The United States of America
And lo, Saint John the Evangelist did write in the Book of Revelation, “When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hell was following close behind him.” Such is the Revelation of the End Times, the Final Judgment, the Divine Apocalypse. For thousands of years, Christians have looked to the Book of Revelation and its predictions for guidance. Its ghastly specters and apparitions have inspired both hope and holy terror, faith and penitence. For the faithful, it symbolizes retribution against a wicked world and salvation for the Lord’s Flock. So does it come as any surprise that its verses would be whispered on desperate lips of the violated and weary? Such was the case for a young girl named Megan Wheeler in Central Idaho in 1850. After surviving a cowardly attack on her mining town by hired thugs, she prays to the Lord for deliverance. Her prayers are two-fold, one citing Psalm 24 for guidance and protection, the other the Book of Revelation, for grim retribution. And behold! The Lord does provide! For yonder comes a cowboy, a protector, an avenger. He comes to punish the wicked and save the weak. He is Salvation and Death. He is the Pale Rider.
Such is the set-up for Clint Eastwood’s 1985 film Pale Rider. Fans and enthusiasts will notice that the basic plot is familiar, nearly clichéd, territory for Eastwood. A town/village/community is besieged by criminals/bandits/crooks and it is up to Eastwood to save the day. Ever since his days with Sergio Leone, Eastwood has built his career on such stories. And even more common still is the role played by Eastwood himself: a silent, mysterious outsider. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he was Blondie. In High Plains Drifter, he was the Stranger. But here, in Pale Rider, he is simply known as Preacher. In this, perhaps Eastwood’s most spiritual and religious film, he becomes an avatar of divine punishment and holy retribution.
To say that Pale Rider is a spiritual or religious film is not an exaggeration. The entire film is immersed in religious symbolism and imagery. In addition to the obvious symbolism of Clint Eastwood’s character, there are other important references. The thugs hired in the beginning to scare away the townsfolk are hired by a miner named Coy Lahood who wants their property for the valuable mineral deposits underneath it. When the Preacher shows up, he helps the townsfolk fight back and repel the thugs. However, Lahood hired seven bounty hunters led by a man named Marshall Stockburn. They give the townsfolk three days to leave before they kill them all. Stockburn represents the forces of evil against the innocent town. The name Stockburn is closely associated with the Dragon or Serpent in English culture. This can be interpreted as an allusion to the book of Revelation where the “avenging angels of Michael” fight against the angels of the Dragon. The fact that there are seven evil bounty hunters can be further interpreted as a reference to the book of Revelation where the number seven has strong thematic relevance.
But to really explore the religious overtones of the film, the character of the Preacher must be examined. Now, some people may think that this is a major spoiler. So, for those who are sensitive to spoilers, skip the rest of this paragraph. Anyhow, the character of the Preacher must be interpreted in a supernatural light. It is no secret that the Preacher is in fact a spirit. Eastwood himself said that the Preacher “is an out-and-out ghost.” In a key scene, the Wheeler family, who has taken the Preacher in, witnesses him taking off his shirt. Embedded in his back are several bullet holes. In one of the film’s climatic scenes, Stockburn confesses that he recognizes the Preacher, but is confused because the man is supposed to be dead. It is heavily implied that Eastwood was unjustly killed by Stockburn and his men and has returned to deliver Holy Retribution. In this way, the Preacher becomes a Christ-like figure: he was unjustly murdered, resurrected, and has now returned to deliver salvation for the faithful and punishment to the wicked.
The Preacher more than lives up to his namesake as he goes about helping the town fight back against Lahood and Stockburn. When he first appears in town, he saves Hull Barret, the leader of the miners who is also dating Megan’s mother, Sarah. He does so by fighting off the thugs with an axe handle, refusing to kill them. He starts to lead the town in fighting back and defending themselves in a peaceful manner. He is later approached by Lahood who offers to build him a church if he joins with him. The scene is reminiscent of the Devil tempting Jesus in the desert. Upon being tempted with promises of power, the Preacher replies, “You can’t serve God and Mammon, Mammon being money.”
But key to the film is how the Preacher periodically appears and disappears from the town. At several crucial moments, the Preacher cannot be found by the townfolk. One example is when the town decides upon an ultimatum laid down by Lahood: let us buy your land from you fairly or else. The townsfolk are forced to decide their fates by themselves. Spurred on by Barret, they decide to stay and fight back, at which point the Preacher returns. It is similar to that famous proverb, “God helps those who help themselves.” Even though the proverb isn’t in the Bible, it is still considered very important to many people of faith. Parallels can be drawn to how God tests his followers in the Old Testament by withholding prophets for hundreds of years at a time, forcing them to test their faith and resolve. But of course, God always came back through miracles and prophets. This is similar to the biblical promise of Christ’s return. And return the Preacher does, as if to validate their faith and resolve.
But to suggest that the film is nothing but heavy handed imagery would be incorrect. Pale Rider is an amazingly focused and excited film. Credit must be given to Eastwood, who has never received the recognition that he deserves as a great director. His eleventh film, Pale Rider is one of Eastwood’s most focused and well-paced films. He has since directed several other Westerns, including his masterpiece Unforgiven (1992). It seems as if Eastwood has a preternatural sense of how to envision and film Westerns. As stated, several of his Westerns feature similar plots. But they each hold nuances and subtle differences that make each a unique statement on the genre. Strange as it may seem, the director who comes to mind when I think of Eastwood is none other than the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Both focused on movies with similar themes, characters, and settings. And yet, they never made the same film twice. Each film was its own artistic statement with its own agenda. And like Ozu, Eastwood’s Westerns are incredibly focused with great emphasis on character development.
When the film ends and the town has been saved, the people avenged, and the villains punished, the Preacher rides off into the sunset with Megan yelling after him. It is an obvious quotation of the famous Western Shane (1953), another film where a mysterious cowboy saves a family from criminals. But the Preacher is no selfless hero like Shane. Instead, he is an avatar of holy retribution and justice. With his work done, he must leave. Will he come back? Is his work finished? Who knows. But the town is now safe to develop and flourish. In time, the wooden buildings will give way to concrete and steel monoliths. Dollar stores will melt into shopping malls and dusty roads will harden into paved streets. Megan Wheeler will die, but her descendants will live on. And maybe, just maybe, they will tell their kids of the time when a Preacher helped them save themselves in their hour of need. God’s will be done. Amen.