I - Shane redux
The story told here, is one of the oldest (and most prolific) in the history of the western movie, that of the mysterious stranger coming to the aid of poor defenceless people threatened by a local tyrant. Nearly all elements of Shane (1953) are copied, but usually with a minor twist. Eastwood himself is the stranger, and his arrival is accompanied by a teenage girl reading in the Bible about the horseman of the Apocalypse riding a pale horse, named Death, and hell followed him.
The settlers from Shane, have become a group a prospectors, threatened by a man called LaHood, a big time miner who wants to lay his hand on their claims, if necessary by brute force. The stranger befriends Hull, the leader of the prospectors, a single man who lives with a woman called Sarah and her blossoming, 14-year old daughter Megan. Both women are attracted to the mysterious stranger, who is called "Preacher" by the prospectors, because he wears a white clerical collar. An alarmed LaHood first offers the prospectors a good price for their claims, but when they decide to stay, he contracts a group of hired guns, assembled by a man called Stockburn.
In an interview, Eastwood called the hero of this movie an 'in and out ghost', insinuating, so it seems, that the title character is a dead man coming back from 'the other side' (*1). There's some evidence for this theory in the movie when six scars from bullet wounds are visible on his back: So many wounds in such a vital area of the body must have been mortal. The same amount of wounds, in the same pattern, will be inflicted on Stockburn, the leader of the hired killers, suggesting that he was the man who killed the Preacher in his former life.
II - But not just a Shane redux ...
Pale Rider is strongly reminiscent of Eastwood's own High Plains Drifter, his first western as director. Like the Preacher, the Drifter was thought to be a ghost by many, a man who came back from the other side to avenge his own death. It has often been suggested that High Plains Drifter was based on an Italian western, Sergio Garrone's Django il Bastardo, but it seems more likely to me that he was based on the character Harmonica from Sergio Leone's C'era una Volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West). Several people attending pre-release showings of Once upon a Time in the West thought Harmonica was a ghost, and apparently Leone considered to treat him as such for a while, but later rejected the idea. In his book on spaghetti westerns, Alex Cox states that the ghost-like avenger from Django the Bastard was also based on Harmonica (2).
Within Eastwood's body of work, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider are separated by The Outlaw Josey Wales, a film set in a post-war society, with a message of reconciliation. In many ways, Pale Rider offers a more positive reading of subjects treated in High Plains Drifter: The Rider is a man of God, while the Drifter seemed more like a messenger from hell. A comment made by the Preacher about the way the prospectors can resist LaHood, puts a similar statement, made by Harmonica (about Morton, the ruthless businessman from Once Upon a Time in the West) in more positive light: The Preacher says the prospectors can resist the LaHoods of this world by sticking together, Harmonica predicted that new Mortons would come along, and wipe out that ancient race called Man.
III - The identity of the Preacher
Pale Rider does not include any conclusive evidence to the nature and past of the 'Preacher'; it's still possible to read the events in a more allegorical way and see him as a knight errant, responding to the prayers of a virgin. After all he sleeps with the woman, which seems to make him 'human', and the anti-corporate message (pro-prospectors, anti-hydraulic mining) has a down-to-earth quality too. Some have interpreted as an illustration of Devine Retribution (3); this reading would turn the Preacher in an avenging angel, sent (back) to earth by God himself (but the question would remain if we were to take all these thing literally or explain them in an allegorical sense). Anyway, knight errant, ghost or God's own avenging angel, who is this Preacher?
Once upon a Time in the West is not the only spaghetti western that is referred to in Pale Rider. The introduction of the Preacher is reminiscent of Sergio Corbucci's Il Grande Silenzio (1968), in which the protagonist, a mute gunslinger, is presented in similar fashion. There have been some persistent rumours that Eastwood was interested in a remake of The Great Silence. He never made it, but ideas, props and story elements kept popping in his own westerns and those of others he starred in (4). The mute in The Great Silence is a bounty hunter, but one of a peculiar kind: instead of bounties, he hunts down other bounty hunters. It's tempting to suggest that the hints that the Preacher met Stockburn in the past, reveal something about the Preacher's own identity. Was he a hired killer too, in the past, or in a previous life? In that case he would, like the mute in The Great Silence, have made the decision to turn against his own kind: a hired killer who kills hired killers.
IV - Evaluation
Eastwoods body of work shows a development towards a more conciliatory attitude. Pale Rider is still an avenger, but he acts in God's way, and the violence in the movie is never gratuitous. Note also that the spaghetti westerns were known for their virulent anti-clerical tendencies. The star seems concerned with his own 'violent past' in movie history, but also with the acceptance of violence exercised in the name of the law, a recurring theme in his movies. Whatever you are, whoever you might be, violence takes away a part of you. Note also that Stockburn is referred to as a 'Marshal', which makes his actions no less than legal butchery, an idea that would eventually lead to Eastwood's philosophical anti-western Unforgiven.
Some of the Biblical parallels may feel a little heavy-handed, but the similar pattern of wounds inflicted on the Preacher and Stockburn, give the film a distinctive circular character, symbolising the eternal alternation of life and death, also symbolized by some other story elements. Eastwood's Apocalyptic Rider brings death and destruction, but only to facilitate the resurrection of life, impersonated by the young flourishing girl, who experiences the blossoming of her sexual needs. The film is a bit ponderous, slow-moving, and some even think it only truly comes to life after the arrival of Stockburn and his men, but thanks to Bruce Surtees' magnificent cinematography it has a glorious look. It is true that John Russell turns in a masterful, chilling performance as the hired killer who meets his match in a memorable, beautifully staged, almost gothic finale. Actually most performances are fine, including the one by Eastwood himself. It's hard to imagine any other actor who could breathe life in such an enigmatic character as the Preacher. Clint's strong screen presence makes all the difference.
* DJANGO THE BASTARD, Review
* (1) "In and out ghost": Interview with Clint Eastwood (Go to Audio, you may have to download Real Player to listen to the recording)
* (2) Alex Cox, 10,000 Ways to Die, p. 253-257. In his comment on Django, the Bastard, Alex Cox draws some parallels between the behavior of the Django from Garrone's movie and Harmonica: both characters repeatedly slide in and out of frame. This also exactly how the Preacher behaves: he appears and disappears, like an 'in and out ghost'
* (3) Devine Retribution. Some parts of the dialogue parallel St. Paul's teaching on the subject in Romans (notably 12:19-21). In these verses it is underlined that people should be a loving community ('stick together' as The Preacher calls it) and trust on God for retribution: Vengeance is mine, I will repay.
* (4) A female character from the movie introduces Silence like this in a conversaton: "Once, my husband told me of this man. He avenges our wrongs. And the bounty killers sure do tremble when he appears. They call him 'silence', because wherever he goes, the silence of death follows."
* (5) Paul Simpson, The Rough Guide to Westerns, p. 157-158