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Pale Rider Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    Pale Rider Review
    “If you don't help us, we're all gonna die. Please ... just one miracle. Amen.”

    Clint Eastwood, as actor and director returned to the saddle and headed off into the cinematic Old West after nine years of experimentation with contemporary projects in 1985's likeable, but somewhat stiff and unsatisfying Pale Rider. In the story of a poor community of miserable gold-panners who are gradually being driven out of their land by an unscrupulous tycoon who needs their site for his own prospecting unless they can find a way to fight back, Clint's character of a mysterious, possibly otherworldly Preacher sporting a join-the-dots collection of bullet-holes in his torso is about the only credible thing. Coming, almost divinely, to the aid of the settlers after a teenage girl desperately prays to the Almighty for salvation, he is the only thing that has any flesh on his bones and any shred of three-dimensionality, and yet he is someone who we come to find out very little about. The film is cold and bleak and populated by a good cast who aren't given anything more than stock material to work from. The set-up is classical, but the individual pay-offs along the way to the big and justifiably conventional finale are desperately lacking in substance, and even if the rapturous imagery of archetypal gunfights and showdowns eventually deliver the goods, the movie is a curious let-down that Eastwood, himself, has often remained either reticent about, or even dismissive of.

    Making its way onto Blu-ray now provides us with a chance to re-evaluate Pale Rider, its enigmatic central character and the somewhat hesitant and pedestrian stepping-stone that Clint Eastwood took towards the genre-capper of Unforgiven seven years later.

    “And I looked and beheld a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death ... and Hell followed with him.”

    Doesn't sound too promising if you him come riding into town, now does it?

    The great and usually unsung Michael Moriarty does well with his noble everyman, Hull Barrett, erstwhile gold-seiver and determined last-stander in the face of heavy-handed bureaucracy. But, just the same as his dependents, the inherited family of the Wheelers, the headstrong and dangerously on-the-cusp of womanhood Megan (Sydney Penny) and her mother Sarah (Carrie Snodgrass), he is little more than a frontier cliché. Wanting nothing more than to live peacefully and with the sort of prosperity that he and his ragtag assortment of colonials are all willing to breaks their backs in order to achieve, our beleaguered good guys are exactly the type of upstanding, salt of the earth folk that the A-Team, a hundred years later, would come riding into town to help. Their dynamic is hardly all that affecting. They get pushed around a bit, threatened and, in Barrett's case, beaten-up periodically, but their very failure to fight back is actually quite sickening. Somebody kills a dog - even a rather naff stuffed prop as the one seen here - in my little gold-digging community and intimidates the people I love ... and I'll kill 'em. Period. No ifs, no buts, no need for avenging angels - a stick of dynamite up their hoop and the job is done. Hell, I'll even enjoy it. But these formulaic cowards have all the backbone of a jelly that hasn't even set yet. It is patently unrealistic to have such folks living out on the frontier in the first place. To have trekked all the way up to such an inhospitable place and presumably through dangerous Indian country too, would have taken people of much stronger stock than is exhibited by these pathetic dirt-sifters. Even their arguments to and fro regarding what they should do once the situation worsens have absolutely no bite, no conviction and no credibility - it is as if they can't even pick a side to be on until someone else nudges them in a particular direction. Some colour is injected courtesy of Doug McGrath as the Irishman Spider Conway, but even he has a one-way ticket with cinematic convention that we can all see coming from several miles away.

    And if the good guys are nothing but stereotypes, then the baddies are actually even more pathetic. Headed up by Richard Dysart's smarmy land-grabber LaHood (it's all in the name, isn't it?), here reunited with his Thing-co-star, the tufty-haired Charles Halloran as the somewhat ineffectual thug McGill (I keep thinking that he'll suddenly keel over and start gasping and clutching his chest ... if you know what I mean?), they are about as threatening as a bunch of TV henchmen, without any genuine shred of menace between them. Factor-in the immensely looming but decidedly ill-looking Richard Kiel as the man-mountain, Club, and your hopes raise for some ominous confrontational fracas to ensue, but Clint wrong-foots us with a comical episode that will have every bloke watching crossing their legs whilst drawing a sharp intake of breath. Chris Penn, sans the pie-eating pounds, proves to be a truly pathetic mini-nemesis as well, as LaHood's pistol-packing, itchy-loined son, Josh.

    Indeed, the whole set-up is pure A-Team material, isn't it? Poor God-fearing innocents put-upon by corrupt bully-boys who actually aren't all that violent - barring the initial scene of poor Barrett getting smacked-about by the Hoods with pick-axe handles which, in actual fact, is an incredibly daft sequence as their raining blows have such little effect upon the stricken man that they may as well have been using matchsticks - and just praying for someone to come along and do all their fighting for them. You know, during the eighties America was so busy fostering this aggressive, fight-fire-with-fire, an-eye-for-an-eye image to the outside world via its Rambos, Commandos, Rockys, Die Hards and Lethal Weapons that it overlooked one huge glaring thing that was to be very horribly exploited just over a decade later on - by overstating its patented One-Man-Army ethic (which I love, by the way) it revealed to all and sundry that the vast majority of its people were, by association, weak, frightened and quite useless in the face of danger, that the mighty USA needed a big brother to look after them. Bragging to the world on the accessible-to-all medium of movies was just asking for trouble by subliminally informing everyone that their backdoor was wide open.

