Sunday, December 5, 2010
"Pale Rider:" Clint was western when western wasn't cool
Title: Pale Rider
Genre: Mysterious-stranger western
Notable for: Clint's first return to the saddle in nine years
Coolest thing Clint does: Beats gang of thugs senseless with hickory stick
One of Clint's seldom-mentioned accomplishments is a key role in saving, or at least prolonging, the life of the American western drama.
It started with "Pale Rider."
Anyone old enough to remember knows it seemed vaguely stupid and pathetic in 1985 for Clint to make "Pale Rider." Cowboy movies were out of style. By today, they could easily be just as dead as the TV western.
Then "Pale Rider" came out and it kicked ass. New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby called it "the first decent western in a very long time."
Seven years later, Clint won his first Oscar for another western, "Unforgiven." Then many male stars started making westerns for fun and profit.
"Pale Rider" is never included on lists of the best westerns ever (here's one list and here's another), but it should be. Because it came out at a time when no one made westerns, it never received the full credit it deserves.
Believe it or not, Clint plays a mysterious stranger who rides into town and never reveals his name or the exact nature of his bloody past. Quite a stretch, huh?
He comes to the aid of a community of small-time gold miners who are brutally oppressed by the town's gold tycoon. The villainous tycoon wants their land so he can rape it with modern mining methods.
After beating the snot out of a few of the tycoon's goons, Clint puts on a preacher's collar and, from then on, is called "The Preacher."
A side-story veers close to pedophilia (not a first for Clint) when The Preacher is sexually propositioned by a 14-year-old girl. Clint declines but spares her feelings by assuring her 99 men out of 100 would nail her. Statutory rape must not have been a crime yet. He rejects the girl because he is more interested in her widowed mother. As romances go, a mother-daughter love triangle is either edgy or creepy.
"Pale Rider" was acknowledged to be a rip-off of the classic "Shane," but more interesting similarities are found to the story of ghostly vengeance Clint delivered 11 years earlier in "High Plains Drifter."
Saving the miners from the evil tycoon is a given for Clint's character in "Pale Rider," but the real intrigue centers on his connection to the spirit world.
In "High Plains Drifter," Clint played the revenge-seeking ghost of a murdered sheriff. "Pale Rider" is far less clear.
The movie title comes from the Book of Revelation, which says death rides on a pale horse. Clint, as director, made that obvious by having the verse read aloud while The Preacher is seen riding a gray horse.
So maybe Clint is death incarnate. Or maybe not.
In one scene, viewers see Clint has five bullet scars in his back, wounds that look as if they must be fatal. When the tycoon hires a paid killer, Clint reveals he has a score to settle with the dude. At the end, the killer stares hard at Clint, then says, "You!" Clint shoots him five times, leaving a pattern exactly like the scars in his own flesh.
So maybe Clint is a ghost. Or maybe not.
After shooting the bad guy five times in the chest, Clint fires once more and plugs him in the forehead, causing one of the greatest death-grimaces ever recorded on film. Clint does not have a scar on his own head, so this seems like an extra shot he never received.
So maybe Clint is just a mortal man who did not want to repeat the bad guy's mistake of leaving wounds that could be survived. Or maybe not.
The aforementioned Mr. Canby speculated that Clint's character was supposed to be God. We're not sure why God needs to retrieve guns from a bank safe-deposit box, as The Preacher did, to smite someone down. But why not?
God or no god, Clint helped raise western drama from the near-dead with "Pale Rider."
For that we thank you, Clint.
Next up: "Heartbreak Ridge."