When it’s on: Monday, 11 June (9.00 pm)
The first thing I noticed about Pale Rider is the absolute masterly editing of its opening scenes. As the peaceful north Californian gold mining camp goes about its daily business, the action cuts to a bunch of riders. The quiet and harmony of the village clashes with the horsemen’s noise, and as the latter approach the cutting quickens, signalling them getting closer and closer. Eventually they arrive and, as the editing suggests, they’re here for no good, shooting animals and causing mayhem, the camera jerking about as it tries to keep up with the action and almost picking out the shootists’ prey by focusing on a cow or a dog before it’s gunned down. It’s a thrilling opening, nearly bettered when Megan (Sydney Penny) buries the dog they’ve murdered, saying a prayer but breaking up the verses by pleading for a saviour.
That saviour is, of course, Clint Eastwood. He’s like Shane, only more mysterious, dressing like a preacher – indeed known only as ‘Preacher’ throughout the film – but clearly more than a simple man of god. Clues to his identity are offered, but Eastwood never makes it explicit. He may be a good man in a bad world, who just happens to show up at the right time to save the little community from Coy LaHood’s (Richard Dysart) roughs. But then there’s the bullet wounds in his back, the fact Marshall Stockburn (John Russell) has an inkling of who he really is. The implication is that Preacher is some kind of avenging angel, perhaps that Stockburn killed him some time in the past and now he’s returned to exact his bloody revenge.
This sense of mystery elevates what might otherwise be a reasonably straightforward Western. It’s a tale that’s been told various times, though never perhaps with the sense of style shown here. Pale Rider is set in a place on the edge – of the New World, of civilisation, of modernity. The prospectors’ dwelling is nobody’s idea of paradise. Only the sense of community and friendship links them, though the pickings are thin – the gold emerging with Preacher’s arrival (make of that what you will) – and their little houses are dark and spartan. The town of LaHood is little better, a one-street set-up that has all the welcome of a morgue. Even LaHood’s own prospecting concern, running on a larger scale and making use of industrial jets of water, has no sense of invitation. It’s a bleak world, with snow and hooded mountains closing in that makes it grimmer still. Preacher seems utterly at home, though it’s prospector Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarty) who wants to settle, hopefully taking with him Sarah Wheeler (Cathie Snodgress) and her daughter Megan.
It’s only at the end, as Preacher rides off and Megan shouts after him (shades of Shane’s Joey) that we realise how little time Eastwood has featured in the film. The focus is on Hull and the prospectors, and it’s they who shift the emphasis onto their saviour. Crucially, Preacher never asks for any reward – is vengeance all he wants, or is it enough for him to help those in need? Bits of the film – a woman reading from the Book of Revelations as he rides past… his ability to vanish from a scene where he was sitting just one moment before… his attempts to negotiate a deal with LaHood before the violence begins – muddy the waters, and whilst I’ve watched Pale Rider several times beforehand I am no closer to finding the rub.
Eastwood’s previous entry to the genre was The Outlaw Josey Wales, made almost a decade earlier, and it would be a further seven years before he returned with Unforgiven. Clearly someone who picked his Western projects with care, Clint also lavished attention when making them. The detail in Pale Rider is incredible, the photography magnificent. Its release came at a time when the Western was considered to have long since had its day in the sun, and there’s a sense of the world in Pale Rider on its last legs, the slow, steady encroachment of LaHood’s mining empire on to the more traditional set-up belonging to the prospectors. In helping the little people, it’s impossible to shake off the feeling that Preacher was putting off the inevitable.
Pale Rider: ****