High Plains Drifter started a love affair with Clint Eastwood which saw him sharing a place in my heart with Charlton Heston. Mine and Heston’s relationship has been kindling away for some eighteen years, whilst the first sparks of admiration for Clint Eastwood were lit only five or so months ago. I sometimes find it difficult to believe that he has reached such a high level of esteem and adoration in such a short time; that is until I re-watched High Plains Drifter this morning. It’s the first Clint Eastwood film I ever saw and I have to bestow a great deal of thanks to my other half for choosing it as an introduction to this great, great man.
As he solidifies from the haze of the Western American desert like a mirage, Clint Eastwood appears as The Stranger, perhaps a relative of his legendary Man with No Name from the recent Spaghetti Westerns. The opening of the film is eerie and desolate, the only sound we can hear is the jarring wail of the soundtrack which sounds almost like a high wind at times. We don’t know where he’s coming from, we don’t know where he’s going but all we can say about this mysterious stranger is that he’s taking his time getting there. Here is a character who is giving nothing away and is almost cat-like in his patience and serenity (well, not like my cats, but still…).
The stranger walks on horseback into Lago on horseback and we are introduced to the towsfolk as he makes his way down the main street. It’s certainly very Victorian but for those of you who had an Oliver! style ‘Consider yourself at home’ welcome in mind you’re waaaaaay off. About five and half thousand miles off. This is Arizona, and this town ain’t big enough for the two f us – the townspeople stare menacingly from behind closed windows and look up from their coffin making with an air of xenophobia so thick you could spread it on toast. The atmosphere is terrifically tense and every credit must got to Eastwood not just as an actor but as a director, for being able to establish such a tangible mood from the very onset.
As we’ve come to expect from Eastwood’s films, the first line is minutes into the film and comes from the Stranger. Sliding onto a bar stool he demands “beer. And a bottle.” In a line which perhaps unwittingly sums up the whole town of Lago, the barman replies “ain’t much good, but it’s all there is.” Barely has he had his first sip when the bad boys of town start picking on this new stranger, jibing him and positively asking for trouble. But The Stranger seems to be above their petty bullying and leaves to get a shave from the creepiest looking barber ever to have graced the screen (and I’m including Sweeny Todd in that!). His comb-over would put Donald Trump to shame and his slimy jittering is positively repugnant. He’s just settled in for his shave and looking ghostly with his foamy face and sheeted body when the thugs from the bar waltz in expecting the Stranger to take their insults sitting down. Yeah right. Bang. Bang. Bang. Without so much as smudging his soap, the Stranger takes down the nogoodnicks quicker than you could spit at them.
Well, you get the idea about Lago by now. It’s not a friendly place to be but it’s about to get a lot meaner as the convict Stacey and his croneys have just been released from prison and are on their way back to Lago to seek vengeance for their time spent behind bars. The powers that be soon begin to realize that this mysterious Stranger may just be their ticket to peace and quiet and before long they’ve paid the high price for recruiting this drifter as their own one man vigilante brigade.
The film is famed for prompting John Wayne to write to Eastwood denouncing the film’s unabashed violence and ‘revisionist’ portrayal of the Old West. Violent it is although High Plains Drifter does add some fuel to the ‘meet fire with fire’ argument. There are certainly some controversial moments, my personal favourite being the rape of the town’s most upstart tart who picks a fight with the Stranger just so she can get her claws out. He sure showed her! When questioned about his actions, he simply replies “I seem to remember she quite enjoyed that”, and when she comes storming in to the barber’s the next day firing off a tiny pistol at the bathing stranger, his confusion at the event is reconciled with the suggestion that “you didn’t come back for more”. I wrote something in my Coogan’s Bluff retrospective about Clint Eastwood not winning any points for the feminist crowd but more sensitive, un-prejudiced viewers will realize that High Plains Drifter’s strongest, bravest character is indeed a woman. More on her later…
Anyway, as the film rolls on we get glimpses of clarity around the Stranger, although his identity is never really touched upon. As he sleeps, we see visions of a man being whipped to death whilst an impassive crowd stands on idly, a crowd we later learn to be the townsfolk of Lago, the victim the ex-sheriff who had threatened to do the decent thing, even if that meant bringing the end of Lago’s mining industry. But how does the stranger even know about this event? Was he secretly there? Did he hear about it on the grapevine or is there something more metaphysical and supernatural afoot?