    Clint Eastwood, purveyor of some of the most violently reactionary characters in cinema history - step forward, Dirty Harry Callahan, we salute you - had usually managed to circumvent this ideology with his films, no matter how gung-ho they might have appeared to be on the face of it. His western-heroes - or rather, anti-heroes - were amoral, self-centred and almost gleefully embittered rogues who aided others merely by accident or by circumstance. They existed outside the norm, beyond the noble aspirations of the likes of Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and their ilk and charity for their fellow men wasn't exactly high on their agenda. When Sergio Leone ploughed through the twisted psychology of the West and those who prowled its lawless fringes with Eastwood riding alongside him, much of that darkness stayed with him and would manifest itself in his own interpretations such as The Beguiled, High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josie Wales - all of which are so much better than Pale Rider when dealing with similar motifs of trust, faith and retribution.

    “Nothing like a nice piece o' hickory ...”

    But where the film gets it right is with the Pale Rider, himself. Mystery-man, Heaven sent or Hell-sent - who knows - the Preacher is in town with a Message alright, confessional doors are open and the forgiveness of hot lead is on offer. Eastwood knows this line of work so well that he doesn't need to act, hardly even needs to speak. Put the hat on, stride into town and let the spurs and the bullets do the talking. Simple. Iconic. Unbeatable. Preacher's involvement with Barrett and the Wheeler girls, who both fall in love with him (Eastwood certainly exploiting the perks of his superstar status, there, methinks) is slight but touching. The mutual quest to smash the big rock that has become Barrett's nemesis is a nice scene, as is the moment when a clearly embarrassed Clint has to fend off the amorous advances of the young Megan, but as intriguing as these vignettes are, they lead no closer to the heart of the man, the phantom, the spiritual defender, himself. Perhaps we come a little nearer to his core only when death is present for here, at least, Preacher seems to develop a sense of humour. When smacking seven shades out of LaHood's goons or squaring-off against the Big Man, himself, we feel that this is the real Preacher, delivering the Good Word via fist, club and cartridge. But, in a serious departure from a huge number of his past roles, from The Man With No Name in A Fistful Of Dollars to William Munny in Unforgiven, the Pale Rider does not go through a severe pasting that will empower the thirst for personal revenge. Clint has never been one to ignore the vulnerability of his tough guys, until Pale Rider, that is. Preacher's ultra-aloofness and unflappability sadly also makes for a character that elicits no suspense. We may know all along that Dirty Harry isn't going to die, but he often gets kicked almost to the point of death in the course of duty and Clint is magnificent at climbing back up, battered, misshapen and bloody to get even. Pale Rider delivers absolutely none of that tension, grief or rage, playing it much too safely for the usual edge to apply.

    “Well, spirit ain't worth spit without a little exercise.”

    The arrival of the meanest lawman in the territory and his six duster-coated and eerily silent deputies is a long time coming, but supremely worthwhile when it does. John Russell's dastardly Marshall Stockburn is a great, lean-faced and hairy-lipped reminder of Lee Van Cleef. A man of even fewer words than Preacher, Stockburn and destiny are a-headed for a meeting. With a mutual history that is never disclosed, the two will confront one another again with a quasi-biblical climax that offers up all sorts of conjecture and philosophising. His deputies, grim and silent to a man, are like Gunmen of the Apocalypse, their total number - seven - is even a seminal theological reference. Eastwood stages the shoot-out with a calm detachment that maintains the unearthly quality of its protagonist whilst still adhering to the rules of the genre, although it is worth mentioning that an earlier battle to dot the i's and cross the t's is horribly lacklustre.

    “You're going to town! After what happened the last time?

    Richard Dysart may be playing a quite poor villain as villains go, but that doesn't mean that he can't enjoy himself with the role. He may be nothing more than a blatant and lazy cliché, but the scene when he first meets the Preacher who is giving him so much trouble is terrific. In a sequence that is pure entertainment, Dysart's consternated proto-mob boss goes from a polite show of power, through sly, smirking bribery and on to outright fury and desperate exasperation as each of his tactics meets with the quiet implacability of the Lord's mysterious ways. I love the way he shifts from a point of control and self-aggrandisement to looking like a complete idiot in front of his men - most of whom are sporting bandages from their own earlier meeting with the dog-collar-wearing stranger.

