I was recently asked who I thought the most famous living human in the world was. After a few of the more obvious figures – Obama, Mandela, Armstrong etc – I came to thinking about filmmakers, and eventually concluded that Clint Eastwood would probably fit the bill. While there are those who could spot Brad Pitt a mile off whilst failing to notice Doris Day, there are equally people for whom the reverse is true, but everyone is familiar with some version of Eastwood. He spans generations and disciplines, and is loved by both film connoisseurs and the average member of the public almost equally. In many ways, Pale Rider typifies what makes him so universal, as it’s a film of many facets.
What I live most about Pale Rider is how cine-literate it is. Much has been made of its similarities to Shane (including having a young character cry after the departing hero at the film’s climax), but it plays off Eastwood’s Dollars Trilogy just as much. Of course, the nameless, lonely character, who rides into town and irrevocably changes things, is instantly recognisable as an homage to The Man With No Name, but it’s not just in echoing his acting role that Eastwood owes a debt to the films that made his name. The opening shot of a landscape is instantly reminiscent of the opening to For A Few Dollars More, and Eastwood’s direction and pacing throughout have clearly been inspired by the work of Leone.
Curiously, though, this movie is, in many ways, the antithesis to the Leone pictures, particularly A Fistful of Dollars. In that film, Eastwood rides into town, causes havoc, and leaves having made a personal fortune, and one of the most fascinating aspects of that film is its complete lack of sympathetic characters. Pale Rider is a far more moralistic film, with a strong distaste for riches. “Preacher” makes nothing for his troubles, explicitly stating that “You can’t serve God and Mammon – Mammon being money”, and the only people who do make any significant amount of money – LaHood, Spider, Stockburn – all meet a violent and premature end. The community must ultimately band together to reject a sizable financial offer because it would destroy their collective spirit, and all that they have worked to achieve and build, and so we come away with a strong sense that wealth is not everything.
It’s not a subtle film by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is it heavy-handed, and so, on balance, it’s handled rather well. It seems to reflect a maturing of Eastwood, who has grown from the paid, unfeeling mercenary of youth, to the family focused priest spouting Mark Twain-like statements like “Plain few problems can’t be solved with a little sweat and hard work”. If Rooster Cogburn and Mary Poppins were to have a child, the result surely wouldn’t be far off Eastwood here.
Though the film may be tonally lighter, the lighting is noticeably dimmer. At times it possibly goes a little far, and some scenes feel more murky than atmospheric, but in general, the low level lighting picks out the faces beautifully. In particular, Eastwood himself looks stunning as the cracks and wrinkles in his face are highlighted, revealing a layer of back-story that can’t be scripted or played. It makes the starkness of the brutality of the final scene all the clearer, as it is one of the few played in broad daylight.
In fact, the violence of the film is surprisingly tame. Take Eastwood’s introduction, for example. In a Leone western, a beating such as this would be accompanied by a great deal of blood, and would feel much more brutal and horrific as a result. Here, it’s clean and comparatively free of consequence. In fact, apart from some animal deaths early on, it’s not until the attempted rape scene that the violence starts to feel more uncomfortably realistic, and this then follows through into the multiple bullet wounds suffered by Spider and Stockburn. It’s an odd decision, and it almost feels like it’s reflecting the way that the Western genre as a whole has gone.
There is one more character who has received multiple bullet wounds in this film. The preacher can be seen sporting some himself. In fact, there is a great deal about the preacher’s past that we don’t know about, and that needs a good answer. This is the film’s strongest point. Whilst the moralising of the film may not be particularly subtle, the preacher’s nature as a ghost is far harder to pick up. There are just a few subtle clues, from his mannerisms to a couple of Stockburn’s lines, that betray this, but with this knowledge, the film takes a wonderfully different, ethereal tone. It feels more purposeful, which adds to its message. Wonderfully, Eastwood does not pull a Sixth Sense-style revelation ending, but leaves us to work this out for ourselves.
Ultimately, this film is Eastwood’s. It is not his most accomplished as a director or actor (I’d argue that both of those are probably in Unforgiven), but it does showcase a wonderfully typical example of this most extraordinary of Hollywood stars. Even this highly spiritual and familial story has a greater depth than most pre-Eastwood westerns. Pale Rider was the highest grossing western of the eighties, and with an appeal as broad as it has, it’s not hard to see why.