Back in the real world tension is mounting surrounding the imminent return of Stacey’s bandit gang and the men of Lago are showing their desperate side. They agree to give this unknown man ‘anything’ if he’ll only take care of their little problem. With not a shred of greed about him, the Stranger buys out the town, even promoting the midget pest Mordechai to the position of Sheriff and Mayor. He concocts a frankly inane plan to stage a town picnic on the day Stacey’s boys are due to return and sees that any ‘unnecessary’ buildings are torn down to provide lumber for the mammoth picnic tables. He kicks everybody out of the hotel and demands the bed-sheets be sewn into table cloths. Anyone with half a brain can see that he’s taking such liberties there will barely be much of a town left for the prodigal avengers to ravage.
But all the while Stacey’s gang are drawing nearer and nearer and growing meaner and meaner. On the eve of their arrival another vision tells us that it was them who bullwhipped the old sheriff to death and only one person in town had the guts to try and do anything about it. Remember that strong female presence I mentioned before? She’s desperate to put a stop to the violence but her scummy hotel-owning husband drags her away before she can put herself between the whip and the bloodied mess on the floor. Although she is initially hostile (understatement, much?) to the Stranger it doesn’t take much for him to seduce her… again, people are likely to jump very quickly to ‘male dominance/female oppression’ conclusions but it’s almost as though her lying with the Stranger is what finally gives her the courage to liberate herself from this backwards, doomed little town and just before hell breaks loose she tells her husband “I’m packing my bags to leave and I’m not coming back.” And that’s the last we see of her.
Far from being a force of destruction, Eastwood’s stranger is some kind of propagator – whichever qualities are lying hidden in people, be it fear or desperation or courage, he brings it out in them to the full, for better or for worse. He says “it’s what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid” and he’s right. Only sometimes it seems they don’t know it until it’s wrenched out of them for all the world to see…
The stranger’s final instruction is that the whole town should be painted red. Blood red. Literally, red. One of the more astute men remarks it “couldn’t be worse if the devil himself had ridden right into Lago” and you can’t help but wonder how thick the skins of these people must be for them not to pay heed to their own warnings. So, town bloodied and renamed ‘Hell’ on its signpost, the picnic begins. This jolly event is naturally anything but and when the bandits career into town they take no time in smashing the place to pieces and causing more havoc than anyone would have imagined. Meanwhile the Stranger is nowhere to be seen, and having thrown everything they had at him the townspeople have nothing to do but stand and watch as Stacey’s gang destroy the little town and kill anyone (everyone) who gets in their way.
It’s not until darkness falls that the Stranger makes his grand entrance. He emerges from a wall of fire and quickly takes out the bandits without a second thought except to make sure that they die as confused and betrayed as the sheriff. Stacey’s last desperate plea after being shot is “who are you? Who are you?!” but he’s doomed to die not knowing who this terrible force of vengeance is, and indeed so are we all.
Tomorrow is another day and the high plains drifter prepares to leave town. “I never did know your name” remarks Mordechai as the two men stand on the edge of town. “Oh yes you do. See ya” is all we’re given before he rides off back into the haze from whence he emerged, destined perhaps to vanish back into the desert until another hell-damned town calls upon him to deliver a service only he can give. High Plains Drifter is a remarkably complex film which I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of. For anyone who has ever doubted Clint Eastwood’s ability to make a statement, they have only to turn to this, the second film he ever directed to see that far from having to make a statement, Eastwood is a statement. He thinks in so many layers that one hundred viewings of this film would only leave you at the tip of the iceberg of this most unique of characters in this most desolate of settings.