You know there’s gonna be trouble when there’s a posse of men riding horseback at full gallop. But let’s forget them for second. There’s this pastoral little mining camp we need to check in on first. Alongside a babbling brook, tiny barn-board homes dot the hillside as locals mill about, tending to chores and panning for gold. A few womenfolk are doing the washing, some boys are roughhousing. A young girl is out walking an adorable little doggie. All very quaint. All very innocenty-like. But it’s the Old West, so, you know, things is simple. Hooray for movie tropes!
Anyway, that galloping posse? They’re just in the biggest hurry, bounding across meadows and over mountains, across streams and valleys and, well, you get the idea. They’re really moving. And these aren’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill horses these fellas are riding. Can’t be. They got some serious steam! What are they feeding them animals? Doesn’t matter. Stay focused. Okay. Wouldn’t you know it, they’re heading straight for that sleepy little mining town. Guess they’ve got a grudge ’cause they just ride on in shootin’ their pistols in the air, knocking tables and tents over, pulling wagons on their sides and . . . wait? Did they just shoot that adorable little doggie? Whoa. Not cool, fellas. Not. Cool. Worse, they just up and take off without a word. Come in. Trash the place. Leave. Are they cowboys or a touring rock band?
Turns out them boys are working for a shady type guy named, are you ready for this? . . . LaHood. Yeah, he’s the bad guy. He’s a big-time miner with lots of interests in the area and he’s looking to buy up or scare off all the private claims so he can do a little expanding of his operation. Well that quaint little camp is giving him the most trouble. They ain’t selling and they ain’t leaving. Well, at least most of them aren’t. That girl with the doggie? Her father ran off on her and her ma some time ago, and now the kindly Hull Barret (Moriarty) has taken them in. He’s the leader of the camp and the most stubborn. Right after them baddies rode off from wrecking the camp, he got up on his wagon and headed right into town to restock. Ballsy for sure. Things is, the supply store is right across the way from LaHood and his men decide to further the lesson they began back at the camp. This time with hickory axe handles.
But, there’s a little surprise coming there way. While Hull was off riding toward town, the girl, Megan (Penny), buried her dog, and as she was saying her goodbyes, she gave a little prayer, asking for some spiritual intervention in dealing with LaHood and his croonies. Apparently good God almighty was having a slow day and decided, why not? Roll a bit of thunder and behold, a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death. And Hell followed with him. Cue shivers.
Back at the supply store, the boys with hickory sticks get a chance to say hi to the new stranger in town, the man on the pale horse. It’s doesn’t end well. They get the beat down and Hull makes a new friend. He offers the man a place to say, and when they ride into camp, most assume he’s a hired gun. Hull’s lady is furious and wants him out, but that all changes when the man dresses for dinner. He’s a damn preacher! Whoops. We mean darn. And he’s charming and soft spoken too. Well, that is until LaHood’s son comes by with Jaws from James Bond at his side. He’s pissed his lackeys took a beating and thinks his man “Club” will scare of the Preacher. Be a short movie if it he did. Instead, the Preacher uses a sledgehammer to do a little of the Lord’s work, right up in the big guy’s under carriage if you get our meaning. Just typing that sentence makes us cringe. That ends that. LaHood and his now whimpering hoodlum trod off, but the implication is that a war has begun. LaHood’s father comes to town and calls in corrupt Marshall Stockburn and his six nasty deputies. The only law they know is the one that pays the most and LaHood is ever-so-willing to pay. Time for a showdown.
Written by Michael Butler & Dennis Shryack and directed by Eastwood, Pale Rider has a lot of religious overtones, but is not a preachy story. It’s a western but not a typical one. It’s deliberately paced, a bit gritty and moody, but feels mythical. Eastwood is elevating his famous Man with No Name persona to the next logical step, a godlike figure that is incorruptible and indestructible. A little meandering at times, but ultimately very satisfying, Pale Rider is inferior to Eastwood’s next and final Western, Unforgiven, but is still a great film and a must for fans of the genre and the actor/director.
That Moment In: Pale Rider
Scene Setup: You didn’t think we would mention a guy getting cracked in the naughty bits with a sledgehammer and then not show it did you? Who do you think we are? That is one hundred percent our That moment In. Are you kidding? So it starts with the Preacher and Hull banging away on a rock (that came out wrong). Try again. The two men are givin’ a pounding to a cracked slab (damn, that’s worse). The Preacher and Hull are hammering together to split open . . . oh forget it. We’ll skip ahead. LaHood’s son and his mega-sized henchman ride into the peaceful camp while the Preacher and Hull are trying break apart a large boulder (there we go!). LaHood is hoping the big goon will scare off the Preacher after he’d busted up a handful of his croonies earlier. “Club” dismounts and heads down to the stream to confront the men. You know what’s coming so grip ’em if you got ’em ’cause it’s gonna hurt to watch.
