Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil)

Directed by Glauber Rocha

Above the sky of the sertão, a bleak, weary sun shines down and bleaches the soil to the color of bone. A few scant, leafless trees jet rebelliously from the ground only to be embalmed by the shimmering heat. In this place, located in the Northeastern reaches of Brazil, the black blood of African slaves and Mulattos is diluted by whites and the fossils of Amerindian society. Theirs is a desperate feudal society ruled by a tiny class of white land owners wielding dictatorial powers. On the sertão, cattle form the lifeblood of society and prove to be the only separation between sustenance and starvation. Is it any wonder, then, that a man is willing to die and kill for his cattle? That is how we find ranch hand Manuel at the beginning of Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil. When his boss tries to cheat him of his cattle after four of his herd die of snake bites, Manuel strikes back, killing him. And so, Manuel, his wife Rosa, and their newborn child must flee. Theirs will be a deadly and bizarre journey of mythic and mystical proportions in Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil.

The film supposedly takes place in the 1940s, but the story itself is timeless. As Manuel and his family drifts through the countryside, they associate and follow different leaders and movements. First, they encounter Sebastian, a black self-proclaimed saint with hundreds of followers. Preaching a doctrine that he will restore balance to the world, Sebastian captivates Manuel. It isn’t long before he takes part in the brutal “cleansing” of sinners in the countryside. In one scene, he is made to ascend a mountain on his knees with a gargantuan stone on his head. After this act of pious devotion, Sebastian convinces a now deluded Manuel to sacrifice his infant child in a blood ritual to cleanse him of his sins. It is only after this terrible deed that Rosa kills Sebastian in a scene reminiscent of the film’s opening murder.

Once again on the run, they fall in with a violent outlaw named Corisco who wages war against the landowning class. Their violent escapades are soon ended by a bounty hunter named Antonio Das Mortes, hired by the local Church and landowners. The feature leads to a tense standoff that in many ways resembles Italian spaghetti Westerns. But the tone is completely different. These aren’t weary, hardened outlaws…merely misguided peasants seeking a leader and a purpose.

Of course, it is this very search for purpose that inevitably dooms them. Rocha’s film is a kind of indictment against forces that try to control people, whether they are religious (Sebastian) or secular (Corisco). What Rocha seems to be desperately trying to express is that men should rely on themselves for their own destinies, not those prescribed by others. Manuel and Rosa find nothing but disappointment and tragedy in their search to associate with larger movements. Of course, the film does so by illustrating with extremes. Sebastian is hardly an accurate representation of the Church and it seems counterintuitive that Corisco is so willing to kill those whom he swears to fight for. But this is a film of stark allegories and powerful symbolism. It is not a subtle piece of cinema.

But then again, Rocha never sought to be very subtle. He was a member of Brazil’s radical left wing, going so far as to establish a political party in the late 1980s. The party called for an anti-capitalist revolution and the abolition of money. He used his art as an outlet for his rebellious and uncontrollable zeal. Quoted as saying, “The artist’s goal is to outrage,” Rocha creates a grim world of total absolutes for his characters in inhabit. There is the innocent (Manuel, Rosa, and the people who get killed throughout the film) and the guilty (Sebastian, Corisco, Das Mortes). From the very first sequence where Manuel fights with his old boss, a pattern of identifying characters as “us vs. them” is established. The people inhabiting this film are concentrated metaphors.

Black God, White Devil is a film of action and little exposition. It can be difficult to follow at certain times since it doesn’t establish its characters in a traditional way. We frequently see characters introduced in the midst of a greater action. When we first meet Sebastian he is at the center of an impromptu revival among the people of the sertão. For a while, we have a difficult time picking out who the leader is. Only gradually do we realize that Manuel has joined into the celebration.

Indeed, we find in Black God, White Devil a film that is greater than the sum of its parts. For all of its confusion concerning the caracters, it is a remarkable film. Its impossible scenarios of evil and morality create a kind of dream world where the characters seem to float by. Its black and white photograph crackles with heat and dry wind. The world is as stark as film negative.

