When director/producer/actor Clint Eastwood returned to the genre that made him famous more than twenty years earlier there hadn't been a hit western in almost as long a period. Many thought that the project would be box office poison but Eastwood proved them wrong when Pale Rider was one of the hits of the year. His clever but deceptively simple idea was to add a mystical/religious twist to the format that suggested his familiar man with no name figure was a ghost reaping vengeance on his wrongdoers and helping out some good, God-fearing folk at the same time. Eastwood's approach to the idea could hardly be described as subtle, but it works superbly. The good verses evil battle, such a stalwart of the western, is here portrayed with an almost evangelical fervor with Eastwood playing a preacher who's not afraid to kill in the name of good. .
Having spent most of his formative years working in the western genre, both in TV and on the big screen, none were better placed that Eastwood to turn in an archetype for modern audiences. Pale Rider is just such a film. There's barely an ounce of fat on either the script or the dialogue but there's plenty of character definition and a strong, if straightforward, story of the forces of good verses those of evil. The film opens with the heavy hooves of a bunch of approaching riders, like a thunder storm bringing mayhem (we later learn that this roaming band of men are the notorious Sheriff Stockburn and his six ruthless deputies - lawmen who uphold whichever law pays the most). A small group of gold prospectors have staked their claim on a rich piece of land and a local industrial scale goldminer, Hull, will do anything to get his hands on their land. After a raid through the miners' settlement, the daughter of one of their number prays for help. "We need a miracle" she says. The clouds thicken and rumble and we cut to a lone rider on a pale horse crossing the plains. He appears as an apparition at the edge of the nearby town. One second he's sitting there, the next he is gone. The man with no name has come to save them. Their prayers have been answered.
Squint Eastwood (being the director of course) gets plenty of opportunities to look mean and cool. He's also got the best of the dialogue with some superbly self-effacing lines. Trying to dissuade one of the prospector's wife leads to the following exchange: "You wouldn't want to spend your future on a man like me" he suggests, "Why not?" begs the woman, "That's just the way it is." replies the preacher. The sexual tension particularly between the preacher and Sarah's daughter is great - feeding both the fantasies of those legions of women who'd die to hear Eastwood say such things and males who'd love to have attractive young females begging to loose their virginity. The preacher discreetly obliges. Trading his dog collar for a six shooter the preacher returns to help the tin panners protect their claim and to meet his nemesis in the shape of Stockburn. This leads to the inevitable classic showdown in the main thoroughfare of the town. It's here that the suggestions that the preacher may be a spirit come full circle with the collar-less gunslinger getting his revenge in a terrific sequence of clinical executions resulting in the demise of all six of Stockburn's deputies. There is also a link to an earlier scene where we see the preacher has a circle of bullet wounds - an injury so serious one wonders if a man could survive it.
It's interesting to look back on Pale Rider after Eastwood directed and starred in the remarkable western Unforgiven seven years later. Pale Rider sits very much within the western landscape that first introduced Eastwood as the man with no name. The film could easily be interpreted as simply another chapter in the tale of the lone rider - following on from the likes of those 60s classics like Fistful of Dollars, Hang 'em High etc. The film trades on the mythical qualities of those earlier films creating a dreamscape as much as a genuine period landscape. At the same time, Eastwood actively plays with western genre conventions, giving them a hip, contemporary spin and removing the cheesiness that distances so many older westerns from contemporary audiences. When it was released in 1985, the film and its director were praised with rejuvenating the western, reinventing the genre, making it resonate with modern moviegoers. The production values are first class, the photography glorious and the acting great from a terrific ensemble cast.
With Unforgiven going even further in creating a revisionist western still palatable to today's critics and mainstream audiences (but here by removing all traces of mystical mythology and substituting it with unglamorous, brutal reality), Pale Rider now looks like Eastwood rehearsing for Unforgiven. Indeed by sticking with many of the spaghetti western conventions, with hindsight it looks like a deliberate, if cautious, testing of the waters of public opinion - notoriously fickle where the western is concerned. That's not to take anything away from Pale Rider. Its reliance upon (but subversion of) the genre's conventions make it resolutely traditional on the one hand, yet inventively update what was broadly considered by both critics and ticket buyers to be a tired genre that offered little new. Eastwood's mastery was not only to prove them all wrong by producing such an entertaining film but one that stands up to repeated viewing again and again.
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