Why it matters: There’s no doubting the Preacher ain’t a normal Joe. Clearly summoned by Meagan while she mourned her dead pooch, the Pale Rider is of supernatural ilk. Fearless, daunting and as imposing as the giant he’s about to face, we’re not really concerned about the man. We’ve already seen him take out four goons in town. It’s just a matter of how’s he gonna do it to this guy. The sledge is a pretty obvious choice and he doesn’t disappoint. Sure, the crack to the nose at the start probably was enough, but when he swings low . . . sweet chariot, that’s gotta sting. It’s instantly debilitating sending our villain to the mat. So why does it matter? Well two things happen: 1) just like that it’s a whole new ball(s) game. The Preacher just put down LaHood’s secret weapon and he did it in the most humiliating way. 2) it unites the camp and 3) it was freakin’ awesome. Okay three things. Eastwood is such a bad ass and he knows it. By this time in his career, there’s not getting away from it. His face is iconic. How many actors can say that? He’s made a fortune with those eyes and finally in this movie, it’s addressed as a defining feature. One does not meet the Pale Rider and forget his deathly stare. It’s what keeps the young LaHood’s gun in its holster when he considers drawing on the Preacher. Wise move.
More: A shot to the gonads is nothing new in movies. There must be hundreds of scenes where a guy takes one to the crotch. Even in Westerns, Pale Rider isn’t the first, or even the most memorable. That goes to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Just as with Club, Butch faces an equally enormous foe and like a sawed oak, falls him with one swift kick. Sweet. Still, Eastwood makes it his own with Pale Rider and while it’s naturally amusing to see the big fella drop, there is a seriousness that lingers. The Preacher is in it to win it and now he’s about have the real big guns called in for help against him: Stockburn and his deputies. But there’s one thing he won’t have to worry about. Following the movie rule for bad guys getting kicked in the testies, Club automatically becomes good, turning on LaHood a little later on as he violently tries to have his way with Megan. Bastard! Club doesn’t actually get to stop it though as the Preacher just shows up (he does a lot of that) and saves the girl. Thing is, she’s not happy with the Preacher ’cause earlier, in a bit of awkwardness, the 14-year-old decided she wanted to marry the Preacher, and if he wouldn’t have her as his bride, at least teach her how to, um, get it on . . . egads. Fast forward! Worse, her own mamma’s got the happy hips for Preacher too and she comes a knockin’ one evening to give up some leg as well. She’s more his style apparently as she wins a night in his cot. The man just has a way. Things work out of course and the Preacher finishes what he came to town to do. And no, it wasn’t just to bang the women. If he’d let big ol’ Club rough him up and scare him out of town, things would have been different, but as it is, that moment becomes the defining scene as it galvanizes the little camp and sends a powerful message to the head of the LaHood family. Let’s watch:
The Man with no Name is one of Eastwood’s most memorable characters, and though he is not officially playing him here, the Preacher is most assuredly an extension of or a natural progression for him to become. There’s a comfort in watching Eastwood in this role, a familiarity that makes each scene he is in full of expectation. The film is not a gun-toting shoot ’em up standard Western, but rather a slow moving character study that explores vengeance and retribution. As a summoned fighter for good, the Preacher rides with the hand of God, a ghost who we can assume was raised after his last encounter with Stockburn, who shot him six times in the back. This is revealed without exposition when the Preacher removes his shirt, exposing a circular pattern of scarred entry wounds. It’s alluded to a few times more and so when the ending comes, we knows it’s between two men who have been here before, except one of them is about to get a hard lesson in comeuppance. Hint, it’s not the Pale Rider. And that ending, by today’s standards, might seem lacking in action, but is a dedication to the theme of singular redemption. What could have been a wild shootout is instead a slow game of hide and seek, where the Preacher takes out the corrupt deputies one-by-one as Stockburn, the central antagonist, remains unmoved in the middle of the street waiting for the inevitable duel. It’s here, when Stockburn sees him up close, that his expression changes. “You!” he says in shock. And them’s his lasts words.
Is it an original story? No, of course not. It draws from many, most particularly perhaps the classic 1953 George Stevens’ Shane (damn, Jack Palance was good in that!) but it is also part of the legacy that influences so many more, from The Evil Dead to Chicken Run and countless more. We love the hero / anti-hero who is just vulnerable enough to worry about but strong and clever enough to be the victor. So it is that the Preacher faces off against the giant who has come to scare him away.