But Black God, White Devil is an important film for other reasons. It was one of the founding films of the Cinema Novo movement, a film movement of Brazilian filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s. Inspired largely by Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave, the participants of the Cinema Novo sought to redefine and transform the landscape of Brazilian cinema. Many of the films revolved around social issues, particularly poverty in Brazil’s northeast and crowded, urban areas. It was the dawn of a new era of social consciousness among Brazilian filmmakers. So does it come as any surprise that a firebrand like Rocha would be one of its most famous and esteemed participants? Best known for a trilogy of films that brought him and Brazilian cinema international recognition, Rocha helped open doors for generations of Brazilian filmmakers.

So for its few flaws, Black God, White Devil is an essential film. Yet it goes largely unheard of and unwatched in the West. Perhaps it was too fiery and deemed too Leftist for average American audiences. Whatever the reason, it should be studied and valued as a pinnacle of expressive filmmaking as well as a potent polemic for all those who study the injustice that inhabits the world.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Μια αιωνιότητα και μια μέρα (Eternity and a Day)

Directed by Theo Angelopoulos

On the few blessed days when I have no obligations or plans, my bedroom becomes my palace and my bed my throne. Even after I wake up in the morning, I silently stare at the empty ceiling, filling it with images plucked from my memory. Slowly, the white expanse is traded with a black one as my eyes fold closed, intensifying the visions. Memories dance in my head until they become sloshed together, combined into a succinct mishmash of remembrances and reminiscences. At this point, I usually fall back asleep for another hour or so, letting my memories become the playground of my subconscious. As memories turn to dreams, the fine line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred. In these precious moments, I feel truly content.

Countless directors have tried to duplicate the hypnotic waltz of memory. Films like Mulholland Drive (2001) take pleasure in exploring the twisted and bizarre mindscapes of troubled minds. Others films like Rashomon (1950) seek out the nature of memory itself. But while they contain different agendas, each of these films attempts to reconstruct instances of memory within a larger narrative framework. Their plots usually take place in the present and are accompanied with flashbacks. Some films, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), present events out of chronological order. But still, the film differentiates between past and present with surgical precision. As with other films, there has to be a frame of reference for the audience to familiarize themselves with.

So imagine my surprise when I viewed Theo Angelopoulos’ Eternity and a Day. Here was a film that defied traditional cinematic language and logic for memories and created something resembling a mindscape where the characters escape to. Here, there is no difference between past and present, memories and reality.

We follow Alexander, an old man experiencing the twilight of his life in a seaside apartment in Thessaloniki. When we first meet him, we learn that he has a terminal illness and is ordered to return to the hospital the next day for a special test. The film carefully charts the next 24 hours of his life. Realizing that time is short, he goes about trying to resolve his affairs. He tries to find a new owner for his dog. He visits his thirty-something daughter in order to give her some letters written by his dead wife. Before he can share the news of his condition, he learns that she has sold his seaside apartment to be demolished the very next day without telling him. In a sense, he has already died. After all, we learn that he has lost the joy in his life. Once a famous poet, he has languished in a self-imposed exile that has cut him off from the world. Early in the film, we learn that Alexander’s only real friend is a next door neighbor that he has never seen or met. Their only form of correspondence is to play music to each other through their open windows.

As he wonders the streets of Thessaloniki, he relives old memories of better times. There are scenes with his dead wife, daughter, and mother. These scenes are played out of chronological order, as if to suggest that we are seeing them as Alexander thinks of them. The film literally becomes a projection of Alexander’s inner thoughts and memories. But remember how I said that it wasn’t like other films that dwelt on memory? Well, let me explain.