    Lennie Niehaus eggs on the portents with a score that swells ominously when Preacher is summoned and then goes to war. Elsewhere, his music seems to echo through the hills and out across the frost-tinged high prairies. He didn't seem the perfect composer for a Western at the time, being unproven in such a distinctive genre, but he more than rose to the occasion, and would go on to score many more films for Clint Eastwood - from Tightrope and City Heat to Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil and Space Cowboys - as well as a few more westerns, including Crazy Horse, Comanche Moon and even Unforgiven. The costumes and weapons are typically memorable, too. The leather Duster-coats that Stockburn and his men wear are a vibrant and potent throwback to Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West and the firepower brought to bear is interesting in its pitiless variety - big Navy Colts and Preacher's own 1858 Remington, modified to fire cartridges. These are the type of no-messin', brutal guns that shaped the frontier, not those pansy-assed, slim-line single-action Colt .45s that the Hollywood of yesteryear seemed to love so much. Plus, they were awesome cap-firing toys that you could get when you were a kid that really felt big and powerful in your hand!

    “It was him. Him and his men. They shot him. Forever. The bullets kept hitting him. Forever.”

    Bruce Surtees was a shoe-in for lensing Pale Rider, having already performed such majestic duties on High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josie Wales and The Beguiled, as well as The Shootist for John Wayne and Big Wednesday for John Milius (not a western, I know, but another marvellous visual depiction of Man amid his Environment, just the same). Here, he paints a story in two distinct halves. We have the intimacy and warmer climes of the lower-land mining operations - pastoral, mucky, but pastoral - and the harsh, impersonal, antagonistic and dispassionate open bleakness of the high prairies. So huge, inescapable and irresistible is the cruel skyline surrounding the town that you just wish they had spent more screen-time up there. Then again, the rather glaringly empty set-built town would have rapidly become a visual embarrassment had they done so. When LaHood offers to bribe Preacher and goes on about the empire that he has founded up there, it is no surprise that Eastwood doesn't then cut to a shot of Dysart proudly surveying his bully-built domain because six or seven rickety facades and a population of less than a dozen does not an empire make. This is a harsh incongruity that sticks out like a sore thumb. But it is testament to Surtees that the town, itself, still becomes so splendidly eerie in its curious desolation and, for such a hellish confrontation at the end of the film, it is probably perfectly apt - a cold and empty shell, just like those doing the shooting. The use of natural lighting throughout is also a distinct feather in the film's cap, but I'll cover that more in the Picture part of the review.

    Spoilers Ahead.

    Now, onto the contentious issue of just who the Pale Rider really is. Well, based upon what we see and the overt theme of miraculous justice, it is safe to assume that Clint and screenwriters Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack haven't just extended Josie Wales - despite the reappearance of John Russell - or reignited The Man With No Name. The way that I interpret it is this - much like the original idea for Michael Myers merely being the cursed spirit of a Druid avenger inhabiting different bodies to go about his business and only moving on to another when the last becomes too battered and broken for use, Clint's character is an Avenging Angel who can either be summoned for or sent by a Higher Authority. The idea clearly appeals to Eastwood, who enjoys the ambiguity and the enigma of such a free-roving spirit unbound by the laws of nature, life, love and death. I doubt very much if we were supposed to think too hard about it all, to be honest. Megan prays for a saviour and the Preacher drifts down from the “High Plains” to right the wrongs done to her and her people. Thematically and visually he is linked to the murdered sheriff from High Plains Drifter - hell, they even ride the same grey sorrel - but the Drifter was out for retribution for himself, not necessarily justice for the downtrodden as he even sadistically leaves the townsfolk to suffer as they once left him. The Pale Rider comes and goes, mysteriously able to bend his position in time and space. This is subtle, of course, but we aren't talking Johnny Rambo survival skills here or Martin Riggs playfulness - Preacher does vanish and reappear quite nonchalantly at will in order to throw his pursuers off the scent and to toy with them. The bullet-wounds, though, have very definitely been put there by Stockburn. Preacher makes a deliberate point of punching the same, almost occult pattern of holes into the corrupt lawman as well, closing the circle between them with a benediction of lead. Their past together may never be known, and nor is it necessary for us to know. But it is great to theorise about it all and this is something that Pale Rider, a much lesser oater for Clint than the majority of his others, is able to hold high in its own favour. It retains a mystery or two after the credits have rolled, teasing us with a few puzzles and imponderables.

    Spoilers End

    It may be one of Eastwood's less regarded westerns but Pale Rider is still great entertainment on its own, slightly disposable terms. Even with so many rather contrived situations and poorly written characters clogging up the proceedings, Clint's Preacher cuts a fine figure of implacable frontier justice. Nobody jingles his spurs like Eastwood. Nobody wears a hat like Eastwood. Nobody shoots-em-up like Eastwood. Movie for movie, he is the most iconic celluloid cowboy that has ever lived, bringing his harsh charisma to the betterment of productions that would, arguably, have been forgettable without him. Pale Rider has its moments, but it is a frustratingly incomplete film, promising things that it just won't deliver - essentially threat, suspense and jeopardy - and watering-down its situation with bad guys who become nothing more than comical stooges to Clint's coolly unbeatable Man On A Mission.

    It's arrival on BD is still something to rejoice in, however. For it can't be long now until we have the Holy Trinity of the Dollars Trilogy to bless our Blu-ray decks. To paraphrase Megan Wheeler's prayer - “Please ... just three miracles. Amen.”