Pale Rider (1985)
Ruffian riders immediately overrun the peaceful scenery of old west California at the story's start. Clint Eastwood drops the viewer into a conflict between gold mining interests headed by Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart), and a dwindling group of settlers trying to make their way as
Ruffian riders immediately overrun the peaceful scenery of old west California at the story’s start. Clint Eastwood drops the viewer into a conflict between gold mining interests headed by Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart), and a dwindling group of settlers trying to make their way as simple gold panners. As many considered the Western film passe by the 1980s, especially after several cinematic bombs, Eastwood took a risk with Pale Rider in 1985. Fortunately, due to his steady hand directing and consistent stoic acting, the enthusiasm of the other actors, and the dramatic tension highlighting biblical themes, critics and audience alike found it to be a winner. As the years have passed, Eastwood’s follow-up Western Unforgiven has overshadowed Pale Rider. Still, there’s much to praise in this story of heaven-sent justice wielded by a simple preacher.
After the ransacking of the settlement, we turn our attention to young Megan (Sydney Penny). One can tell that this story is going to be a spiritual journey. We listen to her prayer, a recitation of Psalm 23 with her current heartfelt concerns interspersed. A visual representation of God answering her prayers, the man only known as Preacher (Clint Eastwood) comes down from the mountain like Moses. Just like the prophet of old, we have an inkling that he’s here to execute the moral law upon the wicked.
Normally, child actors can be a miss, especially when put up against seasoned adult actors. However, the precocious Megan proves to be the standout of the film. She expresses a resolute fierceness against the LaHood gang pushing her around, but also exudes a humble spirituality as shown by her opening prayer and her later continuing faith in Preacher.
There’s a later scene between her and Preacher that could prove to be awkward to the audience. Her admiration for the courage of Preacher grows into infatuation, and Megan seeks to entice the interest of him. As the moral center of the film, Preacher turns her down. Because of her youth, her strong emotional attachment, and the mistaken reading of interactions, she takes his rejection to mean something else. Her mood swings quickly from one of attraction to that of jilted hatred. If not handled properly, this scene could come off as disingenuous and awkward. However, Penny portrays Megan the way a teenager would act in the moment. Beneath the surface you can tell there’s no true hatred. There’s just a confused response due to her not getting what she wants in the moment.
Megan’s mother Sarah (Carrie Snodgrass) puts in a fine performance as the worn-down frontierswoman. However, the other actor that gives the film heart is that of Michael Moriarty, portraying the meek, but stubborn Hull Barret. He’s probably today most recognized as the protagonist of low-budget fare such as Q and The Stuff from Larry Cohen. In these films he plays extroverted eccentrics. Hull is mild-mannered and contemplative in contrast. This does not mean that he lacks courage. Earlier in the film, against LaHood’s commands, he enters the neighboring town for supplies to repair the ransacked settlement. Before he leaves, LaHood’s men assault him. Still, he requires the muscle that Preacher can provide to fight back.
Preacher, however, provides more than physical strength. He gives the community faith. Faith in a better tomorrow. Even LaHood recognizes this as more of an obstacle to his operations than just individual opposition. “A man without spirit is whipped. But a preacher, he could give them faith. Once ounce of faith, they’ll be dug in deeper than tick on a hound.”
A beautiful example of the positive influence that Preacher has on the settlers is concerning a situation with a massive ore boulder. Though Hull believes there’s gold hidden within, the task of chipping away at it seems too much. It’s Preacher’s initiative of striking away at the ore that prompts Hull to join in. As Preacher stands up to threats from LaHood’s son and an imposing hired henchmen, the rest of the community realizes that they don’t need to be afraid anymore if they stick together. They then assist to hammer away on the ore, revealing what Hull believed was within originally.
It’s interesting to note that though the villains of the film are hateworthy, they’re not portrayed as cartoonish. It would’ve been too easy, especially coming from a Spaghetti Western background, for Eastwood to portray the antagonists as bloodthirsty maniacs, without concern for law or the mores of the day. However, LaHood tries to work his schemes through the protections of the law. He’s careful not to kill the settlers; in the opening scene, the only casualties are livestock and Megan’s pet dog. He’s even willing to buy them off their land, paying a high price for each head. Finally, he utilizes the services of a Marshal named Stockburn and his deputies.
However, Eastwood wants you to realize that though these actions may be legally right, they fail to measure to the standards of higher, moral law. It thus seems fitting that Preacher faces down Stockburn, LaHood, and their men. He’s either a divine revenant or the personification of Death coming to claim those that God has judged.
“Come and See!” These are some of the words from Revelation 6:7,8 pointing out the fourth horsemen of the Apocalypse. These verses are also the basis for the film title. Eastwood wanted to show audiences that the Western was not dead. It could still tell innovative stories. Though the film features elements from both classic and Italian Westerns, it also points forward to the revisionist Westerns that would be popularized in the 90s, including his classic Unforgiven.
The moody theme that lingers while Preacher is on screen. The early winter setting, which gives off the chill of the grave. The emotional highs and lows vividly depicted by even the minor characters. These aspects, among others, make Pale Rider to be Eastwood’s defining movie of the 80s. It gathers past elements of both acted and directed Clint Eastwood films into one narrative. However, it also shows the promise that he had much more to say, whatever the genre.