Angelopoulos, infamous for long, slow films, constructs Eternity and a Day with long takes. The average shot comes in at least one minute long and can last for up to several. During the duration of the shot, the camera either slowly zooms in and out or pans left or right. The camera is always a tiny bit higher than the characters, making it feel like the viewers are floating through Alexander’s life. There are no transitions to shots from another time period. Instead, Angelopoulos will pan his camera to reveal a character from another era (occasionally in period dress) standing right next to Alexander. They begin to reenact Alexander’s memories with his old self filling in for his younger self. When the scene is finished, one of three things happens. One, the character walks out of frame, immediately returning Alexander to the present. Two, the camera pans or zooms in a way that pushes them off the screen. Three, Angelopoulos cuts to another scene. In this way Angelopoulos constructs a world that is simultaneously based in reality and completely fabricated from Alexander’s memories.

In his last day, Alexander does not wonder through his thoughts alone. Near the start of the film he rescues a young homeless boy making a living on the streets washing car windows. It is revealed that the young boy, who largely remains a silent enigma, is part of a larger group of street orphans who are preyed upon by the police and kidnappers who sell them into lives of sexual slavery. The boy, an Albanian by birth, is trying to leave Greece. In the film’s most iconic scene, Alexander and the boy approach the border only to find it surrounded by a massive barbed wire fence. Mounted on the other side of the fence are the bodies of Albanians trying to escape into Greece. Angelopoulos exercises wise restraint by keeping the fence in the background of the scene with Alexander and the boy occupying the foreground. As a result, the bodies take on the form of dead silhouettes mounted like trophies. As a gate opens and a guard approaches them, the boy screams that he was lying about his life in Albania and wants to leave.

As the day wanes into night, an unlikely friendship develops between Alexander and the boy. Even though he barely speaks, Alexander develops a strong attachment to the boy. In one scene where the boy tries to leave, Alexander wails for the boy not to leave him. In a sense, the boy becomes the devoted son that Alexander never had. Slowly, the boy brings Alexander out of his stupor and he grows a fresh taste for life.

But Alexander knows that he is in no condition to take care of the boy. In a devastating scene, Alexander sends the boy off on a boat headed for an unknown investigation. It is more than just the departure of a friend for Alexander; it is the departure of what has grown into part of his soul. The film ends on a sunny day on the beach with his dead wife. I won’t reveal the ending. It is too much of a strange enigma, the kind that everyone will have a different opinion on. Suffice to say, it brings up the question of whether or not the scene is real. In fact…it could be argued that it casts a doubt about whether or not the film actually took place. Could it be that the film has been nothing more than a hallucination experienced by an ailing man? You decide.

A film of stark, restrained power, Eternity and a Day is not so much about memories as it is a memory in of itself. As Alexander wonders the streets of his Greek home, he wonders the boulevards of his own inner turmoil and remembrances. The young boy is a beacon of hope for the poor man, but like all things, he too must pass. But for what little time he has left, his memory will live on in Alexander’s mind…just like the film will live on in my own.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (The Gleaners and I)

Directed by Agnès Varda

On desolate farm fields under a gray sky, people of all ages congregate to pick and scavenge potatoes. The farmers have already harvested the ground’s yield of tubers, snatching the biggest, healthiest, and ripest of the crop. Now that the harvest is complete, old men, young women, and little children pick through the deserted scars left on the ground by ploughs and tractors. They raid trash heaps of potatoes deemed inferior and left to rot. Some sing songs while others work in solitary silence, carefully gathering the table scraps of agriculture. From these poor pickings come a method of survival and a lifestyle that has existed for several hundred years in France. It is known as “gleaning,” which officially means the collection of leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been officially harvested. But to Agnès Varda, widely considered to be the grandmother of the French New Wave, one doesn’t have to work in the fields to be considered a gleaner. In her transcendent documentary The Gleaners and I, Varda dissects French society, delving into the world of France’s disenfranchised to uncover a veritable universe of modern-day gleaners.

