Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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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.



  1. That's quite a review which is one third as good as seeing the film. While open to the spiritual, I tend to shy away from the supernatural and miraculous. But you are right, faith works for those who help themselves. I believe "The Seventh Seal" refers to the same Biblical quote you have mentioned. An emotional and felt review, if I may say so. The top Bollywood "western" is a film called "Sholay" (means "flames") whose poster is bottom-most on my side-bar.

    I have the "Wild Bunch" lying around. What do you think about it? Peckinpah is well known, I guess.

  2. It's an amazing Western...but I personally prefer "Straw Dogs" when it comes to Peckinpah.

    Hmm...you keep mentioning "Sholay"...

    I need to try and find that film...

  3. Very good review,
    I remember seeing this quite a few years ago and I've forgotten most of it apart from a few scenes such as the fight with the bounty hunters.
    I really should see it again as I like Westerns and admire Eastwood as a director.

    Another interesting Western I saw recently was The Propostion, I would recommend it if you haven't seen it already...

    And The Wild Bunch is definitely one of my all time favourite Westerns.

  4. "The Proposition"...

    Who directed it?

  5. John Hillcoat, director of The Road, although he did a much better job on The Propostion.
    It's got a great cast:
    Ray Winstone
    John Hurt
    Guy Pearce
    Danny Huston
    Emily Watson.....


  6. I see...looks like I've got a new film on my "to-see" list.

  7. Sholay was one of the all time hits of Bollywood, whose dialogs have become proverbs. Here's on of the better known vignettes:


  8. That's it...I'm definitely tracking this movie down.


  9. hi nathanael, my father forced me to watch clint eastwood movies so much when i was younger, tht i love them now....and i loved the blog....well actually it wasn't force...i forced myself because i was desperate to be with him....lol...oh and hi cousin....:D

  10. Well, hello back, cousin!

    I'm glad you enjoyed the film and I sincerely hope that it afforded you with some great quality time with your father!

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  11. What happened to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry?

  12. They headed out West for that last lonely sunset...

  13. "O bury me not on the lone prairie
    Where coyotes howl and the wind blows free
    In a narrow grave just six by three—
    O bury me not on the lone prairie"



    I am sure these are US staples bordering on cliche?

  14. wow wow wow
    I can't keep up!

  15. Ha! Thanks for the compliment. So tell me...where are you from?

  16. Nathanael, I enjoyed your intriguing analysis of PALE RIDER, which I consider to be Eastwood's version of SHANE. Personally, I must prefer it to UNFORGIVEN, in that it's a more classically structured Western that succeeds in being symbolic without being heavyhanded.

  17. Why thank you.

    I honestly can't decide which one I like best...

    Although I disagree..."Unforgiven" can be VERY heavy-handed...especially near the end.

    But it works because Eastwood EARNED the right to be heavy handed in that film.

  18. Nathanael,

    You touched upon so many elements of this amazing movie that I have been thinking about. When he is asked to say grace at the table with Hull, Megan, and Sarah, the preacher offers a simple prayer: "For what we are about to receive may we be truly thankful." What they are about to receive is protection and justice.

    1. Many thanks! You know what? I never realized the significance of that prayer before. Thanks for pointing it out!

    2. Nathanael, if you have another chance to watch Pale Rider, note the music and Eastwood's eyes as he says that brief prayer.

      Another small detail comes late in the movie after Eastwood guns down Lahood's men in the general store. The killing of Lahood's men is another moment when he disappears (from where Lahood's men see him through the window) and reappears behind them (after they have fired all their bullets). When the Preacher walks outside, Lahood slowly exclaims, "JESUS!"

      Another Eastwood movie with some interesting imagery is Gran Torino. The prominence of the priest and the discussions of life and death are significant. Think about the selfless action of Eastwood at the end and especially notice the position of his body in his final scene. Also think about the how the priest changes his perspective of Eastwood. Thoughts?

    3. Ah...GRANT TORINO is one of my favorite Eastwood movies. It's essentially a Western, when you get right down to it. Much of Eastwood's work has revolved around revenge and redemption. GRAN TORINO is the perfect coda to Eastwood's onscreen work.

  19. Well do you think he was an unexpectedly Christ-like figure who laid down his life for his friends? Did you notice how he fell with his arms stretched out as though he were on the cross? Did you notice how the priest in his eulogy indicated that he had learned about life and death? I saw Gran Torino for the first time a few weeks ago, and I am still trying to sort it out.

    1. I also saw the ending of GRAN TORINO as Eastwood rejecting his previous Dirty Harry/Man With No Name personas. Most of the characters he has played in his life would have cut down those gangsters. But in his last film performance he rejected that kind of violence, instead choosing to die to get them convicted. It's quite beautiful when you think about it.

      Also, if you don't mind me asking, who is this leaving comments? I'd like to know your name.

  20. My name is Randall. I posted the last three anonymous comments. I teach classics (Latin and Greek), and I love movies. I have been too busy lately to see many. You have a great list of "Forgotten Classics"! I have seen some of them, but I want to see more.

    Great comment on Gran Torino. Even though Eastwood's character was salty, he taught the priest about the meaning of life and death. Yes, the ending was unexpected for me, but marvelous. He saved the lives of his neighbors more then once, and in the end in laid down his life for theirs. He also gave the priest an education.

    1. Good to meet you, Randall! If you leave any more comments in the future, don't forget to tell me it's you!

  21. Excellent analysis of thematic elements in the film. What I find fascinating is that often people do not know why they love a film, they just do. But, when you break it down as you have done, most films with a spiritual or religious nuance are popular and considered classics. Life and death, retribution, redemption, Justice- this is not a blatant film about hate and revenge. Hacksaw Ridge- another example. What amazes me is that many Hollywood Directors and Producers fail to clue into this because most are focused on an Anti-Religious agenda. They fail to tap into the American Spiritual Psyche usually at their own box office peril, but not always depending on the genre. This is not to say that those seeking religious themes are the most dominant force, but it really does confuse a lot of people who will never get or understand Religion and the role it plays in American life. Good example: Donald Trump election.

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  23. Excellent, moving review. You are a wonderful writer/thinker. Enjoyed the sacred/spiritual elements.

  24. Also, to me, one of the most ambiguous, and perhaps incongruent, scenes in the movie is when the preacher has effectively turned down Sarah's sexual advance but then reconsiders and says "close the door". What is your take on this? His motive? If he's a preacher congruent with the times, shouldn't he feel wrong about bedding a woman in a relationship with such a good man? In other words, if this was a self-serving act, it doesn't make sense in terms of a character with an otherworldly, spiritual role. On the other hand, perhaps he was giving Sarah something via the act? Was he the man she once knew and thus this was some kind of closure for her? Was he just granting fantasy fulfillment with an ideal man before she settles for a mortal? Thoughts?

    1. Sarah is High Plains Drifter, not Pale Rider.
      High Plains Drifter = Ghost of Jim Duncan.
      Pale Rider = Preacher.