his own man has given way to the appeal of the loyal man who would give his all for his family. The Old West has changed into the New West where family matters more than anything else, and the Preacher has no recourse but to leave this place that is entirely foreign to him.
In yet another, more obvious way, Mr. Eastwood signifies the changing of the guard through his apparel in the guise of the Preacher. He doesn’t represent religion, although a reading of his character as representing religion would be perfectly justified. The Preacher represents the new role of faith in the formation of the New West. No longer will faith be an empty symbol, a token trinket from out East. As the gunmen and the outlaws are driven off and a more civilized way of life is introduced to the West so too will a more observant meditation on faith re-enter the picture. This is also shown by the differences between the Carbon Canyon camp and LaHood’s men. The Carbon Canyon camp hasn’t fully embraced faith as an actuality, but it is present and it is growing. Once the Preacher enters their lives the tides change and their total acceptance of the Preacher represents their now total acceptance of faith. LaHood and his men have no faith present as far as I can tell, and they utterly reject the Preacher. This results in their destruction, because those who are not true observers of faith have no place in the New West. Faith doesn’t necessarily represent religion for Mr. Eastwood, I don’t think. Faith in Pale Rider can be religion, or it can be a faith in one’s self as a good, law abiding citizen.
There are a few moments where Pale Rider drags a bit, and for as subtle as Pale Rider is most of the time there were a few moments where I felt the film was too on the nose. But, as you have read so far I really got into the meta and allegorical aspects of Pale Rider. That’s without getting into the awesomeness of Mr. Eastwood being a bad ass on screen again, and so freaking effortlessly. I love watching him do his thing in the West, he shows a complete understanding of the era, the people, and how to be the baddest of the bad ass without acting like a bad ass. Pale Rider is a great movie, it’s the only great Western of the 1980s I can think of at the present time, and it was a joy to dig into every level of this Clint Eastwood picture.
Read what Edgar had to say at Between The Seats.