Inspired by François Millet's famous painting Les Graneuses, Varda became fascinated with the activity and sought out their modern contemporaries. Armed with a small crew wielding handheld cameras, Varda explored the dregs of French society: drifters, gypsies, homeless junkies, and street urchins. She finds a thriving society based on different kinds of gleaning. In the countryside, gleaners sort through abandoned crops. In the city, urban gleaners search through dumpsters and garbage cans, discovering massive payloads of fruit, vegetables, and raw meat. One gleaner jokes that people freak out if their groceries are a day past the expiration date, resulting in them throwing away entire containers of perfectly edible foodstuffs. Peeling back the lid on a container of discarded yogurt, he laughs and says that one can smell whether or not something has gone rotten or sour.

François Millet's Les Graneuses

But most curious of all are the well-to-do subjects that Varda encounters gleaning the countryside and city streets. We meet the youngest French chef in history to be awarded two Michelin stars picking through abandoned orchards and fields, commenting that gleaning allows him to “know where his food comes from.” Besides, he casually mentions, overripe fruit makes the best jam and preserves. And then there is a former graduate student who proudly claims that he has lived off nothing but garbage for over ten years. The man is by no means poor. In fact, he professes to owning insurance and a social security number in addition to a job teaching immigrants French. So why does he glean? Growing suddenly serious, he answers that it is a form of protest against a society that throws away so much food despite such widespread hunger. For him, to glean is to seek social justice and economic justice. Plus, he smiles, ever since he started gleaning, he has never gotten sick.

But Varda argues that gleaning does not have to be strictly limited to foodstuffs. She interviews artists who create exhibits of art out of bits and pieces of trash that they have gathered from the garbage. She watches with curiosity as men smash abandoned television sets in order to collect the precious copper wiring. Varda goes even farther in her expanded definition of gleaning by exhibiting a series of souvenirs that she acquired in a recent trip to Japan. Notice how she doesn’t claim to have bought them. In fact, she “gleaned” them. This begs the question of whether or not the commercialization of world culture has led to its devaluation. After all, in the same department store where she got Japanese knick-knacks, she purchased small reprints of Rembrandt. If one doesn’t have to go to Europe to acquire a Rembrandt, is there anything distinctly European about it anymore? And if not, does it have any value beyond being a pretty thing to look at?

It may seem like I am really stretching to discover some kind of obtuse meaning or interpretation behind Varda’s film. But the truth is that she has constructed her film in such a way that it is impossible to not ask these questions. She mixes the film with philosophical insights, social commentary, political (albeit never explicitly proscribed) overtones, and glances into her own private life. Many of the shots and sequences seem to be there purely due to Varda’s sense of whimsy. These include a curious instance where Varda carried her personal camera around having forgotten to turn it off. As a result, the lens cap swings freely through the frame of the film. Instead of discarding the footage, Varda regards it with humor, proudly pronouncing it as the “dance of the lens cap.” Other shots show scenes of Varda traveling from location to location, filming passing trucks, herds of animals, and in-climate weather. Some might see this as vanity on Varda’s part. But slowly it becomes apparent that Varda herself is engaged in a form of cinematic gleaning.

The Dance of the Lens Cap

Consider for a moment to role of the filmmaker. A filmmaker must shoot reels and reels of raw footage and then carefully assemble the best shots into a finished product, leaving behind the extra lengths of film. Instead of throwing away unnecessary or trivial footage, Varda seizes upon it and fills her film with the refuse of the cutting room floor. As a result, the film becomes part documentary, part travelogue, and part personal essay on Varda herself. In doing so, she equates the role of the filmmaker with the role of the gleaner: to pick through scraps in order to find that which must sustain them.

Other critics and reviewers would argue that The Gleaners and I is a political film. I would agree that while the film is indeed political, it never quite explains what it is trying to argue. Scenes of waste (including footage of dead birds from an oil spill) are mixed with tragic statistics about how much food is thrown away by French society. But Varda never seems to be trying to communicate any kind of political thesis. The film, and the act of gleaning, is by its very nature political as it speaks to subjects concerning legal terms of ownership and vagrancy. Varda speaks to lawyers and judges who describe France’s simultaneously archaic and modern laws concerning gleaning and whether or not it is considered legal. After all, the act of gleaning is where people harvest what is rightfully other people’s property. Do the owners forfeit that property by refusing to collect it? And if that is so, does the public have a right to it? Varda provides few answers.

But again, the politics are not the main focus of the film. The gleaners are the main subject. The nation of France is the main subject. The nature of the filmmaker is the main subject. And finally, Varda is the main subject. There are other essays you can read that carefully explain why The Gleaners and I is an economic and political protest piece. But this essay is written by a man who believes that political subjects can be covered objectively. Varda chooses no side in her film. She is too busy watching the gleaners. Maybe she saw a bit of herself in these itinerant scavengers. Maybe she was captivated by the kindred spirits that she met out in the countryside and in the city. Whatever the case, Varda is content to look, watch, and most importantly, film, this incredible aspect of French life.



Saturday, January 8, 2011

Union Pacific

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
The United States of America

On April 28, 1939, a train pulled into Omaha, Nebraska. A daily occurrence, to be sure, but on this day the train carried a different kind of passenger. For that would be the day that Hollywood came to Omaha. Arriving on the train were three titans of Tinsel town, legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, actress Barbara Stanwyck, and actor Joel McCrea. Their trip had taken three days, having made numerous stops to woo crowds. Awaiting them in Omaha was an even larger crowd of 250,000, twice the usual population of the fair city. The calamity was so great that the National Guard needed to be called in. The occasion was the Golden Spike Days Celebration and the Golden Spike Historical Exposition, a four day celebration of the 70th anniversary of the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad, or more commonly known as the First Transcontinental Railroad. The legendary railroad marked the first time that the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States had been connected by railroad. Considered one of the greatest technological feats of the 19th century, the railroad opened up the Western United States to trade and influxes of immigrants and settlers. But more importantly, it was completed in 1869, just five years after the end of the American Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history. The railroad was a sign of American unity for the still-recovering nation.

So why were DeMille, Stanwyck, and McCrea attending such a celebration? The answer was that they were attending the centerpiece of the historical celebrations, the premiere of their new film, Union Pacific. The premiere was accompanied by not only the presence of such great stars, but also parades, radio broadcasts, and a banquet. The festivities were so massive that they were inaugurated by none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself. It was, by all accounts, the biggest, grandest, and wildest motion picture premiere so far in history.

And what a film it was. Union Pacific was a sprawling epic that followed the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad from its earliest days as a proposition in the Senate to the day when a golden spike was ceremoniously struck connecting the two great oceans together. It was a Western unlike any other, operating on a scale heretofore unheard of in Hollywood. It featured shoot-outs, Indian attacks, train crashes, whirlwind romances, and tough lawmen. It stunned audiences and amazed critics. Just a few months after its release, Union Pacific was awarded the very first Palme D’Or at the inaugural Cannes Film Festival, beating out other films such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the legendary Wizard of Oz.

And nearly seventy years later, nearly nobody remembers it.

It seems inconceivable that a film of such magnitude and impact would be so easily forgotten. Perhaps it was because so many other famous films were released the same year that it was lost in the shuffle. After all, 1939 was the year that gave the world Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights, and Of Mice and Men. But no, the real reason was probably that it was overshadowed by a film that was released two months before Union Pacific. That little film was John Ford’s Stagecoach. Film historians point to Stagecoach as the moment when the Western transcended its origins as a pulp genre and proved that it could be counted as high art. Add to the fact that the film also boasted John Wayne in the role that made him an international superstar.

But for all of its accolades, Stagecoach was still trapped in the traditional Western mindset. It was a film a cowboys and Indians. Union Pacific, on the other hand, surpassed such stereotypes. It was a film about the West itself, not just its inhabitants. It was a film that spoke in broad themes of national unity, gender roles, racial inequality, and the driving, unstoppable force of progress. There were shootouts and Indian raids, to be sure. But they were always framed by the indomitable railroad, pulsating as its stretched and strained farther and farther West. Union Pacific was a celebration of modernity, of man’s triumph over nature, and the might and prowess of a young nation.

The Completion of the Real Transcontinental Railroad

DeMille framed the expansion of the railroad by focusing on a small number of characters who were symbolic archetypes of the Western genre. In doing so, DeMille recreated on a smaller scale the conflicts and struggles faced by the railroad and those who would fight against it. There are three principal characters that DeMille focuses on. The first is Captain Jeff Butler (McCrea), hired by the railroad to prevent opponents of the railroad, like gambler Sid Campeau, from halting production. Butler represents hard justice tempered by fiery masculinity. He represents a kind of progressive mentality characterized by the Western settlers. The second character is Dick Allen (Robert Preston), an agent of Sid Campeau sworn to hold up construction of the railroad. He represents a more traditional, homey form of masculinity that in the Old West may have been called foppish. Although he is an enemy agent of the railroad, he holds emotional ties with Butler, as they fought together in the Civil War. Their conflict can be construed as symbolic of two opposing American forces: traditional vs. progressive, honor vs. profit, West vs. East.

But complicating matters is Stanwyck’s character, a train engineer’s daughter named Mollie Monahan. A young woman of Irish descent, she represents modernity and progress. Riding the rails with her father, she crushes gender stereotypes, feeling at home on the railroad out West instead of in a kitchen with children clutching her apron. She is essentially the ideal “Western woman”: fearless, opinionated, tough, and unafraid to get her hands dirty with dirt, dust, and engine oil. During a later scene in the film when she is aboard a train attacked by Indians, she grabs a gun and starts fighting back with the rest of the men folk.

Of course, this being a Hollywood film, both Butler and Allen fall for Mollie and attempt to woo her. They present her with gifts of diamonds and furs (which she laughs at) and promises of a home and family. Their mutual affection for Mollie proves to be a massive complication, considering how Allen is the more aggressive suitor yet stands to destroy the railroad that she so desperately loves. And yet, after a scene where Allen attempts to steal the railroad’s payroll, thereby crippling production, she marries him to get him off the hook. When he is confronted by the authorities on their wedding day, she blocks Butler so Allen can escape. And yet, her true affection lies with Butler. It is only at the climax of the film that she realizes that she is drawn to him and what he represents: the Wild West, the promise of progress, and the allure of the unknown and uncertain.

While Union Pacific can be interpreted as an overblown soap opera, to mistaken it as a character study or a romance is missing the point. Union Pacific contains some of the most impressive and ambitious action sequences that had been filmed at that point in history. Full scale models were used in a scene where a train crashes off its tracks on a snowy mountainside. For the film’s climax, an Indian war party attacks a train, crashes it, and raids the survivors. DeMille in his usual fashion cut no corners in filming such complex scenes. He hired 100 real Navajo Indians as extras for the raid scene. DeMille was always a master of cinematic spectacle. He had a knack for choreographing huge numbers of extras with pinpoint precision. He built massive sets dominated by powerful performers. And Union Pacific is no exception.

A film of truly herculean proportions, Union Pacific was a testament to both the willpower and courage faced by the railroad workers who constructed the First Transcontinental Railroad. To call it flawless would be a mistake, though. It presents a highly romanticized account of events. With the exception of one scene, there is no mention of how immigrant workers, particularly Irish and Chinese laborers, were systematically exploited and forced to operate under poor working conditions which frequently lead to on site deaths. Indians are depicted as faceless abominations that existed to terrorize the good Christian folk of the railways. But is the film a historical whitewash? It’s difficult to say. It does depict the difficulties and dangers faced by workers. It does depict the political and economic machinations of men who would stop the railroad’s construction in the name of profit. And, finally, it does speak to how the railroad connected and united a struggling country.

Union Pacific deserves to be remembered as one of the true milestones of the Western genre. While it is true that Stagecoach transcended the genre first, Union Pacific went even further. It was not a story of cowboys, but of the West itself. If Stagecoach represented how far Westerns had come, then Union Pacific proved how far the Western could go.


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Pale Rider

Directed by Clint Eastwood
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.